Off the mainstream: Looking for an alternative

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

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

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

While students retreating underground to counter a political bias atmainstream publications is nothing new, student journalists who feel censoredfrom the campus paper are pioneering original ways of getting messagesout.

Student Newspaper, for example, is a student-run publication at theUniversity of Nebraska at Lincoln that caters to subscribers with printeditions, 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 aself-described conservative agenda in their explanatory blog posts.

“The Student Newspaper was started as a defense against theencroaching liberal bias of the media: The present campus newspaper (funded bystudent fees) claims to be neutral, but presents a strongly liberal bias,”Tobias Davis, founding editor, writes on the blog. “Instead of pretendingto be unbiased, the main team behind the Student Newspaper has a strongtraditional Christian conservative political view and is not afraid to sayso.”

According to Davis, being transparent about the publication’s motiveshas mixed effects on their readership.

“On the one hand, it does help readership with the people that aresimilarly minded or are interested to know what our side is about. They knowthey can get it [at Student Newspaper],” he said. “But italso keeps us in the niche because those who are opposed don’t really readthe paper.”

Even as a budding publication ‘ started just last semester ‘

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

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

“I don’t think I’d be able to say the things that Iwanted to be said through their medium,” Davis said, referring toUNL’s mainstream paper. “So we started our own … it isn’ttoo expensive for us to do.”

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

The Collegiate Network is a non-profit organization that supportsindependent student newspapers with operating grants, mentoring visits, on-calladvice, conferences and internships. Doling out membership benefits to more than100 newspapers every year, the Collegiate Network is funded by theIntercollegiate Studies Institute, a national educational organization thatseeks to “enhance the rising generation’s knowledge of ournation’s founding principles ‘ limited government, individualliberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy, and moralnorms,” 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 yearsof heavily-funded conservative organizing has made its mark,” CampusProgress’ mission statement reads. “Campus Progress is helping youngprogressives come together, win the battle of ideas, and turn their ideas intoaction.”

While many publications affiliated with these organizations, and othersthat are not ‘ like Student Newspaper ‘ formed in response tovery specific perceived biases, the impetus for an independent news Web site atMichigan State University in East Lansing was mostly preemptive. An experimentin online, independent student journalism, the SpartanEdge seeks topublish what its school’s newspaper cannot.

“It would be nice to have something of a budget, but we don’tbelieve that journalists working for college publications should be paid by theschool,” the weekly-updated Web site states. “Once the school startshanding money to a college paper or publication, then the paper is automaticallycompromised in what it can, or feels necessary, to report.”

According to student Editor-in-Chief Amanda Peterka, SpartanEdgebegan as a project by a now-retired journalism instructor and a team ofstudents committed to publishing ‘ in a new medium ‘ the storiesleft unreported by the mainstream paper.

“Most of the articles seemed like press releases for theuniversity,” Peterka said of the State News, MSU’s officialstudent paper. “Really heavy with administration quotes and not studentanalysis. 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 onlyfunding State News receives apart from its self-generated revenue comesfrom a student subscription fee, which is refundable upon request within 10 daysof the start of each semester.

“[T]he student tax is not university funding,” Daum said in ane-mail. “Being independent from the university, State News editorsand reporters feel no pressure from university officials against runningpotentially controversial stories. In recent years, we’ve publishedinvestigative pieces into possible secret meetings by the Board of Trustees, andwe even sued the university after they failed to release a police report underthe Freedom of Information Act.”

Independent news coverage aside, Peterka said there are other benefitsgleaned from the label “alternative.” She wants her writers, forexample, to embrace their independent freedom by experimenting with writingstyles. Pointed and satirical language is a luxury of independent publication,she said, and her goal is for the SpartanEdge to use that liberty to moreaccurately reflect students’ perspective.

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

“They are truly trying to embrace Journalism 2.0 ‘ presentingnews and views as they pop up, scrounging for more underground events and issuesthat are not being pitched at student newspaper story meetings, and presentingcontent in an informal, at times in-your-face style that resonates with readersused to the personal touch of blogs,” he said.

Cody Brown, publisher of NYU Local, told Reimold that his “24hour” Web site’s mission is to be a collage of writers’ andreaders’ input.

“[W]e think the journalistic ideal of objectivity is a corrosivemyth. We value perspective. We don’t try to hide it in a style of writingthat acts as the neutral party,” Brown told

“Further, stories don’t end after they are published, and sometimeswe will post a story even if we don’t have a great hold on it because wewant to turn it over to the collected expertise of our readers ‘ commentsare always enabled.”

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

Along with the innovative freedom and niche perspectives many alternativepublications adopt, there also often comes an uphill climb into campusrelevance.

As Davis said, his publication’s political leanings sometimes make itdifficult to garner student attention. What is worse, he said, one-sided papersare 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 LawCenter, the Student Newspaper‘s ideological bent ‘ and $0price tag ‘ does not exclude it from theft protections. Similarly, LoMonteexplained that alterative student publications out of public universities shareall the same legal freedoms as the campus paper. Aside from reasonable time,place and manner restrictions, both the recognized school paper and anyalternative publications are free to distribute on public campuses, which aregoverned by the First Amendment.

For the many new alternative publications taking advantage of onlineresources ‘ and the low overhead costs associated with a virtual officeand nonexistent printing budget ‘ hardcopy distribution problems are offtheir radar.

Instead, for today’s alternative publications, staying relevant isthe goal and the challenge.

“In this respect, the key is … ensuring students young and old feela sense of ownership in what is being created,” Reimold said. “Andthey should. The alternative student press is a spectacular complement to themainstream student press. It is innovative. It is influential. It is anessential part of journalism’s reinvention. And it is here to stay.”