The threats facing student journalism haven’t gone away

The threats facing student journalism haven’t gone away

Earlier this month, Kate McGee, of the Texas Tribune, reported on a hiring mess in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Texas A&M University. The department offered Kathleen McElroy, a former editor at the New York Times and director of the University of Texas at Austin’s journalism school, a tenured position as head of its revived journalism program—a position that McElroy accepted, to great fanfare, in a signing ceremony—only for the appointment to go awry amid a right-wing backlash. McElroy said that José Luis Bermúdez, the interim dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, told her that her hiring had generated “noise” within the system due to her being “a Black woman who was at the New York Times,” which, “to these folks, [is] like working for Pravda.” Texas A&M watered down its offer to McElroy to such an extent that she eventually decided to stay put at UT Austin, where she has tenure. 

Since then, the controversy has snowballed. A few days after the Tribune’s initial report, Bermúdez resigned from his interim leadership post; a few days after that, M. Katherine Banks, the university’s president, resigned, too, citing the “distraction” of “negative press” around the story, which by that point had spread far beyond Texas. Banks had denied changing any language in McElroy’s offer letter—which was signed by Hart Blanton, the head of the Communication and Journalism department—but in a statement, Blanton said that the terms were changed without his consent and accused Banks of misleading colleagues as to the extent of her involvement. (Banks, Blanton said, “injected herself into the process atypically and early on.”) Blanton also alleged that one university administrator acknowledged that race had been a factor in the added scrutiny over McElroy’s appointment. Yesterday, the Texas A&M Board of Regents authorized the university to negotiate a legal settlement with McElroy and voted to establish an investigation into her botched hiring, with the findings to be made public.

McElroy’s shameful treatment raises a number of issues, some specific to the Texas A&M system, others much broader. It also shined a fresh light on the broad role of universities as incubators for journalism—and the range of threats that could undermine it. Somewhat lost amid the furor over McElroy was the fact that this was not Banks’s first controversy involving student journalism as president of Texas A&M: last year, as the Tribune also reported, she ordered The Battalion, the university’s venerable student newspaper, to cease its print edition, effective immediately. Banks reportedly wanted the paper to focus on digital production, but it already had a heavy online presence, subsidized in no small part by print ads. And, crucially, Banks made the decision without consulting any student representatives of The Battalion, which students and faculty construed as a threat to its independence. Myranda Campanella, the paper’s then–editor in chief, said that Banks told her that the university was not trying to punish it over its coverage. But the situation nonetheless struck Campanella as “fishy,” and she told the Tribune that she suspected “a wider issue that they’re not telling us.”

In the end, The Battalion stayed in print, and the university apologized for how the decision was handled and invited representatives of the paper to consult on the revival of Texas A&M’s journalism program. The Student Press Law Center, an organization that supports student journalists, gave The Battalion a collegiate press-freedom award for standing up to the administration. Shortly after the printing furor, the paper published a deep dive into the Rudder Association, an influential Texas A&M alumni group looking to push conservative values on the university. The Tribune included the investigation on a list of stories it said it wished it had published last year, adding “a nod to student journalists everywhere…who do excellent and essential work.” The Rudder Association would become one of the first groups to lobby against McElroy’s appointment, on the basis of her supposed diversity, equity, and inclusion “ideology.”

Last September, I wrote in this newsletter about the threats facing student journalists in the US, both at the high school and university levels. Many of these—legal uncertainties around their rights, especially in the case of high school papers; censorship by administrators—were not new, but student journalists had also faced evolving challenges in common with their professional counterparts, from rising anti-press sentiment and online harassment to the logistical difficulties of the pandemic. At the same time, as local news has declined nationwide, student journalists have increasingly stepped into the void. As a result, they often do the work of professional journalists and face similar challenges without enjoying the same status or, in some cases, safeguards. Recent events have illustrated this again—and not just at Texas A&M.

In particular, two stories this month have prominently showcased the power of student journalism. First, Northwestern University fired Pat Fitzgerald, its top football coach, after stories in the Daily Northwestern newspaper detailed “coerced sexual acts” in hazing rituals and a culture of racism within the program. (Fitzgerald, who had initially been suspended before the stories appeared, has denied knowledge of the hazing rituals.) Then Marc Tessier-Lavigne, a renowned neuroscientist, stepped down as president of Stanford University after a series of reports in the Stanford Daily triggered a review of alleged misconduct in research that he oversaw. (The review cleared Tessier-Lavigne of personally engaging in misconduct and disputed aspects of one particular claim in the Stanford Daily; the paper stood by its reporting.) Major national outlets have since interviewed Theo Baker, the student reporter who broke open the story; over the weekend, he was profiled in the Washington Post and wrote an op-ed for the Times. Baker is the son of Peter Baker, the Times’ chief White House correspondent, and Susan Glasser, of The New Yorker. In response to charges that he is a “nepo baby,” he has pointed out that, unlike either of his parents, he has won a Polk Award for his work—the first ever handed out to a reporter at an independent, student-led publication.

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At the same time, we’ve seen reminders of the fraught context in which student papers can operate. Also this month, Penn State confirmed that it will drastically cut its funding for the Daily Collegian, a long-running student publication, more than halving its allocation for the next academic year and cutting it completely by 2024–25. University officials have cited budgetary constraints and insisted that they remain supportive of student journalism, but Collegian staff and alumni have criticized the move as a threat to the paper’s operations. “The university has no trouble raising money,” Megan O’Matz, who worked for the paper in college and is now at ProPublica, told TribLive, pointing out that “the football coach makes $7 million a year.”

Again, this type of threat is not necessarily new. But increasingly, student journalism seems also to be getting caught up in one that is, at least in its present iteration: the culture wars. When I wrote last year, officials in Nebraska had just shuttered a high school newspaper, seemingly over its coverage of LGBTQ+ issues and use of students’ preferred pronouns, and Missouri’s then–attorney general (and now US senator) was pursuing a paper staffed by university students under freedom of information laws, seeking communications around “political speech.” 

On the level of journalism education, McElroy’s treatment by Texas A&M carried clear echoes of the University of North Carolina’s botched hiring, in 2021, of Nikole Hannah-Jones amid conservative backlash to her work on the Times’ “1619 Project,” a major initiative asserting the centrality of slavery to the American story. Indeed, per the Tribune, Bermúdez raised that episode in a discussion with McElroy as the latter’s hiring was derailed. Several states, including Texas, have banned or limited the ways in which schools can teach the 1619 Project to students. Texas is also in the process of banning diversity, equity, and inclusion offices in the state’s public universities—including Texas A&M, whose early implementation of the ban apparently ensnared McElroy, even though she wasn’t being appointed to such a role. (“The issue that I seem to be having is that I am judged as ‘DEI’ solely because of what I look like,” she has said.)

The irony here is that McElroy’s appointment should have capped a good-news story about student journalism: Texas A&M’s restoration of its journalism program, which had lain dormant for years (though the university continued to offer some form of journalism instruction). “We were on top of the world. We had an international stage to announce what was going to be a premier journalism program—not just in the country but in the world—with one of the best-qualified candidates that could be imagined for this position,” Nathan Crick, a professor in the university’s Communication and Journalism Department, told the Tribune. “From that high to the absolute low of now being a department that was scapegoated by this administration and now represents the face of what is in effect a racist institution—at least in reputation—it is hard to imagine a greater distance to fall. We are feeling betrayed, demoralized, outraged.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Post’s Naomi Nix and Will Oremus spoke with staffers at Meta—including Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram—to get the inside story of how the company built Threads, its nascent rival to Twitter/X. “Threads’ long-term success is not assured. Weeks after its July 5 launch, analytics firms estimated that the app’s usage dropped by more than half from its early peak,” Nix and Oremus write. “Still, its promising start has reinvigorated a company battered by layoffs, scandals and competition from TikTok for younger users. And the story of Threads’ creation…is being hailed by Meta leaders as a new path forward at a time when its ambitious, expensive push to build a virtual-reality-powered ‘metaverse’ is sputtering and employee morale is flagging.”
  • Kashmir Hill, of the Times, profiled Mike Masnick, the creator of the long-running blog Techdirt. “By sheer longevity and a deep knowledge of tech history, Mr. Masnick has become something of a Silicon Valley oracle,” Hill writes. “His message is to embrace change even when painful and to beware of knee-jerk legal protections with unintended consequences. It hasn’t paid very well, but what Mr. Masnick doesn’t have in wealth he makes up for in influence. Lawmakers, activists and executives consider him an essential guide for what’s happening in the technology world and what to do next.” Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Meta, has described Masnick as “insightful and reasonable,” while the entrepreneur Anil Dash hailed his commitment to “a beat that is thankless.”
  • Ed Yong, the Atlantic science writer, announced that he is leaving the magazine; he said that he isn’t “leaving for anywhere else” but plans to work on a book and other projects. Elsewhere, the Boston Globe is hiring a “media and information” reporter—a move, the Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy notes, that will fill a long-standing gap at the paper and help to rectify a broader “dearth of media reporting in Boston.” And Semafor reports that Jimmy Finkelstein, the founder of the startup news site The Messenger, asked Tina Brown to come on board—not to take up any “actual duties” but to lend his news site credibility and prestige. Brown “politely declined.”
  • For CJR, Alissa Quart, the director of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, took aim at the “journalism of privilege, which can at times replace reporting on ordinary people’s experiences of essential human needs (and pleasures) like food and shelter.” For decades, Quart writes, luxurious articles on real estate and the restaurant scene have “been both amusing and the source of ad dollars for the publications that ran them. But this sort of fare is also a potential lost opportunity: these sorts of pieces could contain more complex details or critical perspectives, but often do not.”
  • And Lydia Polgreen, of the Times, hailed the work of war correspondents in a world that is only getting more dangerous for journalists. “These brave journalists do this work not because they think they can make an immediate difference, but because doing nothing in the face of such cruelty is intolerable,” Polgreen writes. “Their work is humbling, inspiring and necessary.” (One of the reporters mentioned by Polgreen—Hiba Morgan, who works for Al Jazeera out of Sudan—spoke with CJR’s Feven Merid last month.)

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

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