Campus Progress national conference discusses the changing world of journalism

This week I attended the Campus Progress National Conference, where panelists and guest speakers weighed in on some issues surrounding media and student press.

Campus Progress, part of the Center for American Progress, works to help young people, including journalists, speak out on the issues they care about. The group helps fund independent student publications at over 50 campuses and holds its annual conference each summer in Washington, D.C., to connect students and discuss current issues facing the generation, including health care, education, and energy. They also sponsor a second day for students to discuss issues surrounding the journalism industry and student media.

On Wednesday, I took part in small group discussions about college affordability. Several attendees suggested ways that college media can report on the issue, including using Freedom of Information Act requests to monitor how your university is spending federal money intended for loans and other student aid.

One of the panelists, Benjamin Miller from The New America Foundation, discussed how Jessica Sondgeroth, a student journalist from the Daily Texan at the University of Texas, used FOIA requests to track down the university’s decision process for choosing which preferred lenders to partner with students seeking college loans. Sondgeroth’s reporting uncovered a corrupt system where university officials would side with a lender based on the best “lender treats” — perks like free meals or golf trips — not the lowest interest rate.

Miller said student media have a duty to report on unfair lending practices by universities because mainstream media often does not.

That left several conference attendees talking about how to investigate whether their schools were leading them to loan companies with higher interest rates. The Student Press Law Center’s FOIA request generator is aimed to help you file an open records request in your state. Campus Progress has also developed a guide for student media investigating conflicts of interest within the financial aid office.

The other session on Wednesday was called “Media Unleashed,” and featured a panel of speakers from “independent” media outlets. One panelist — Al Giordano — was one of the first online reporters to be protected by the same First Amendment rights as traditional journalists when a New York judge dismissed a libel suit against him in 2001.

Giordano talked mainly about the notion that the Internet is not the factor hurting the media industry, but instead is a “crisis of credibility.” Online journalists must figure out what their responsibilities to the readers are, because they are not constricted by a standard set of ethical guidelines.

As the panel came from independent outlets, they also discussed the need for independent media today. (Giordano explained independent media is “media from below,” not from the mainstream outlets.) Latoya Peterson, the editor of, noted the independent media brings in voices often unheard.

Daily Show Correspondent John Oliver capped off the first day with a hilarious discussion where he insisted the Daily Show is not journalism. Oliver noted their show is not a substitute for news — viewers have to already be keen on current affairs or they will not find the program funny.

Oliver joked that by the time the crowd of high school and college students became journalists, they would still be talking about Michael Jackson.

The second day of the conference was just for those interested in discussing journalism.

The morning started with a panel discussion on the state of the journalism industry, where John Nichols (politics writer for The Nation) said there should not be more debate over whether journalists embrace new media and whether they should charge people for content. The answer, he said, is you have to find new platforms and learn how to create revenue from readers in order to succeed.

Nichols said before the abolitionist presses, the government funded much of America’s media. He added that in a two-year period, roughly 25 percent of the nation’s journalists would be laid off.

To save the industry, Nichols said the government needs to intervene. He said journalists should make a distinction between a government-controlled press and a government-funded press. Nichols advocated for a transparently funded press — not direct subsidies to papers.

In response to whether it is unethical to allow the government to assist the media financially, Nichols noted some media outlets receive huge funding from companies involved in the manufacture of equipment used in combat in Iraq. The financial future of those publications largely rests on America’s success in Iraq, he added, yet they report on the war daily.

Nichols also said he feels the government should fund every high school newspaper enough that it can hire a laid-off or retired journalist as the adviser.

The other members of the panel — including national correspondent Ana Marie Cox, Mark Luckie of the 10,000 Words blog, and Huffington Post Investigate Fund’s Executive Director Mick Penniman — largely discussed how students can best prepare for the journalism industry.

Ana Marie Cox noted the traditional job descriptions are out the window — to get a job today, students must have a wide range of multimedia skills. They noted many journalism schools are still teaching the “journalism of 50 years ago,” and encouraged the crowd to practice journalism daily through a blog or other form.

The biggest challenge for today’s youth is not how to cut costs in journalism, but how to be creative and reach the audience. Nichols noted that “old white men” are already looking for ways to save money; it is young people’s job to be creative.