August 12, 2020

The Lead is a weekly newsletter that provides resources and connections for student journalists in both college and high school. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every Wednesday morning.

By Deanna Schwartz, Guest Writer

University administrators and independent student journalists often don’t get along. Because private universities are not necessarily subject to open records laws, often the only way to get information about the university is to ask — leaving the fate of student journalists in the hands of media relations specialists who can be uncooperative. And when a university refuses to work with its student newspaper, the entire university community is harmed.

Without student journalism, a university community has to rely on local media, where in a city like Boston, higher education reporters are also covering 50 other institutions. Student journalists can hold their universities accountable in ways other journalists cannot, simply by being a part of the community they report on. Universities know the power that student journalists have, and often try to stifle their reporting abilities.

Student journalists shouldn’t settle for these conditions. I didn’t want to settle, so I pushed back publicly — and it worked.

I’m the managing editor of The Huntington News, Northeastern University’s independent student newspaper. We became the only independent news source at Northeastern when we severed ties from the university in 2008.

During my time with The Huntington News, we have had countless issues with the university and its PR department, including having to jump through hoops to interview anyone who works for the university, poor communication, refusals to answer questions, unfounded criticism of our reporting and personal attacks.

For years, we’ve had meetings, calls and email chains with the PR department to discuss our working relationship, resulting in nothing more than false promises and thinly veiled attempts to stifle our journalism. When things reached an untenable point this spring semester, we began considering going public and telling our story. However, when COVID-19 shut down universities nationwide, we had to table the issue to focus on running our newsroom remotely and covering the virus in the community.

In June, the university denied yet another of our requests to interview university president Joseph E. Aoun. I decided I was fed up and tweeted about it.  The last time the paper was able to interview Aoun was in 2013 — when I was in eighth grade. My tweet set off a series of events that resulted in better access for our paper and awareness of the issues within student journalism.

This wasn’t a planned campaign, but a spontaneous community mobilization. Thanks to our staff, alumni, student journalists and professional journalists, our relationship with the university has greatly improved.

Putting on the pressure worked. Here’s how we did it.

Social media

When I tweeted about being denied an interview with our president, professional journalists, many of them alumni of our paper, took note. Journalists from The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Buzzfeed, Politico, USA Today and others shared my tweet, calling on our university to do better.

This social media storm got the university’s attention, and the PR department offered us an interview with the chancellor and provost that day — the first in years with any top-ranking official. We quickly saw that the external pressure was working. We used that interview to ask essential COVID-19 reopening questions and continued to press for an interview with the president.

Alumni support/community pressure

After seeing my tweet, several alumni of our paper reached out to me, asking what they could do to support us. Our senior editors decided on an op-ed to demand Northeastern cooperate with us and grant us an interview with Aoun.

More than 70 alumni dating back to the class of 1974 signed the op-ed, titled “Journalism alumni call on Aoun to stop stonewalling The News.” Not an hour after we published the op-ed, Northeastern’s PR department called for a “reset” meeting to discuss our relationship and reconsider our interview request.

External media coverage

During the initial journalist tweetstorm, a reporter for The Boston Globe reached out to us about writing an article about our situation.

The Boston Globe article brought us more attention. Within the next few days, the article was in two different Poynter newsletters, a Politico newsletter and the Nieman Lab newsletter — and was tweeted by the Nieman Foundation.

A week later, I went on WGBH’s “All Things Considered” to talk about our campaign and being a student journalist in 2020.

Communication

Since all of this transpired, we have had many conversations with the media relations department about our relationship and how we can best work together. We agreed that we both need each other to function and effectively inform the community. We have a similar goal to keep students informed — especially with so much up-in-the-air about the future — and we knew our relationship had to improve to achieve that goal.

Our “reset” meeting, as the department called it, was a chance for us to air our grievances and work out issues. I had a productive conversation with the university’s vice president of communications. Our editor-in-chief now has weekly calls with Northeastern’s vice president of external affairs, where they discuss stories we are working on, brainstorm potential pitches and set up interviews with administrators.

We’ve seen monumental improvement, and our paper is better for it in every way.

We’ve been granted interviews with other prominent administrators. We’ve had better and more timely communication. We’ve had more cooperation when our reporting requires the university’s assistance. We are actively working on scheduling an interview with president Aoun and hope to sit down with him by the end of the summer.

We proved to our administration that the community cares about student newspapers and takes notice when they are treated poorly. Society understands the importance of student newspapers and holds them to high standards, for better or for worse. Think about the photojournalists at the Daily Northwestern or the reporters at the Harvard Crimson — both papers were deeply criticized for their work last year and received national media attention. The journalism world often feels like a bubble, and sometimes it is, but people care about the work student journalists do.

We are not unique. Many independent papers at private universities deal with the same lack of access. But if we, a paper with a very small staff and limited resources, can make things better for ourselves, any student paper can.

Deanna Schwartz is a student journalist at Northeastern University and the managing editor of Northeastern’s independent student paper, The Huntington News. She can be reached at d.schwartz@huntnewsnu.com or on Twitter @deannaschwartzz.

One tool we love

How are students around the country covering the pandemic as it stretches on? Duke University students are cataloging coronavirus coverage with an interactive project in partnership with Poynter. Filter by state, school, or publication, or search for specific topics and keywords. Fill out this form to submit your publication’s coverage.

What’s your favorite tool that other student journalists should know about? Email me and I might feature it in a future issue.

One story worth reading

A Georgia high school student was suspended last week after tweeting a photo of crowded hallways on the first day of school. The school reversed her suspension, but First Amendment experts are concerned about similar conflicts as schools reopen around the country. The Student Press Law Center condemned the suspension “in the strongest terms,” writing “students must not be disciplined for exposing health and safety issues at their school, particularly in the midst of a pandemic.”

One course worth taking

My colleague Barbara Allen, the writer behind the Alma Matters newsletter for journalism educators, told me about a new Poynter course: the Newsroom Readiness Certificate. She designed it with student media editors in mind — those of you who patiently explain the fundamentals to new reporters semester after semester. This course would allow student editors to get to the more important work of actual editing and mentoring, while leaving the fundamentals to Poynter. The topics covered include newsgathering, interviewing, media law, ethics and diversity. (There are even discounts available for organizations that buy 10 or more courses at a time.) You can check out an outline of the course here or enroll in the course itself here. For bulk purchases, email Allen at ballen@poynter.org, and happy learning!

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Campaign finances, misinformation and more election stories for student reporters

📣 I want to hear from you. What would you like to see in the newsletter? Have a cool project to share? Email blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com.

Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com or on Twitter @blatchfordtr.

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