Staffers at the Hilltop, Howard University's student newspaper, were abuzz while preparing their first issue of the school year when Ruth Tisdale happened upon a Web site of college rankings.
Tisdale, a junior from Pensacola, Fla., and the paper's editor in chief, said she searched the site for her school. When she read the "Great College Newspaper" ranking, she said, she started shouting.
"We're number one!"
It was a welcome-back-to-school story for the Hilltop's editors and writers, who said a focus on student interests and a strong work ethic, instilled by covering late-night fires and cultivating writing skills, has improved the paper dramatically in the past few years. The ranking wasn't the goal of their efforts, they said, but it does offer helpful feedback and validation for their work.
And it apparently has been good for recruitment. Tisdale said nearly 60 students interested in writing for the paper attended an introductory meeting, about three times as many as in recent years.
"They're now getting to work for the number one paper in the country," she said.
The Princeton Review was not so kind to other aspects of Howard life. The university ranked second in "Long Lines And Red Tape" in its administration and 19th in the "Got Milk" category, about the prevalence of beer drinking on campus.
The rankings, which the Princeton Review releases annually as part of its guide to colleges, are based on student surveys about their schools. The "Great College Newspaper" ranking is determined by a question that rates how popular the campus newspaper is.
Josef Sawyer, 21, who was the Hilltop's editor in chief last school year, said the paper focused on what students wanted.
"I wanted to not only leave a mark of respect on campus but also to be a vehicle of the student's voice," said Sawyer, a Columbia native who will begin classes at the University of California at Berkeley's graduate school of journalism next week. "I wasn't interested in being friends with administrators. I wanted the paper to be about [what] the students wanted."
Phillip Dixon, chairman of Howard's journalism department, said student journalists are often pushed to be responsive to students because their readers "know exactly where you live; they know where to find you."
"Part of this ranking is, 'Do your audience and your readers think you do a good job for them? Do they think you're attuned to your community?' " he said. "The Hilltop is all those things."
A twice-weekly newspaper, the Hilltop is governed by a board of students and faculty members and receives funding from the university's student activities fees. Editors often put in 20 to 30 hours a week, Sawyer said, and staff members are told to treat their duties as seriously as they would a job.
Sawyer said his staff was particularly motivated and creative. He said he tried to stress improvement by having staffers list their goals and holding meetings to evaluate their progress.
This school year, the Hilltop has new computers and a new production program, which Sawyer said should further improve the paper. He said he told Tisdale, his successor, she would top his reign.
"I said, 'You're going to be so much better than me; I don't know if there's another ranking,' " he said.