Nontraditional focus: Student newspapers grapple with a shifting demographic

When Tammy Boyd was a professional writing graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, she wrote that she didn’t see her college experience reflected in the student newspaper.

In a September column in The Oklahoma Daily, Boyd said the top stories — marijuana legalization, athletic suspensions and flat-rate tuition — didn’t apply to her as an over-40 graduate student. Boyd, who was a life and arts reporter for The Daily until September, left a tenured faculty position to return to Norman, Okla., and take care of her aging grandparents.

“My life as a student revolves around completing my graduate project (my program’s version of a thesis), building my professional portfolio and juggling my substantial out-of-school responsibilities,” she wrote. “College life for me is about becoming an expert in my field, not embracing Sooner traditions.

“It just would be nice, every once in a while, to find something on campus that helps us non-traditional, graduate, international, insert-descriptor-of-choice-here students remember that we are a part of OU as well as a part of our academic disciplines.”

With added responsibilities and differing life experiences, nontraditional students — a growing population — often feel they are not well represented in their student newspaper. When nontraditional students join the newspaper staff, however, they are often able to broaden the organization’s news coverage.

Different perspectives

When Scott McKinnon lost his job with a truck rental company in 2009 because of the recession, he went back to college. Now the 33-year-old is the editor-in-chief of The Oracle, the student newspaper at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark.

LIke McKinnon, about half of The Oracle’s staff is considered nontraditional — at an institution where 15 percent of the student population is 25 or older.

McKinnon and millions of nontraditional students — people who are older than 24, have children or attend college after time in the workforce — are an intrical part of campus communities across the country, and their presence on campus will likely increase in the next few years.

The National Center for Education Statistics’ 2012 Digest of Education Statistics, the most recent report, reported more than 18 million people enrolled in undergraduate programs in 2011. About 42 percent of college students were 25 or older, compared to 57 percent who were 18 to 24 years old — the “traditional” college age.

And between 2010 and 2021, NCES projects 20 percent more students 25 and older will enroll in college — double the projected increase for traditional-aged students.

If people read stories about students with similar experiences and perspectives, they’ll engage more with the student newspaper, McKinnon said. That’s why The Oracle staff tracks the majors and demographics of students they profile to ensure to get a cross-section of the university each semester. McKinnon’s goal is to feature more nontraditional students’ journeys to Henderson State.

The news editor during the fall semester, Moe Skinner, was also a nontraditional student. What she brought to the organization, said former Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Malcolm, was a sense of fearlessness — she wasn’t afraid to ask the the questions younger reporters often shied away from, especially while interviewing older sources.

“There’s that level playing field to where she can ask them all the hard questions and they’ll feel more comfortable talking to her,” Malcolm said. “I think it was a big plus having a nontraditional student as our news editor willing to cover the hard things.”

Mary Morris-Donaldson, a staff writer at The Washtenaw Voice at Washtenaw Community college in Michigan, applies to her reporting experiences from her full-time job at Michigan State University’s health outreach program in Washtenaw County.

She writes a regular column on health and nutrition called “Healthy Voice,” writing about edible holiday gifts and personal trainers. Morris-Donaldson, who has a bachelor’s degree in family and community services from Michigan State, said nontraditional students pick up on stories that a staff of less diverse students might not consider newsworthy because it doesn’t apply to them.

She reported on the increasing number of car accident deaths in Michigan in the November issue, and another student wrote a piece on car seats for kids to accompany it. She said it made sense to include because WCC has a daycare center and a large number of students who are parents.

Changing careers

When Beau Valdez graduated high school, he was “young and dumb” and didn’t want to go to college. That changed when he got married and had children.

Now Valdez works on North Idaho College’s student newspaper, The Sentinel, in Coeur d’Alene. In his five semesters at the paper, the 33-year-old father of two has spent two semesters as a staff photographer before he became the photo editor.

Valdez started the journalism program because he “didn’t like being stuck in one spot all the time, doing the same thing” and wanted to earn more money for his family. He hoped to become a writer until a required photography course changed his plans.

“I never even thought I’d be the photo guy for the paper,” he said.

When other photographers are unable to take photos of an event, he covers it in addition to his own assignments. And while a lot of campus events are in the evenings or on weekends, which cuts into time with his family, each assignment provides new opportunities, whether he’s shooting sports, a club’s performance or a concert off campus.

The experience, he said, is the opposite of working in a factory or warehouse.

Keith Gave, Washtenaw Voice adviser from 2008 to December 2014, worked in the Associated Press’ Chicago bureau and then as a sports reporter for the Detroit Free Press and The Dallas Morning News until he started teaching journalism in 2001. He said he connected with nontraditional students over the “joy of chasing news, thrill of working against a tight deadline.”

Gave said he noticed some traditional college-age students have problems with time management and “they treat their stories that they have to write like a term paper.”

Nontraditional students often struggle to finish their to-do lists, he said, but not because they waste time or underestimate the time required. Instead, they struggle to “fit in everything they have to do.”