Off the mainstream: Looking for an alternative

Independent papers give students more voices

As mainstream student media across the country fight censorship battles with their school administrations, alternative publications are popping up in steady numbers in response to their own disfavored symbols of authority ' official student newspapers.

Often utilizing the newest and most innovative means to broadcast their views, student journalists at alternative campus publications are finding a fertile landscape of both resources and audiences.

"Basically, a segment of the alternative student press is comprised of those turned off by their experiences at a mainstream student media outlet, normally the campus newspaper," said Dan Reimold, a Fulbright scholar who studies student media and operates a student journalism blog, College Media Matters. "They felt their views were not being heard, the content being created was subpar, the difference they felt they were making was slight, and the staff culture was in some way anathema to who they are."

While students retreating underground to counter a political bias at mainstream publications is nothing new, student journalists who feel censored from the campus paper are pioneering original ways of getting messages out.

Student Newspaper, for example, is a student-run publication at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln that caters to subscribers with print editions, e-mail updates and RSS feeds.

The founders are not shy about their motivations ' from a tagline of "A conservative newspaper, biased toward the truth," to a self-described conservative agenda in their explanatory blog posts.

"The Student Newspaper was started as a defense against the encroaching liberal bias of the media: The present campus newspaper (funded by student fees) claims to be neutral, but presents a strongly liberal bias," Tobias Davis, founding editor, writes on the blog. "Instead of pretending to be unbiased, the main team behind the Student Newspaper has a strong traditional Christian conservative political view and is not afraid to say so."

According to Davis, being transparent about the publication's motives has mixed effects on their readership.

"On the one hand, it does help readership with the people that are similarly minded or are interested to know what our side is about. They know they can get it [at Student Newspaper]," he said. "But it also keeps us in the niche because those who are opposed don't really read the paper."

Even as a budding publication ' started just last semester '

500 copies are distributed about once a week, and the blog and e-mail supplements add about 200 views per issue, Davis said.

With most of their costs offset by the donation of printer use by a local supporter, Student Newspaper editors are finding the alternative publication model to be an effective way of getting their voices out.

"I don't think I'd be able to say the things that I wanted to be said through their medium," Davis said, referring to UNL's mainstream paper. "So we started our own ... it isn't too expensive for us to do."

For other students antsy to launch an alternative who are not as secure with finances, a few national organizations trying to promote student journalism ' and sometimes a certain political cause ' are available for help with funding and training.

The Collegiate Network is a non-profit organization that supports independent student newspapers with operating grants, mentoring visits, on-call advice, conferences and internships. Doling out membership benefits to more than 100 newspapers every year, the Collegiate Network is funded by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a national educational organization that seeks to "enhance the rising generation's knowledge of our nation's founding principles ' limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy, and moral norms," according to its Web site.

On the other end of the political spectrum, Campus Progress offers funding, training and mentorship to "campus progressive publications."

"While some portray U.S. campuses as bastions of liberalism, 30 years of heavily-funded conservative organizing has made its mark," Campus Progress' mission statement reads. "Campus Progress is helping young progressives come together, win the battle of ideas, and turn their ideas into action."

While many publications affiliated with these organizations, and others that are not ' like Student Newspaper ' formed in response to very specific perceived biases, the impetus for an independent news Web site at Michigan State University in East Lansing was mostly preemptive. An experiment in online, independent student journalism, the SpartanEdge seeks to publish what its school's newspaper cannot.

"It would be nice to have something of a budget, but we don't believe that journalists working for college publications should be paid by the school," the weekly-updated Web site states. "Once the school starts handing money to a college paper or publication, then the paper is automatically compromised in what it can, or feels necessary, to report."

According to student Editor-in-Chief Amanda Peterka, SpartanEdge began as a project by a now-retired journalism instructor and a team of students committed to publishing ' in a new medium ' the stories left unreported by the mainstream paper.

"Most of the articles seemed like press releases for the university," Peterka said of the State News, MSU's official student paper. "Really heavy with administration quotes and not student analysis. Because we are independent, we are able to give that analysis. Personally, if we think something is wrong and unfair to the students, it's OK to be critical of that."

According to State News Editor-in-Chief Kristen Daum, the only funding State News receives apart from its self-generated revenue comes from a student subscription fee, which is refundable upon request within 10 days of the start of each semester.

"[T]he student tax is not university funding," Daum said in an e-mail. "Being independent from the university, State News editors and reporters feel no pressure from university officials against running potentially controversial stories. In recent years, we've published investigative pieces into possible secret meetings by the Board of Trustees, and we even sued the university after they failed to release a police report under the Freedom of Information Act."

Independent news coverage aside, Peterka said there are other benefits gleaned from the label "alternative." She wants her writers, for example, to embrace their independent freedom by experimenting with writing styles. Pointed and satirical language is a luxury of independent publication, she said, and her goal is for the SpartanEdge to use that liberty to more accurately reflect students' perspective.

The type of writing Peterka envisions is similar to what Reimold sees beginning to color the student blogosphere. These Web sites and blogs ' the NYU Local is a good example, he says ' are not alternative in name only.

"They are truly trying to embrace Journalism 2.0 ' presenting news and views as they pop up, scrounging for more underground events and issues that are not being pitched at student newspaper story meetings, and presenting content in an informal, at times in-your-face style that resonates with readers used to the personal touch of blogs," he said.

Cody Brown, publisher of NYU Local, told Reimold that his "24 hour" Web site's mission is to be a collage of writers' and readers' input.

"[W]e think the journalistic ideal of objectivity is a corrosive myth. We value perspective. We don't try to hide it in a style of writing that acts as the neutral party," Brown told

"Further, stories don't end after they are published, and sometimes we will post a story even if we don't have a great hold on it because we want to turn it over to the collected expertise of our readers ' comments are always enabled."

Brown said this model mirrors what happens in newsrooms as stories are vetted and developed. It is a nontraditional format, but it is honest, intelligent journalism, he said.

Along with the innovative freedom and niche perspectives many alternative publications adopt, there also often comes an uphill climb into campus relevance.

As Davis said, his publication's political leanings sometimes make it difficult to garner student attention. What is worse, he said, one-sided papers are prone to theft problems.

"People just go grab them as soon as they're out there," he said. "I tracked down the main guy who was [stealing issues]. He's a radical liberal and opposed to our views."

According to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, the Student Newspaper's ideological bent ' and $0 price tag ' does not exclude it from theft protections. Similarly, LoMonte explained that alterative student publications out of public universities share all the same legal freedoms as the campus paper. Aside from reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, both the recognized school paper and any alternative publications are free to distribute on public campuses, which are governed by the First Amendment.

For the many new alternative publications taking advantage of online resources ' and the low overhead costs associated with a virtual office and nonexistent printing budget ' hardcopy distribution problems are off their radar.

Instead, for today's alternative publications, staying relevant is the goal and the challenge.

"In this respect, the key is ... ensuring students young and old feel a sense of ownership in what is being created," Reimold said. "And they should. The alternative student press is a spectacular complement to the mainstream student press. It is innovative. It is influential. It is an essential part of journalism's reinvention. And it is here to stay."

reports, Spring 2009