Teach your children
Mary Ellen Woods | Thursday, January 13, 2022
Late last year, the Washington Post ran columns on the decline of local journalism — news deserts, as they called it — and the likely consequences. In fact, the entire Dec. 5, 2021, issue of their weekly magazine was devoted to the topic. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for the Post, sounded the alarm: “The demise of local news poses the kind of danger to our democracy that should have alarm sirens screeching across the land.” The issue published 12 pieces that might very well have previously been covered locally. They addressed environmental issues, racial strife and comity, the arts, election dynamics, housing and even love.
Those of us “of a certain age” are aware of the many ways in which journalism, especially print, has changed. The city of my birth, New York, boasts a thriving New York Times with solid subscription numbers; though many, as I have, have shifted to digital coverage — something the NYT does especially well.
In other cities, we see the numbers of outlets declining and ownership seeming to emphasize profit over objective reporting. Technology, my field prior to enrolling in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI), has introduced dramatic changes: Type-setting and layout have gone the way of ink that smudged one’s fingers. Citizen journalism has changed the pace of coverage and largely eliminated paid photo journalists. Long time careers that offer progressions for baby journalists are all too often replaced by unpaid internships and stringers who piece together a living one story at a time. What is lost? The long-form story, in-depth reporting and comprehensive international coverage. And this doesn’t begin to address how these changes have influenced readership.
So, as I have often done in these pages, I will spend some time on the virtues and challenges of publishing a student newspaper, our student newspaper, The Observer. The Observer runs daily and is funded by ad sales and subscription revenues. So, in many ways, the editor-in-chief (EIC) is managing both news and operations. Her portfolio includes reporting, editorials and the financial health of the paper. And, if you are counting, there are nine departments involved in The Observer. They are: graphics, multimedia, News, photo, Scene, social, Sports, video and Viewpoint (where I write bi-weekly). Our Viewpoint team is comprised of some 10 regular contributors. News, for example, includes reporters from all three campuses. Sports is as diverse as Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick’s scope and social media covers all the mainstream (did I really say that?) platforms: Facebook, Instagram, a newsletter, Snapchat and Twitter. And, fortunately for me and you, my dear readers, we even have copy editors. And they are paid.
In preparing for this column, I emailed the EIC from my era, Rosemary Mills Russell ’80. She notes that she managed a team of about 50 — with a core of 30. The editorial board was comprised of a dozen with an additional five for business ops. The Observer of the late 1970s “more than broke even.” Ad revenue was strong and they received a portion of the “student activities fee” levied on all students.
So, what have we learned? Now as ever, a leader should surround herself with the most talented team possible. Technology, the great force for democratization, has changed journalism forever. That said, the fifth estate remains critically important to a strong democracy. With the demise of local papers, the campus student newspaper can be that all-important training ground for aspiring journalists. And, curiously, a place where business leaders earn their stripes.
The student newspaper provides paid and unpaid opportunities for aspiring journalists to learn their craft. They cover news, society, sports and opinion. The paper experiences all the normal challenges and tensions that the big papers face — readership, profitability and objectivity. And then there are the “comments.” Many national outlets have forgone comments due to the challenges of moderating them. Gone are the days when one had to write and post a letter to the editor. Now just about anyone can submit a comment. And a reporter or columnist’s email is often widely available.
It would appear that one constant for the student newspaper is balancing campus and the outside world. Even back during my student days, a most frequent criticism was that The Observer was insufficiently critical of the Notre Dame administration. As ever, however, a scoop is worth celebrating. One can only imagine the mixed feelings the night editor had when they had to completely rewrite the paper to report on the death of the Pope in the middle of the night local time. It was worth it to beat the national media to the story.
Editor’s Note: This piece originally stated erroneously that only business staffers were paid. This sentence has since been removed to more accurately reflect events.
Mary Ellen Woods is a graduate of the Notre Dame class of 1980. She has returned to campus as a Fellow in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI). As an undergraduate, she lived in Breen-Phillips and now lives off campus. Her columns appear every other Thursday. A longtime resident of Chicago, she can be reached at [email protected] or @MEWsmuses on Twitter