One question that keeps the media on its toes is: “What is the role of the media?” It’s a question of purpose a reason to reflect on what journalists do. We have to gauge our footprint on the world’s consciousness and determine what part we’ll play in moving society forward – or as some argue, backward – as we do our jobs.
I have yet to work for “professional” media, so I will refrain from commenting on what role I believe it should play. However, having worked in student media for nearly two years now in various roles, I think I’m somewhat able to comment on the role that student journalists have to adhere to.
For those curious, I’ve been an opinions and technology columnist, assistant opinions editor, reporter, page designer, night editor, managing editor and editor in chief during my stint at The Daily Illini. I never claimed to be perfect, and I’m still learning and developing my skills. I don’t profess to be the end all authority on journalism, but I sure as hell have an opinion and have reflected on my time and duties quite a bit.
Student media is unique, particularly at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. The Illini Media Company is a non-profit corporation that is completely independent from any control from the University itself. At most, the University can pull its advertising from the IMC, but University advertising is hardly the only entity providing advertising income to the IMC.
With this independence comes a large range of freedom and the student media should use this ability to its advantage. The student paper exists as a voice for the students and a force for advocacy against the University, when warranted.
While the mainstream media is able to take on the state and national government, the student media should play an important role in investigating, hounding and questioning the University’s actions and policies. The University has its advocates and power structures. The students, however, have a 5-day a week publication that reaches 20,000 people in print and even more online.
The odds, in my opinion, are about even.
The student media should listen to the voices of its primary audience: the students. Whether the voice of a lone individual or the chants of the many, the student media should show a favorable pen toward its peers. This idea does not destroy the idea of objectivity, but instead highlights a role of listening and relaying a message. The University has its news bureau, let them speak accolades of their employees.
The student media must also show fairness and be willing to take sides when necessary, whether for or against the popular opinion – including beliefs held by students. Does this mean a more liberal or conservative outlook? No, it means looking at situations ad hoc, and using informed opinion to advocate the correct idea in the proper forum.
But the student media, however, is in the end a business. It must sustain itself through advertising and adapt to changing mediums of information. As much as the current generation uses online technology, the student media lags behind and has yet to grasp a full concept of what being an online provider of information means.
Sadly, being an online focused company does not simply mean reposting stories in print on the Internet. It’s a whole new philosophy of newsgathering and presentation for a different audience. The student media has yet to adapt and grow properly into this realm, because to do so would be destroying what already exists and rebuilding from scratch.
For the student media to continue to be muckrakers of the University and advocates of the campus community, it has to provide new avenues of expression and embrace the full potential of the Internet to fight a war that reaches students beyond the paper they will pick up for the crossword puzzle and “Get Fuzzy.”
The student media will have to have a radical change. It will have to “never sleep” when it comes to news, constantly updating with shorter articles and more write-thrus. It will have to realize the need for more interactive features that readers can engage themselves in. It will have to incorporate brief video clips, hyperlinks to source documents and expansive archive systems that feature accurate search capabilities.
But student media will have to also learn how to fund themselves online too. One day, believe it or not, like it or not, print will die. And with the death of the print, comes the death of advertisements. To remedy this, the online version must already be profitable and generate revenue in other areas beyond just the news content.
To get this revenue stream, classifieds needs to be available online with incredible search options, again, and have the option to be posted for free. Craigslist already is damaging major metropolitan newspapers in their classified sales and it’s only a matter of time before it hurts the smallest papers. Absorbing and preparing for this rude shock now will prevent devastation in the future.
The student media can only achieve its chief role by finding methods to sustain it. If it has to shut down the presses and doesn’t know how to adapt to new markets because it’s unprepared, it will only have itself to blame.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to moving student media in this direction is the fact that the ideology and implementation for this great change must come from the top, not the student level. The students who produce the paper on a daily basis must do just that, produce on a daily basis. Long-term strategy and agenda planning for 1, 5, 10 years ahead is not something that is currently done by student managers. It is always next week, and at most next month.
Next day is perhaps the most current thought in many editors’ minds. It is this rut that must be overcome to prevent the eventual demise of the student press.
Simply put, a vision must be realized and enforced with funding and an iron hand willing to oversee the transformation from start to finish. This can’t be half-assed or wavered on. It either happens, or it doesn’t. It has to be methodical and tedious. It must be rigid enough to be productive, yet adaptable to various necessary changes.
While I have gained much from the student media, I fear for its future after I am long gone. I worry that no one wants to believe in the end of what we have now. I am terrified at the thought that no one is planning for the worst case – and in my mind, inevitable – scenario that will not be addressed until it is far too late.
I have serious concerns that the student media isn’t prepared to lose its classified sales to Craigslist. Or that it doesn’t believe that someone with a brighter idea to market free advertising for apartments on campus won’t undercut more sales for the paper. Or that the paper will not be ready to provide the content students want in terms of news coverage, especially breaking news and sports.
I fear the student media isn’t ready to deliver content to students who will be online almost everywhere when the campuswide wireless networks go online. I am concerned that it’s never going to be ready to deliver content to mobile phones and devices, let alone relevant podcasts or vcasts.
Old formulas are just that, old. Selling special supplements around holidays and seasons will not always work. Why would a student group purchase a $60 advertisement in the paper for one day when they could just as easily spend half as much on a Facebook.com advertisement that lasts for days and even weeks and reaches more people?
Frankly, doing more of the same is a weakness and a crutch. It creates dependency and complacency. The student media has the opportunity to be radical in its business and set experimental standards for the industry as a whole. With so much potential, it makes sense to not be afraid of change and be willing to take the lead so that journalists can continue their mission for the readers they serve.
For the student media to continue its role, and I believe it’s a very important one, it must be self-realized to the dangers that faces its own industry and be pessimistic about its own survival and be more aggressive in unexploited areas.
The only way student media will change is if readers demand it and if the students who work for it advocate it beyond their menial daily tasks. There’s more to the student media than what comes out the next day, it’s just a matter of realizing potential, both negative and positive.