EDITORIAL: Student media changes make future uncertain

The last time the Tribune editorial board wrote a nearly full-page editorial, we addressed the Tribune’s potential page cuts and the frenzy that followed on social media. It was our intention then, in what became one of the defining moments of the year for us, to raise awareness about the impending changes and make our case to preserve our quality and role on campus. The concern was related not only to how important our work is to us, but to how we can best deliver news to the Marquette community.

While the page cut fiasco has been temporarily resolved, changes to student media are still happening, and we remain prepared to make a case to preserve that same quality and role on campus.

As the Tribune reported today on Page 1, student media is being transformed next year to promote convergence and adopt a “digital-first” mindset that places a strong emphasis on multimedia projects. Convergence and digital advancement are purposeful, worthwhile goals to pursue in student media. Learning to use multimedia in reporting can help us diversify our skills as reporters and enhance our storytelling ability. However, any pursuit of convergence or drastic change to the landscape of student media must be done with the intention of improving quality, readership and the overall product if it is going to succeed.

Instead, what we see is a hastily produced plan that blatantly ignores student input and “evolved” simply for the sake of evolving, a plan that puts the quality of student media at risk.

In November, student media leaders created and submitted a proposal to the Student Media Board on how to best proceed with convergence of the various branches.

“A digital reinvention can succeed at Marquette,” the leaders wrote in the proposal. “But to do so, it cannot be motivated by balance sheets, or by an anxious desire to ‘keep up’ with perceived industry pressures or to make the university more attractive to prospective students – though if successful, it will improve Marquette in all three areas. Most importantly, it cannot represent change for its own sake – and this proposal will strive in every instance against that posture. A new era of journalism at Marquette must be led by journalists themselves, and by a common interest in better reporting.”

This input from student media leaders appears to have been disregarded, because the Student Media Board’s plan is a never-before-seen, arbitrary model for convergence that places Web hits and digital performance ahead of quality reporting and good content.

The plan centers around an aggregated website for the Tribune, the Marquette Journal, Marquette Radio and MUTV instead of maintaining the online independence each branch has now. It is loosely modeled after LSU’s student media website, The Daily Reveille. Even that site, however, makes its student newspaper the home page and maintains independent pages for each branch instead of amalgamating each branch’s content together.

While the Student Media Board attempted to use The Daily Reveille as a model for its convergence plan, it strayed from that model to create something from scratch that doesn’t have an example of previous success. Making up a structure – seemingly out of thin air – does not point to a promising outcome for student media.

Schools like Northwestern and the University of Missouri-Columbia, both of which are accredited by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, are widely considered to be the pinnacle of journalism education. Neither handle student media in the way Marquette’s board suggests. Northwestern maintains autonomy of its student media branches, specifically its acclaimed newspaper The Daily Northwestern, and succeeds in producing successful professional journalists – and multimedia content – year after year. Mizzou focuses on sending its students to local publications, television and radio stations in order to get its students the hands-on journalism experience they need.

We are often told that the changes to student media are “real world” realities that we need to get used to before starting our professional lives. In the real word, however, content decisions aren’t made without consulting those who produce it, without gauging the readership’s interests and without providing any information about a budget. In the real world, decisions are made to preserve quality above all else when budgetary concerns force re-evaluation and changes.

Another facet of this “real world” misconception is an assumption that specialization within student media puts students at a disadvantage. We understand the desire and need to teach us skills that make us more marketable to employers after graduation. Excelling in one area, however, is far more impressive than being mediocre in three or four.

The board’s structure, which largely does away with the system of specialized beats reporters in favor of generic pools of general assignment, multimedia reporters, undercuts students’ ability to develop crucial background knowledge on the events and issues they cover and develop in their chosen craft.

A person needing brain surgery would never go to someone who has dabbled in podiatry, ophthalmology and anesthesiology but never mastered neurosurgical methods. An educated consumer of media similarly would not rely on a journalist with average skills in writing, videography or radio broadcasting but would naturally seek out the best of the best in each of these separate fields.

Every single member of the Tribune staff and the rest of student media genuinely wants to learn and grow as a journalist. We want to know and understand all the ways we can create content and all the tools we can use to subsequently promote this content. However, students pursue journalism because they want to become, for example, excellent writers or excellent anchors, not average writers and anchors. This is the educational value of student media: the chance to truly develop in these areas.

We’ve worked hard this year, just as the other branches have, to serve and inform the student body. While the feedback we’ve received has been overwhelmingly positive, we are also receptive to critiques and are constantly looking for ways to improve. Yet, there appears to be a disconnect between the feedback we get from students and the feedback we get from the board.

While about 3,500 students and faculty pick up copies of the Tribune every Tuesday and Thursday, the board tells us we are old-fashioned and need to evolve instead of acknowledging how students on campus are being informed. A readership survey could have helped the board develop its convergence plan, but, again, audience does not appear to be much of a factor in its decision-making. This is obvious when members of the board, including the Tribune’s own adviser, imply that they don’t actually read the newspaper.

To his credit, board member Patrick Johnson said in an email Feb. 19 that the Tribune is the “most visible” branch of student media and is “the premier news source on campus.” We thank him and share this opinion because this year, and in years prior, we have striven to become just that.

As the Tribune editorial board wraps up its final issue and prepares to head into the next year under a new student media model, we will continue to try to find ways to best inform the student body. We each joined the Tribune staff because we have an invested interest in informing the student body and holding the administration accountable, and we assume that’s why you, the reader, continue to pick up copies of the paper each week.

After tomorrow, our beloved 97-year-old news organization will look drastically different. The Tribune, however, will remain dedicated to its role as the student voice on campus regardless of next year’s changes, even if those changes make fulfilling that role more complicated.

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