It is 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, the night of the campus presidential debates, and the media are everywhere.
Two newspaper staffers coolly moderate the debate, a photographer prowls the periphery, one reporter tweets and an editor stands observing it all as 18-year-old Georgetown University freshman Mariah Byrne furiously takes notes in her red spiral notebook.
This is a big night on the Georgetown campus. Elections for the student government association will take place in one week, and many voters remain undecided. Tomorrow morning, 6,500 copies of the Hoya will sit in campus newsstands bearing Byrne’s article above the fold on the front page.
Byrne, cub reporter, has been working at the newspaper only five months. This isn’t even her beat. But she’s not about to let a little seat-of-the-pants journalism throw her.
Byrne’s title is “news assistant and staff writer,” but that seems to translate as pinch hitter. Fortunately, she’s a quick study. An A student in her Florida high school who was accepted to Harvard, Byrne opted to go to Georgetown and by October had bylined her first article. Tonight, she scans the scene, intent on the action.
There are four young men running for president of the Georgetown University Student Association (GUSA), all juniors. They sit at a table in a wing of the student lounge wearing suits and ties and fielding questions. There is an inside-the-Beltway/outside-the-Beltway theme here, with candidates Ace Factor and Jed Feiman playing up the fact that they are “GUSA outsiders” and Charlie Joyce and Mike Meaney highlighting their experience in school government. The candidates keep returning to the issue of “transparency,” each arguing that as an insider/outsider, he is best poised to hold the university’s feet to the fire when it comes to sharing information with the student body.
The issue is vital to the Hoya. As owner of the newspaper, the administration directly affects the staff’s coverage and — unlike the professional media reporting on, say, Congress — its budget, too. The possibility of becoming financially and editorially independent is ever simmering on a front burner for Hoya staffers. Indeed, as Hoya Editor in Chief Eamon O’Connor stands in the back watching the debates, he knows that the Hoya’s board will meet within the week to discuss whether it will try again to break free of the university.
But this is all deep background to Byrne, who is focused on how she is going to get her article written before her deadline in an hour. As soon as the debate is over, she hustles upstairs to the Hoya’s offices.
The students who are putting out the Hoya this night are, in many ways, very much like the preternaturally hardworking, hands-on college journalists of a generation ago. But unlike their counterparts of yore, the Hoya staffers are part of a highly tech-savvy breed that is easily adapting to the seismic shifts that are convulsing the professional newspaper industry.
The Hoya is a microcosm of campus journalism nationally in other ways, too. Like most student newspapers, it has not seen the same drop in readership experienced by most professional papers. Indeed, although hard data are scanty, a national survey of 600 students conducted between Jan. 31 and Feb. 11 by Alloy Media and Marketing and research firm Hall & Partners found that a full 85 percent of students had read the print edition of their campus paper in the past month. Seventy-two percent had read the paper online.
“While we’ve seen some growth in the online readership since 2008, it doesn’t seem to have come at the expense of print readership,” says Tammy Nelson, vice president of marketing and research for Alloy, which places ads in college papers across the country.
The reasons are surprising, given the Web-surfing culture of the iGeneration. Eighty-nine percent of surveyed students said they liked the convenience of accessing the news without having to turn on a device or seek Internet access. They described print as “more portable,” Nelson says.
“I never think to look at the [campus] newspaper online,” one student commented to Alloy pollsters, “but because I walk by a newsstand, it is convenient to pick it up.” Students said that they preferred to spend their online time browsing sites such as Facebook, not reading their school paper.
Dan Reimold, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa who writes a blog on the college media, said the survey’s results are in keeping with his reporting. “The traditional student paper is still being read and devoured by today’s students,” Reimold says.
Part of the reason, he argues, is that student journalists are highly attuned to their audience’s interests. For example, Reimold reports a huge increase in the number of articles on sex, love and sexual health. “Students are tackling one of the most popular or certainly seminal events in their lives,” he says.
The fact that campus newspapers are free is no small factor, says Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington. “If someone hands you something for nothing, aren’t you going to at least look at it?” he says, adding that college campuses provide “a 100 percent intellectually inquisitive group of people who are readers.”
The picture has not been so rosy when it comes to ad revenue. Nelson said that college papers took some hits in 2009. “But 2010 was strong, and we’re getting solid news for 2011 so far,” she says.
Most campus newspapers are at least partially supported by their universities, but the setup can also create problems. “The people you’re reporting on each day are in charge of your funding,” LoMonte says.
Although no one compiles statistics on censorship issues at student papers, LoMonte reports an uptick in the past five years. “There is a pronounced increase in the desire of colleges to conceal embarrassing issues, and that can be traced directly to the high-stakes competition for high school students,” he says.
So as the mainstream media entertains government support for the professional industry, student publications — including the Hoya — have been trying to break free of outside influence.
No reliable tally exists, but financially independent college papers appear to be confined mainly to the Ivies and a handful of large universities where massive student bodies and a plethora of local advertisers make the arrangement financially viable. They include the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In this region, Towson University, University of Maryland at College Park and the University of Virginia have financially independent student-run papers. So does American University. Howard University, with its smaller student body, is funded by the school.
The Hoya receives an annual budget of about $180,000 from Georgetown University. Remarkably, in the past nine out of 10 years, Hoya Executive Editor Laura Engshuber says, it has also turned a profit. Editorial freedom is one issue behind the push for independence, but it also galls some staffers that the Hoya must turn over its profits instead of reinvesting them in the paper.
The Hoya’s print edition comes out twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Fridays. In January, the paper launched a new Web site.
“Today, at one of the most exciting times for journalism, we produce across multiple platforms to better inform your Georgetown experience,” Editor in Chief O’Connor wrote in his inaugural blog post.
At 8:25 p.m., Byrne checks in with her editor briefly and scans the room, looking for a free computer terminal, a chair, anywhere she can perch to write her story.
But the bullpen is packed. Eighteen students crowd the office, squeezing in around a long central table or lining a bank of computers on either side of the room, or staring, glassy-eyed into every available computer screen and laptop in the adjacent wing.
With exactly one hour to file her story, Byrne heads into the general manager’s cramped office and settles down with her open notebook. She sighs, tucks her long brown hair behind her ears, stares at the screen some more. Finally, she puts her fingers on the keyboard and types:
Last night the four GUSA presidential candidates were held accountable to their words by their constituents, an experience that will continue throughout the term of the student who prevails.
It is a mouthful, but she plows ahead.
Byrne’s story will be big news, but the Hoya’s presidential endorsement is the most highly anticipated. For the past three years, editors say, the Hoya has called the winner. “Hopefully we’ll be keeping that record alive,” says sophomore Sam Schneider, who chairs the editorial board.
Dressed in jeans, a wrinkled blue oxford and tennis shoes, Schneider has a scruffy shadow along his jaw and dark, cropped hair that he occasionally runs his hand through, to no discernible effect. Though it is still technically top-secret, he confides at 9:40 p.m. which candidate garnered the Hoya endorsement: Charlie Joyce and running mate Paige Lovejoy. “They said all the right things about [the need for expanded] study space and student rights,” Schneider says, and had “specific steps mapped out for achieving that.” Tomorrow, the entire campus will know which ticket the Hoya is backing.
Byrne blows deadline by an hour, and it’s going on 11 p.m. when deputy campus news editor Jonathan Gillis picks the story up. Gillis does a preliminary edit, putting his revisions in red.
Kindly, gently, he asks for clarifications and suggests edits to the lead. “Twice here, you say ‘not only,’ ” he says.
Finally, Byrne sighs and pops a gummy bear in her mouth. “Just write it, and I’ll watch.”
According to a detailed article that ran Sept. 10, 2009, in its competitor paper, the Georgetown Voice, the Hoya’s drive for independence unfolded like this:
Hoya staffers had toyed with the idea for decades but in 2003 began formal negotiations with the university to separate. Eventually, the university agreed to let the paper go but wouldn’t let the Hoya retain its name, arguing that it belonged to Georgetown. The paper’s board and management worried that students would not make the association that this was the same Georgetown University paper if the name changed. They argued more with administrators. In 2007, university officials filed a formal trademark application for the name “Hoya.” Hoya staffers considered a lawsuit but were dissuaded by the cost. Negotiations stalled. Then, in the fall of 2008, the university relented. The agreement establishing the Hoya’s independence was to be signed the first week in April 2009.
Then the Hoya came out with its April Fools’ issue. The story that drew the most ire was an opinion piece written under the pseudonym Ryan Westen. (In fact, a real student named Brian Kesten headed up a campus diversity group.) In the article, headlined “We Need More Interracial Loving at Georgetown,” Westen took credit for “a good deal of progress on diversity-related issues” but said he had one left to tackle: “We don’t have enough good old vanilla-chocolate swirl interracial [fornication]. ... Nothing is more beautiful than adding a few drops of Georgetown’s milk into some dark chocolate Cocoa Puffs.”
The piece concluded by suggesting that the resulting interracial offspring would “have a hell of an easier time getting into college.”
Everything screeched to a halt. About 60 students staged a sit-in at the Hoya’s offices. There were town hall meetings, conversations with Georgetown’s president, calls for the Hoya’s editor in chief, then Andrew Dwulet, to resign. The university’s Media Board sanctioned the Hoya and reversed its verbal agreement to let the paper become independent. The university also demanded that Hoya staffers undergo diversity training. The paper was ordered to pay for an external review. In April 2009, Byron P. White, then-associate vice president of community engagement at Xavier University and a former journalist, submitted a list of 18 recommendations. Among other things, he chided the Hoya in his report for “its inability to consistently hire and retain a staff that represents a broad spectrum of backgrounds and cultures, particularly along racial and ethnic lines.” (People of color are still sparsely represented among the Hoya’s 65 positions.)
Meanwhile, as the campus debated whether the university’s actions represented a violation of free speech rights or a justifiable reaction to irresponsible journalism, the Hoya staff was forced to put its plans for independence on hold.
The Hoya’s newsroom is beginning to empty. Byrne’s story on the presidential debates has just been copy edited. The lights won’t be turned off for another three hours, but at 1:10 a.m, Byrne is free to go home.
In the end, her lead will read: The four candidates vying to be the student body’s highest representative highlighted their platforms and responded to student concerns in a debate Thursday night.
“I wasn’t upset by the amount of changes,” Byrne says later. “When it’s more of a rushed process, then more will be changed than usual.”
She has experience here. Since she penned her first article for the paper in October, her first semester at Georgetown, she has gone on to report more than 30 articles for the paper, sometimes as many as four a week (in addition to the six classes she takes in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service). “I knew no matter what school I went to that I wanted to be part of the student publication,” she says. She had devoured a few books about journalists and thought it sounded like exciting work, but she’s not planning a career in print media. (LoMonte says that is typical of students who work on campus papers. Many aren’t planning careers as print journalists, or in media at all. “While they’re on campus, this is just a heck of a lot of fun,” he says, as well as intellectually invigorating.)
Byrne’s top dream jobs would be to make documentaries or to work for journalist Amy Goodman in radio and television.
“Have you heard of this program called ‘Democracy Now!’?” Byrne asks.
A week later, the landscape at the Hoya has shifted radically. Byrne’s debate article made the front page, but the Hoya’s presidential endorsement failed to sway a majority of the electorate; Mike Meaney is the new student association president. Meanwhile, Byrne herself has been promoted from news assistant to co-deputy campus news editor.
The newspaper’s board held its meeting to hash out whether the Hoya should continue to fight for independence, but it still didn’t make a decision. Executive Editor Laura Engshuber remains uncertain about the benefits. But O’Connor, the editor in chief, is unequivocal. “Our foremost institutional goal is to become an independent newspaper,” he says.
University officials say they have not ruled out allowing the Hoya to sever its ties, but they remain cautious. “We’re open to a continued conversation with students on this topic, but we want to be thoughtful about it and make sure we believe the Hoya is set up to be successful,” says Todd Olson, vice president for student affairs at Georgetown.
Meanwhile, Byrne takes a break between bouts of homework in the university library to consider the big picture. She’s optimistic, she says, about journalism’s role in society.
The media’s purpose?
“The proliferation of truth,” she quickly offers, seemingly confident that this goal is attainable. “To bring light to issues that need more attention, that’s what news’ main role is. Because the more people spread the word, the more people will recognize the problems — and the more chance there is for change.”
She pauses, looks around the packed library.
“I’m the kind of person, when I see things, I want to do something about them,” she says. Then her bravado slips for just a moment. “But sometimes I feel so small.”
Karen Houppert is a contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.