The end of a rugged Trail — a community-college adviser reflects on bringing journalism to the First Amendment wilderness

It is difficult, under optimal conditions, for a student newspaper to publicize unflattering facts about the college that hosts and finances it. Ron Feemster did not work under optimal conditions.

In a detailed and riveting account published today on the website Inside Higher Ed, Feemster describes the daily struggles against adversity as journalism adviser to a feisty student publication, The Northwest Trail, that dared to take on entrenched interests at Wyoming’s Northwest College:

It is unlikely that there is an easy, comfortable place on campus for an empowered student press. Good student journalists, like the ones I advised, will uncover facts that make a college administration squirm. But if a strong press is sometimes a nuisance for administrators, a timid, self-censoring student paper is an educational fraud.

I won’t ruin the story — it’s a must-read — by detailing all of the ways in which Feemster describes the Northwest administration undermining the newspaper’s ability to get at the truth. All of the obstacles familiar to anyone who has ever worked at a campus news organization are present — administrators whose answer to every uncomfortable question is a bogus claim of “student confidentiality,” coaches and faculty members who confuse truthful reporting of the news with “disloyalty.” But they are exacerbated by the built-in adversity of working in a small, two-year college where newsroom staffs are young and turnover-prone, in a community unaccustomed to aggressive, take-no-prisoners journalism.

Feemster’s story ends, as so many strong-willed advisers’ do, with his firing from Northwest College. So his story, while in large part inspiring, is also cautionary. It reminds us that, unlike in the movies, the bad guys often win — they are the ones with the money and the authority, after all. Still, Feemster has ignited something powerful that is not so easily extinguished as his employment contract. Those at Northwest who oppose honest, truth-telling journalism may find that ideas are much harder to dispose of than people.