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March 28, 2013

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Last year, Hannah Lazar, the current editor-in-chief of UTC’s student newspaper, The University Echo, dealt with a serious issue. The paper was threatened with a libel suit for printing a story about a faculty member who didn’t like how he was portrayed in an article. Lazar described the situation as “scary” and said the administration basically told her she was on her own, which she said she thought was weird because the administration funds The Echo through student fees.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed between the two parties and the lawsuit was avoided. But this is an example of how student journalists, campus newspapers and university administrations can differ on any number of issues.

College newspapers have an historic and vibrant reputation of making their voices and opinions heard and were—and still are—considered the most important forum in sparking discussions between the students they serve and the institutions they represent. Their impact has grown from humble beginnings as only slightly more adult high school rags to becoming the radical, rebellious voice of students during the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War to the present, where the surge in technology and new media is challenging them to bridge the gap between print and digital media.

Chattanooga is home to a number of institutions of higher learning—UTC, of course, but also Southern Adventist University, Chattanooga State and Covenant College, to name a few—but many are unfamiliar with the student press here and how it has evolved. Some even ask, do college papers—here or anywhere—even matter? The answer, as I’ve come to respond, is an emphatic “Yes.”

Student journalists and campus newspapers matter because they tell a story—the “first draft of history,” as legendary Washington Post publisher Phil Graham put it decades ago—about where we’ve been, where we are now and where we’re going, all reflected through the lens of students writing on behalf of their peers.

“There is a lot of student press in the country that is widely followed and can often effect a lot of change on their campus, but unfortunately UTC doesn’t have a high enough readership,” Echo editor Lazar said. “We don’t really get that much engagement with our readers. We’ve been trying to build that up and to an extent, we’re getting a little better.

“This is not the type of campus where people are writing furious letters to the editor or where our editorials are making any kind of a difference with the administration,” Lazar continued. “We really do have a good core readership that is really interested and are really engaged in campus and national affairs, but the rest of campus seems like they don’t care.”

Critical of the structure of the university, Lazar said many times the administration doesn’t take student opinions into account on many issues affect them. She said she hasn’t seen any change happen based on anything that other UTC media outlets (“The Perch,” the university’s student-run Internet radio station, and the student news website, Mocs News, found online at utc.edu/studentorgs/mocscews) have brought up, but cited The Perch’s presidential election night results party last year as a move toward engagement.

Lazar said that despite the “weird” relationship between The Echo and the administration, in other ways the university is very supportive of the student-run newspaper, including uninterrupted funding and new additions to the staff. She also said the administration doesn’t have any hand in their content, so in retrospect she said she could understand their distance in the threatened libel suit.

When broached with the issue of generational and changing attitudes toward traditional media, Lazar agreed there seemed to be a trend toward apathy. She referenced lectures on campus and said that earlier in her student journalism career,  high-profile speakers visited and filled auditoriums on campus, but said student presence has been scarce at more recent lectures.

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