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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Rethinking the Campus Newspaper

Greg Steinberger of the Hillel Foundation argues that the decision by an independent student newspaper to accept an ad from a Holocaust denier shows the need for a thorough review of the role and responsibilities of campus papers, especially in an Internet age.

In the current era of student newspapers, traditional print media is moving further onto the World Wide Web.  As a result, these newspapers have deployed social media, chat rooms, and open comment forums to convey news or to open avenues of discussion through blogs, twitter, video, and commenting sections.

The role of the campus newspaper is changing, and not always for the better.  It could be said that some of these new tools are being introduced without proper review of their impact on the community or of the range of policies needed to ensure a thoughtful and articulate presentation of the news and an engaged conversation with readership.

Who and what makes up the audience for the online independent campus media? What obligations does a student editor have to the campus?  When there are competing core values in play, how does a paper respond? 

These are just a few questions a campus editor and publisher might ask as they take on their positions of leadership.

The reach of the independent campus student press is changing.  Today’s papers, like the Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, encompass readership that is broader and no longer bound by the physical attributes of the campus. 

Student papers often worry about free speech, numbers of daily hits, maximizing their financial goals, and designing Web sites that drive traffic to their sites.  Yet this new media requires bold thinking and both an internal review by the paper of its policies, roles and obligations to the campus, and an external discussion by its community about the role of the paper.

Without such a conversation, the campus newspaper is likely to be transformed into just another media outlet. It will no longer be based on the campus, save for the location of its office or the makeup of its staff.

The recent situation in which the Jewish community found itself after the Badger Herald ran a Holocaust denial ad in its online edition is a case in point. It clearly indicates the challenges the campus public has when engaging its student paper.

At the time of the ad, the Jewish community already felt duress from anti-Semitic posts on prior articles on the paper’s Web site.  We began to monitor the comment sections and attempted to open a conversation with the Badger Herald regarding the hostile posting environment.  We learned that the Badger Herald had not monitored the comment section during the time of the fraternity story, but that when they learned of the situation, they began to monitor the comment sections.

Yet during the time in which the Bradley Smith ad ran in the paper, anti-Semitic posting continued to take place, presumably including comments made anonymously by what appeared to be supporters of Smith.  An anonymous comment was posted as recently as the week of March 7, saying: “Jews were the world’s worst predators of the 20th century.”

It was troubling to learn that comments do not automatically appear on the Web site immediately after being written.  The system requires that editors or section heads at the paper have to push their publication to the Web site.  That means that when anti-Semitic comments were being posted online, they were being allowed either as an editorial choice, by mistake, or because staff from various sections of the paper used an inconsistent ad hoc approach to determining which comments should be posted.

It is fair to question what policy exists to train the staff to read and publish comments, and to wonder how they determine what acceptable or unacceptable speech is.  Do they treat all sections of the paper equally?  Can the editors handle the sheer volume of posts a controversial article might cause?   Can a student paper — strapped for cash and student employees’ time — reasonably monitor large volumes of comments?

Comments on articles in cyberspace are easier and live longer than in a traditional medium.  Readers can contribute to the discussion the day a story runs or for many months, as long as the article is still available on the Web site.  As a result there is an exponential challenge to monitor comments.

On the 8th day of the ad’s run, the Badger Herald decided to publish their editorial denouncing the Holocaust-denial ad as a revolting and hateful act, yet justified the printing of the ad in the name of free speech. Their intention seemed to be to shine a light on anti-Semitic activists and to inspire the campus community to see the ad, read it and reject it.

This was a mistake.

The paper failed in its understanding of the space in which its Web site exists.  They certainly should have known that a Web site that receives several hundred thousand hits regularly was not being read solely by the campus community and that those likely to read the articles and comment on them were not on the campus.

During this time, the campus Jewish community began to organize.  We responded to the Holocaust denial by exposing it for what it was.  We attempted to speak with the editors of the paper, and while we worked to educate the campus we also understood that we were forced to respond.

The Jewish community faced several options:  to enter into a debate with anti-Semites (which we rejected); to protest the paper and show our dismay; or work to constructively fix what is and remains broken at the Badger Herald and perhaps to a lesser extent at the other campus paper, the Daily Cardinal.

Students planned a campus rally to remember the Holocaust; they worked with the Dean of Students to organize an ethics panel on journalism in campus newspapers; and they continued to engage in conversation with the Badger Herald staff and advisors as we sought a public apology for the pain the paper was causing through its lax policies and practices.  We hoped such efforts would result in quick and immediate changes and assurances that the paper would better serve the campus community.

Student newspapers regularly publish stories and editorials that are critical of the practices of the UW administration and student government as well as other student organizations on campus. Yet from February 18 to March 4, when Hillel and the Dean of Students office hosted a public forum on journalistic ethics, the Badger Herald failed to admit its many mistakes.  What they offered on March 4 was the explanation that they made some mistakes and that committees were being formed to review policies. This only furthered the perception that the Badger Herald was slow to move and not taking the communities concerns as seriously as they needed to.

Nearly three and half weeks after the ad first was published, the Badger Herald board published an open letter to the campus apologizing for its actions and speaking to their policy challenges.   They have committed to new policies by the end of the term.  Such action is welcome, but it is future policies and deeds that are critical.

The Badger Herald should be taken at its word that it will be conducting a thorough review of its best practices.  Yet we, and they, should be concerned that they reach these conclusions and make changes sooner than later.

Waiting to the end of the semester is a problem.

As the term ends, the leadership and staff of the paper will change and so will the opportunity to act quickly and learn from this situation.  Furthermore, a newspaper has to be published every day.  I would argue that the paper has not yet demonstrated that it can responsibly handle the comment section of the Web site. As a result they are only one mistake away from a new campus crisis.

The paper might be better served by suspending the anonymous posting option to see what effect it has on the open discussion. Yes, the volume of comments will likely go down, but many other newspapers have made similar decisions and thoughtful conversation appears to have ensued.

What might a paper do when wide-spread concern about a story, or practice, or editorial decision is recognized by its community — particularly a minority community that has felt maligned?

First,  a newspaper might consider meeting with community leaders to listen and to try to comprehend what is going on in their community.  They might also consider seeking out more information on the matters at hand.  Certainly Bradley Smith was a known entity, having attempted to take out hundreds of ads in campus newspapers over the last two decades.

In the short term the Badger Herald has taken a substantial hit in the eyes of the reading public.  Can the paper be trusted to accurately and effectively convey the news and editorial opinion to it readers?

Second, the Badger Herald staff and operations are under greater public scrutiny as they editorialize about the goings-on around campus.

Third, the paper, I hope, will go through a process of reviewing several of its policies and work with professionals in the field, as well as Badger Herald alumni and faculty from the journalism school to implement policies that best represent their convictions and best serve the UW campus.

I believe a commitment to a third party review and audit of best practices would better spell out the strengths and weaknesses of the Badger Herald and perhaps ensure a quick and speed resolution of the problems they identified over the past four weeks.

The situation reminds us that student newspapers live in an unconventional space in the world of journalism and that perhaps their online editions are evolving to something other than a student publication.  Perhaps they are now student papers, in that they are run by students, but their readership at least online is larger.  The stakes are higher and the effect of a misstep that much greater.

So what might be done to ensure that a campus paper and its online edition have a direct and ongoing relationship to the campus that they serve?  Student journalists would be well served to consider that they have three independent and possibly competing, core responsibilities:

•  To clearly understand the parameters of the First Amendment
•  To use the student newspaper as an incubator for young journalists 
•  To recognize their role, responsibility and obligation to the campus as whole.

How does a paper understand and weigh each of these values?  Are they equal in concern? Does one outweigh the other?  Can they be determined by the editorial board or in dialogue with the campus?

Perhaps a student paper would benefit from a broader range and number of advisors.  It seems common practice for papers to have an advisor who might help it understand the issues of the First Amendment and also the general management of a newspaper.  But it is unclear to me to what degree these papers have advisors that are responsible for ensuring these other areas of responsibility are being considered and that the perspective and concerns of the campus and the student body are also being protected and considered at an equal (or near equal) level of concern.

In addition, the campus might be well served by a collaborative effort by the Dean of Students’ office, student government, the School of Journalism, and perhaps some partnership with housing and admissions to create an independent Web site that strives to create a campus discussion on issues brought up in the paper.

This site could be a place where readers could come and view the subject matter and open discussion — but only students, faculty, staff of the university could participate in the discussion.  This situation could carve out some kind of campus-wide, thoughtful, meaningful blog that is a counter weight to the campus newspapers, which in turn might help create a more nuanced and balanced relationship between the campus student media outlets and its audience.

I think the adoption of these three core values and the development of some campus-wide Internet discussion space would have a lasting effect on the campus newspaper.

Such an approach will help engender a genuine conversation while still helping inform an editorial board, train future journalists and best serve our larger campus community.

GREG STEINBERGER holds a Master’s degree in social work from the Sol Drachler Program in Jewish Communal Leadership at the University of Michigan. He has worked for Hillel for 14 years, the past ten years as the Executive Director of the University of Wisconsin Hillel Foundation.  Greg received the 2002 Richard M. Joel Exemplar of Excellence award for his work to transform the UW Hillel Foundation into one of national recognition and excellence.

In 2010 Greg Steinberger and his wife Rabbi Andrea Steinberger helped open The Barbara Hochberg Center for Jewish Students Life.  The Barbara Hochberg Center is the first Green Hillel building in North America and home to over 5,000 Jewish students who attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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