keyboard on fire
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.
“I think that [trend] is changing,” she said. “I think with social media, Twitter especially, people are starting to become engaged. There has been a trend since that time, but I also think and hope it’s shifting back.”
As for its own digital initiatives, Lazar said The Echo launched a new website this year featuring a plug-in that allows staffers to see how many and which articles are being read the most and where readers are being referred from.
“About half of our readership comes from Twitter, Facebook and search engines,” Lazar said, who added that the paper has ramped up its focus on social media this year. But she also laments the slow demise of print.
“Fewer people are picking up print newspapers and that is sad,” she said. “It’s a huge part of what we do, but I think it’s just something we’re going to have to embrace going forward toward the future.”
In the 1960s and ’70s, when student publications were viewed as more radical and gave birth to progressive movements such as the New Left and the Students for Democratic Society, students organized protest on campus against the Vietnam War, civil rights issues and secrecy and mistrust of the government.
From my perspective as a UTC student and staff writer for The Echo, those years were the golden age of the student press. Student journalists then break from the norm, giving birth to the counterculture that can be still be seen in remnants of factions of campus newspapers at universities across the nation.
John McMillian’s “Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America,” explained how this happened. “Along with the new gravitas in rock and roll, the rising tide of campus-based activism, and the outré counterculture style, underground newspapers began contributing mightily to the New Left’s sense that it stood at the heart of a new society,” McMillian wrote.
Taking their cue from a new crop of alternative newsweeklies such as the Los Angeles Free Press and others—which, in turn, gave birth to modern alt-weeklies like The Pulse—McMillian writes that the atmosphere was “fertile” for new, younger and anti-establishment newspapers. That was evident in much of the United States at the time and Chattanooga was no exception.
Campus activism still exists at UTC and continues to be reported in the pages of The Echo. Last year, the Kony 2012 video sparked an uprising on campus that spread to downtown Chattanooga and, more recently, the Stand For Freedom—dealing with literally taking a stand against human trafficking—and activism for gay rights have appeared in the newspaper.
Tom Griscom, now a communications consultant, was the editor of The Echo from 1969 to 1970, beginning a long journalism career that culminated with his becoming the editor of the Chattanooga Free Press in the 1990s. In 1999, the Free Press and The Chattanooga Times merged and Griscom became the editor of the combined papers and remained in that job until he stepped down in 2010.
Griscom compared the decades by the traditional roles of newspapers in his early years as a student and then as a professional journalist to the modern age of new media and the decling days of the printed newspaper.
“Nothing else existed,” Griscom said, speaking of the pre-Internet age. “Print was the format.”
The Echo, he said, was the primary communication tool between students and the administration, adding that the UTC’s communications department also did not exist, but that the newspaper was always student-run, funded by student fees, as it remains today.
As an ROTC cadet throughout his collegiate newspaper career and the Vietnam era, Griscom said the newspaper tested boundaries during a time of national protest that eventually made its way to Chattanooga.
When I asked him what The Echo was like in that era, he said it went through an interesting phase while he was the managing editor in 1969. John Wheeler, a student reporter and columnist (whose colorful journey as “Cadillac Dave” was recently chronicled in The Pulse) remains a friend of Griscom and wrote a column for The Echo at that time that wasn’t afraid to use off-color language.
“It was showing you could use four letter words, including the f-word, just because you could do it,” Griscom said. “Rather than having any real rationale, it was sort of just, ‘We’re going to test that boundary.’”
Personally, Griscom said he questioned that. He said he didn’t see it as a free-speech issue but rather, “All it was, was to say, ‘We can do this, and we challenge you the administration to say we can’t.’ In my mind, it was really a question for us as students and the people involved with newspapers to ask ourselves: What are we trying to do, why are we doing this and what is our purpose?”
When I asked him about the paper’s direct influence within the community or on campus at the time, Griscom said that even though they covered what was going on, he was uncertain that The Echo shaped reactions or opinions. He attributed that fact to the inexperience of the staff and their struggle to put the times in context.
“I’m not sure we all knew how to do it,” he said. “Keep in mind that we were a group of students who, with few exceptions, were unpaid who got involved with this newspaper. It was ours to run, and we did it as we went.
“The Echo and the university today has an opportunity to say, ‘If you really want to know about what is going on in our community and how it’s impacting students there is only one place to find it,’” Griscom said.
A different perspective comes from the closed-knit community of Collegedale, home to Southern Adventist University, just 30 minutes from downtown Chattanooga but miles apart from the atmosphere at UTC.
Jaime Jacobson, with advice from journalism professor and faculty advisor Andy Nash, edits The Southern Accent, the student-run newspaper and the largest publication on campus with 2,500 copies distributed every week.
“It’s got the atmosphere that it’s our home,” said Jacobson of the university, who described the relationship between the administration and the newspaper as a “parent-child” relationship.
Supported and funded by the university, Jacobson said that being a Christian-based campus there is oversight of the paper’s content and even the topics it covers.
Jacobson is in her third year on the staff at The Southern Accent and in her first year as editor. She was previously managing editor.
“I wouldn’t say they [the administration] tell us what we can and cannot print,” she said. “It’s more suggestions and requests in the form of how it’s reported. There are times that certain things are left out, but we make those [final] decisions in the office.”
Jacobson said she and her staff have to tread softly because fear of offending anyone and because it is such a small community, but also to reflect the the Christian campus in the “proper light.”
“I want to say ‘monitor,’ not ‘control’ specifically, because they do give us free reign and it is student-run and that is a big deal,” Jacobson said, adding that the administration does trust and respect the student journalists—but that relationship can get a very touchy at times, she added.
Advisor Nash said most stories follow the routine of events and profiles. But sometimes, he said, breaking news and opinion pieces require a more thorough review.
“It’s a positive project in general,” said Nash. “I don’t think the staff seeks to dig up dirt. I think students feel good about the university in general; however, when there is crime they’re not afraid to use a police report and really anything like that is fair game. We want them to feel like they have thefreedom to practice as real journalist.”
Nash spoke openly about the 1960s and ’70s generation of student journalists.
“You had a betrayal of trust during this time in the country,” Nash said. “You had Watergate and the media became a vehicle to express division between people and, I believe, the establishment.”
Nash described the time as one when the one trusted voice, that of iconic CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, had been replaced by an angry and revolutionary spirit in the media that eventually died down with the generation.
“I don’t feel like we’re in that angry media age of us against them,” he said. “I think the leader sets the tone. The leader of the university and the leader of the newspaper set the cultural tone.”
Jacobson said she feels that student newspapers have kept a leadership role over the years. “It’s sometimes hard to apply it to us, because sometimes it’s not relative to the kind of bubble we’re in because of our Christian campus.”
She said that she and her staff strive for “pure journalism,” but under the university umbrella it’s easy for faculty or administration to say, “No, don’t print that.” That’s where the student voice comes in, Jacobson said, to stand up and say, “No, we’re going to be heard.”
“I am such a stickler for ‘if it’s true it’s running,” she said. “This is not a brochure; this is a newspaper. We’re going to print the truth. I think that’s how it has to be. When we stop doing that we stop doing journalism.”
As far as the paper’s impact on campus, Jacobson said she knows people read it. She also said that the paper has a duty to spark conversations—not to stir up trouble, but to elicit feedback.
“When I hear a nursing student on the other side of campus say they read The Accent every week and love it, it feels so good,” she said. “To know that people are interested, that people care, that they want to be informed and they’re still active in supporting us, it’s nice to know that we’re reaching people and to hear comments like that.”
Regarding the competitive nature of campus and other media outlets, Nash said, “The competition isn’t other newspapers. The competition is social media.”
Nash spoke critically about young people with regard to student publication interest. He said people are probably less interested in a student newspaper in the same way that they are less interested in anything that doesn’t have to do directly with them.
Nash said one thing that makes The Accent different is that as a newspaper on a Christian campus, it is reporting from a holistic worldview. “We are in a much more eternal perspective,” he said. “We view this world as a temporary thing. We teach journalism and talk about God in the same breath.”
Jacobson said she found herself pushing against social media and resisting its influences and even technology.
“I guess I just have this belief that when you get down to the nitty gritty, simple, back-to-basics, pen-and-paper reporting is when you get the most pure and truthful information,” she said.
Campus newspapers and the student press may not be what it once was—but then again, nothing else is either. Times and attitudes have changed dramatically since the heady days of Vietnam and Watergate. Young college journalists with a passion for their work are competing in a unique environment—one in which they do not always have the final say on what is printed in their papers—in a changing media landscape they were born into. And if the student audience is not taking note—reading, participating and urging these campus reporters on—then it is they who are doing themselves a disservice.
Esan Swan is a senior at UTC, a staff writer for The Echo and an intern at The Pulse.