Save/Safe Student Newsrooms

April 25th is Save Student Newsrooms day. In the words of the movement’s own website, Save Student newsrooms is “[a] campaign to educate people about the challenges facing student-run newsrooms,” especially challenges around funding and editorial independence.

The first time I heard about Save Student Newsrooms, it was in a spoken announcement from one of the managing editors of the paper I work at, urging all of us to write an editorial about it. I did not hear the announcement correctly. I heard that it was a movement around “safe student newsrooms” and, in my infinite wisdom and auditory processing issues, almost wrote an editorial about it. I didn’t end up writing the editorial because I learned that it was “Save Student Newsrooms,” but I kept thinking about the issue.

It’s the end of April again. This is that editorial.

I joined high school journalism because it was the closest thing my school had to a creative writing course. It wasn’t creative writing, or anything close to it, but it was a welcome relief from academic papers and literary analysis I had to write for every single other English class.

The first year I was in journalism, the paper published an article called “The ‘T’ is not silent” about transgender students on campus. (Forgive the lack of hyperlink, the online version of the article article has apparently been lost to time and several website migrations and I don’t have a copy I can scan in to upload.) It was far from a perfect article: it only interviewed transmasculine students (and one parent, who is also trans), it used alienating language (“a woman who identifies as a man,” good grief!), and it read more like a piece to satisfy cisgender people’s curiosity into transgender lives than anything actually meant for trans people.

It was what I had.

I didn’t have words for what I felt, the burning bodily hatred that raged through me, the constant unease around the shape of my form and how people saw it. In my freshman year of high school, a substitute teacher in my English class came over to my table (three rowdy cisgender boys who would not shut up and me) and said “Boys, settle down.”

Nathan M., next to me, whispered to me as soon as she walked away, “You have to tell her you’re not a boy!”

“I’m not bothered, Nathan.”

“But you have to tell her!”

Months later, I was on the bus home and gave someone a dollar for fare when he couldn’t find his bus pass. I was wearing a knit cap covering my short hair, jeans, and a giant Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum hoodie. “Say thank you to the young man,” the bus driver growled at the guy I gave the dollar to. There was an implied “because he just saved your ass” after it.

I felt like I was flying.

I had inklings of what being trans was – I have, after all, been Extremely Online from a young age – but being in a room where I saw that article being written and edited over a month, observing interview transcripts (when I could sneak glances of them), seeing one of our illustrators make a graphic for it … it forced me to confront what might actually be going on with me.

High school journalism saved me. It gave me words for what was going on inside my head and body. It gave me a community with resources to go to. It gave me an identity and a job. It gave me a safe(r) space to go to when I was having a bad day – no food or drinks near the computers, but crying on the keyboards was apparently okay.

I met lots of people, some good, some bad, through journalism. One of them, Nick Ferentinos, was an absolutely wonderful person. He was an unflinching, uncompromising adviser who didn’t hold his criticism back when he had it. Nick had been retired from official advising for years by the time I got to journalism, but he came in semi-regularly when I was there. If our official adviser couldn’t make our production nights, as she sometimes couldn’t, Nick would sometimes cover. I remember the evening of one production night, when it wasn’t quite light out but the street lights lining the quad hadn’t come on yet, the five or six stragglers left in the newsroom turned off our computers and gathered around to listen to Nick tell us stories of his time at the Epitaph: stories about Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, stories about how the paper was almost shut down for its coverage of an HIV-positive student in 1987, stories about how the paper evolved as technology involved in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Nick, even as gruff older man, accepted me, the weirdo in the midst of a staff then and historically full of weirdos. In my senior year, our official adviser forwarded me an email Nick had sent her. Michael Shear is an HHS alum, he wrote, please show Donnie this article.

It was an article about the death of Leelah Alcorn and then-President Obama’s push to ban conversion therapy.

Nick died in 2016 of complications from lung cancer. I remember the Facebook message to the editorial board group chat from our editor-in-chief. Nick died last night. He had a blood clot.

I cried. I felt empty.

And I grew up. I applied to college; I was accepted to Pitzer. I wasn’t even aware of the journalism community at Claremont when I applied. I wasn’t interested in studying media or communications: I was hesitantly pre-med and wanted to be a doctor.

I ended up in a room full of potential TSL staffers one night. The newsroom at Claremont was even sparser than the one at Homestead; I quickly learned that the paper received a much smaller percentage of its operating budget from the five undergrad colleges than the Epitaph did from the Homestead administration.

What do you want to do? the editorial board asked me in my intake interview.

I had no idea. I was glad to be in a newsroom where I wasn’t going to be forced to write news articles every week if I didn’t want to. Granted, I wasn’t getting any compensation whatsoever at TSL – not even the course credit I got in high school – but anything to save my pathologically shy soul from having to interview people.

I copy edited. I wrote opinions articles semi-frequently. I helped other people write their articles if they needed it and I sometimes was dispatched to cover events, mostly for Life & Style. I wrote mostly about LGBTQIA+ issues.

My sophomore year, I made Copy Chief, which is a fancy way of saying I was paid far too little to stay up until two in the morning combing though articles looking for AP Style errors. I did that for one semester and then switched to opinions section editor, which is where I still am.

All through it, I felt safe. I felt cared for, knowing that the paper and my editors would help me if anyone attacked me for my opinions, if anyone came down hard on me. Of course, the opinion “queer people should have rights” isn’t exactly controversial in a college town in LA county, but I didn’t feel as worried.

I met more people. Two of my colleagues have been National High School Journalist of the Year. (Hi Kellen! Hi Meghan! I’m pretty sure both of you occasionally look at this blog!) Others have gone on to work for companies like Vox and non-profits like the Student Press Law Center. I am proud of the publication I work for, the people it brings together, and the atmosphere it provides.

I feel safe in the newsroom, safer than I feel in a lot of places. I know everyone there. People don’t give me weird looks or ask too many questions. Most nights, it’s just 20 or so senior staff sitting around a table, editing and chatting with each other about the latest news. It’s not too loud but there’s camaraderie.

The thing about student newsrooms is that they tend to draw a lot of reserved introverts who have for some reason decided to go into a field that requires talking to people as a core job component, along with extroverts who love nothing more than talking to people about their lives. There’s a certain excitement in letting people just talk about their lives and what’s going on in them. Amplifying someone’s voice is one of the greatest joys of my work.

And despite the fact that student newsrooms provide coverage and services nobody else is, despite the fact that we hold administrations to task when nobody else will, despite the fact that we give platforms to students who would otherwise not have a way to communicate their ideas to a large, anonymous audience, despite the fact that a free press is essential for any microcosm of society to function – student newsrooms are constantly under attack. Our funding gets cut, our spaces get taken away on the shakiest of logic, our editorial independence is undermined, our newspapers are stolen and vandalized, and our staffers are unfairly maligned and targeted for their work.

In many cases, unlike professional staff at major newspapers, we don’t get the coverage and the outrage when we’re attacked. We often don’t have the stability and revenues to be financially independent from our school administrations, so we’re often hemmed in by coverage restrictions in order to be funded. If we cover something the administration doesn’t like, just like professional papers, we’re shamed and blamed, but unlike professional papers, our very safety might be in jeopardy.

I don’t have many solutions for this problem. The first, for everyone, is donate to your local student newsrooms. Money is the most helpful (printing a paper, maintaining a website, or hosting radio or TV coverage is expensive), but donating materials, especially computer or electronic equipment, is incredibly helpful, too. Donating training or time is also amazing – in student newsrooms, essential work like organizing or archiving old issues often goes undone because there isn’t time.

For anyone who can’t donate time, money, and help (and I get it, I’m a college student on a limited budget), just engaging with your local student newsroom is invaluable. Take copies of the paper, tune in to the radio and TV shows, click around on the website, subscribe to the newsletter – all of these things give us insight into what people are thinking about and what we should cover more. Comment on social media, write your letters to the editor, shove your opinions under our door on 8.5 by 11 paper. (Yes. The last one has happened. Several times. Keep doing it – it tells us what you’re thinking in an amusing way.)

Student newsrooms deserve independence: financial, editorial, spacial. We do work that virtually nobody else wants to do – we are speaking truth to power and holding people accountable for their actions. We provide platforms for students who want to work in journalism and communications but also for students who need a place to share and disseminate their voices. The newspaper, the radio spot, the TV show, the social media websites are the descendants of the public square: anyone can have an opinion, anyone can have a voice. To threaten the autonomy of student newsrooms is to quash free speech and press on campus, especially in a time when it is politically dicey to do such a thing.

Student newsrooms provide spaces for dialog but they also provide spaces for growth and learning. People find themselves in newsrooms and the products newsrooms put out. When student rights are under attack, student journalists are there. We facilitate conversations in ways that cannot be accomplished by the administration alone. We are points of pride for the schools that, too often, try to attack and undermine us.

And, sometimes, student newsrooms save lives. Sometimes, they’re the safest place someone has to go.

It’s on all of us to save student newsrooms. It’s on all of us to protect an essential element of the free press. It’s on all of us to care.