I was a college newspaper adviser, too

A former student passed along this March, 2013 blog post , “I was a college newspaper advisor,” by journalist and adjunct journalism instructor Jeff Pearlman about his disappointing experience as an unpaid adviser for Manhattanville College’s student newspaper. According to the post, Perlman helped the students launch the paper in 2011, extracted a promise of support and non-interference from the administration, and put in lots of sweat equity helping the students learn the fundamentals of newspaper reporting, editing, design and production. Unfortunately, he said, the administration pulled the paper out from under him and the student staff because it was upset that articles criticizing aspects of campus life might repel potential applicants and donors. The administration installed a PR prof as advisor, the staff turned over, and the result was an irregularly-published PR rag. Pearlman went on to help his students found an alternative online outlet, PubWrap. For Pearlman, the whole sad saga is part of the larger attack on journalism:

“What hurts most (and what, I suppose, inspires me to write this) is that this sort of stuff is going on everywhere. Journalism is, undeniably, under attack. Newspapers are closing. Corporate entities are stifling free press; colleges and universities are cracking down on student-generated publications….”

Read the post, and read the discussion that follows. As I read it, I recognized many of the issues that Pearlman raised, either from my own experience or those of peers at other institutions.

I too, was a college newspaper adviser.

Fortunately, the student newspaper with which I was associated from the mid-90s to the mid-aughts, The Signal, is going strong under the mentorship of their current advisor, former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Emilie Lounsberry. (Once again, they racked up the honors (.pdf) in the New Jersey Press Association’s annual Better College Newspaper Contest.) Like Pearlman, I also helped my students launch Unbound, an online newsmagazine, in the days when online journalism was young. I know something about late nights, stale pizza, cringing over simple errors, taking pride in each improvement and helping students figure out coverage of big, awful, breaking stories in real time (9/11 especially comes to mind.)

I also know something about having to negotiate to protect the newspaper’s autonomy and resources, although I must say that I am fortunate never to have encountered the treachery that Pearlman apparently experienced.

Drop in on a listserv discussion or meeting of the College Media Advisers, or browse the news flashes on the Student Press Law Center website and you are sure to come across issues such as:

  • Newspapers being stolen or removed from public distribution because someone is offended by its contents
  • Pressure from administrators to provide favorable coverage, or stifle unfavorable coverage.
  • Threats of legal action from outside parties over coverage of a story concerning them.
  • Demands from outside groups demanding the removal of editors and/or advisers because of what they published — or refused to publish.
  • Actual threats to the safety of student staff and advisers that required police action.

Fortunately, organizations such as SPLC and CMA are invaluable in helping to ensure that students’ and advisers’ legal rights are protected. So are state press associations. I recall having to call the legal hotline of our state press association on more than one occasion to get advice about my rights as an adviser, as well as my students’ rights.

Because you can be sued for something the students publish, even though you didn’t know about it, and even though you had no input into the publishing decision. And CMA argues that, indeed, you should not have any input into those decisions: “It should not be the media adviser’s role to modify student writing or broadcasts, for it robs student journalists of educational opportunity and could severely damage their rights to free expression.”

Pearlman doesn’t say whether he consulted CMA or SPLC about his difficulties with the Manhattanville College administration. CMA has been known to censure campuses for stifling students’ freedom of speech in the manner Pearlman describes. Manhattanville’s administration might not have cared, and as a private institution, it has more latitude than does a public college such as mine when it comes to these kinds of decisions. And as a poorly-compensated adjunct with a full-time sportswriting gig, it’s understandable if Pearlman chose to cut his losses and vent on his blog instead of fighting. But others who may be in similar positions need to know that there are resources out there. I know I discovered CMA on my own. Other faculty advisers shouldn’t have to.