Wyoming Students Win College Media Award


Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, Executive Director

703.807.1904 / director@splc.org

The staff of the Northwest Trail, the student newspaper at Northwest College, a two-year school in Powell, Wyo., is the 2010 winner of the College Press Freedom Award for continuing to pursue serious journalism on controversial subjects, even after the newspaper’s adviser was fired for encouraging students to do exactly that.

The College Press Freedom Award is sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press annually to recognize an individual or group that has demonstrated courage in advancing free-press rights for college journalists. The award will be presented Oct. 30 at the National College Journalism Convention in Louisville, organized by the ACP and by College Media Advisers.

Attorney Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said the award salutes the determination of the staff to continue to pursue topical and hard-hitting news stories even after adviser Ron Feemster was removed last school year. “We had many worthy nominees for this award, but what elevated the Northwest Trail‘s work was the fact that, after Prof. Feemster was fired, the staff did not retreat from pursuing serious and controversial topics,” LoMonte said. “It was that fortitude that we all admired and wanted to recognize, in hopes that it will inspire other college journalists who are also facing adversity.”

Although Northwest College has fewer than 2,000 students, its student journalists produce a 16-page weekly newspaper that has been recognized for its excellence; the current co-editor, Mark Keierleber, is a finalist for Reporter of the Year at the National College Media Convention.

The staff of the Northwest Trail has taken on controversial topics including questionable sports recruiting practices, and equity in faculty and administrator pay. Even after Feemster was notified that his contract as adviser would not be renewed, the students broke what became a national news story questioning their college president’s use of public money to send areligious-themed recruiting letter targeting fellow members of his Mormon faith.

Feemster, who served two years at Northwest College before being let go, and is now a Visiting Professor at the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media in Bangalore, India, said he admires the determination of the student journalists. Feemster nominated the students in a letter that pointed out the many obstacles that his students were forced to overcome, including unjustified denials of public-records requests and open hostility from faculty.

“The Northwest Trail reporters and editors were among the most courageous journalists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with,” he said. “Last spring Northwest College was a hard place for anyone — especially young student reporters — to report a story. Back-room deals too often took the place of shared governance, administrators stalled and stonewalled reporters, and the Trail staffers learned that they could take no piece of information at face value.”

He continued: “It would have been easy for the Trail reporters to back down and write soft news when they learned that I was not coming back. Instead, they stepped up and broke national news about questionable recruiting practices at the school. It was an inspiring and memorable experience. I’ll always treasure my work with those exceptional young people as a personal and professional highlight of my life.”

LoMonte said the retaliation endured by students at the Northwest Trail and their adviser exemplifies the plight of journalism at too many schools that fail to appreciate the value of a free and independent student editorial voice.

“The censorship problems that we encounter are especially acute at small, image-conscious schools where administrators portray honest coverage of the school’s shortcomings as an act of disloyalty,” LoMonte said. “The students at the Northwest Trail understood better. They understood that, just as it is an act of patriotism to question one’s government officials, it is an act of loyalty to question whether administrators are running the school properly. These students were working in one of the least supportive environments possible for tough, independent journalism, yet they refused to quit when quitting would have been the easy thing.”

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.