Sarah Baum had two ideas in her pitch to the Poynter College Media Project. One, to examine K-12 educational disparities near her campus at Hofstra, and two, to get Poynter’s help to make a new, nonprofit online magazine.
“When I started this project, it was just me and a Twitter handle,” she said recently.
Intrigued, I headed to Long Island in September to visit with Baum and her staff about her project and her plans for The Clocktower’s future.
Student journalists in the Poynter College Media Project were selected through an application process in the spring of 2021 that asked them to propose an investigation that centered on a problem or issue facing their campus. Dozens of student media outlets applied, and seven were selected for the program, which provided custom project planning, ongoing support from Poynter personnel and a slate of high-profile speakers. They included four-time Pulitzer winner David Barstow, Atlantic staff writer Ed Yong and Sara Ganim, who broke the Jerry Sandusky story as a young reporter.
The project was supported by a grant from the Charles Koch Foundation.
“I think we can all agree … that student journalism is an essential, key pillar of First Amendment rights for students,” Baum said during a Dec. 6 webinar in which students showcased and explained their projects. She went on to explain her initial hypothesis — that student newsrooms that don’t rely on university support or funding must have more free speech freedom.
“The problem is that even though these types of student newsrooms get to exercise the greatest First Amendment rights and the greatest press freedom and arguably make the greatest impact, there are no avenues today to create new ones,” she said. “All of the completely independent (nonprofit) student newsrooms that I read about have existed for decades.”
Baum said she faced numerous legal and financial challenges to making The Clocktower nonprofit, barriers that proved incredibly difficult for a full-time collegiate student and journalist. The outlet even pursued fiscal sponsorship, when an established nonprofit organization takes a new nonprofit under its wings and provides necessary startup resources. They found no takers.
Still, she and a handful of like-minded Hofstra student journalists continued to find ways to establish themselves as a nonprofit while reporting on campus.
“The community’s response to The Clocktower has been overwhelmingly great,” Baum said. “In one year since starting, we published about once or twice per month. We have over 10,000 unique pageviews, over 5,000 unique visitors, we have readers from 41 countries and our reporting has been cited in mainstream press, including Newsday, which is the big Long Island newspaper, and the Jerusalem Post, to name some.”
Baum said that in researching and planning The Clocktower, Baum contacted another editor at a nonprofit student newsroom who offered some profound thoughts.
“In a time where there’s so much disinformation and so much distrust of the media at large, even the appearance of relying on institutions can sometimes erode trust within your audiences in your communities.”
Ultimately, while the group continues to pursue nonprofit status, Baum said financial independence is The Clocktower’s No. 1 priority.
“We still want to make sure our financial independence is something that we keep, so even if we incorporate into the school and register as a club, The Hofstra Clocktower will be the only Hofstra University newsroom that does not take any funding from the university and we will continue to do 100% of our own fundraising.”