Student newspaper at the University of Central Florida closes after 48 years

FLORIDA — The Future is no more. The University of Central Florida is losing its 48-year-old student newspaper, the Central Florida Future, as of today.

The Future, the only student newspaper covering the single largest public university campus in the nation, was purchased by Gannett in 2007 and managed by FLORIDA TODAY. Gannett also owns the FSView at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

The media conglomerate, which started with USA TODAY and owns FLORIDA TODAY among other local newspapers across the country, announced on July 21 it was shuttering the Future. The newspaper employed around 10 regular student editors along with one professional editor and a small cadre of sales staff. The full-time staff are being reassigned to FLORIDA TODAY.

When SPLC reached out to the Future’s current class of student reporters, we were told they were prohibited from speaking with the media as long as they were still Gannett employees. However, some Future alums were able to share their experiences with the storied, award-winning publication.

Robyn Sydersky, a local news reporter with the Virginia Pilot, is a UCF alum who worked as a reporter at the Future from 2006 through 2008. She credits the paper with preparing her for the newsroom and launching her career.

“All the clips I got at the Future, lead to my internships,” she said. “And internships led to other internships and then that led to jobs.”

The first story she ever wrote was about Pluto being demoted to the status of dwarf planet, but she went on to report largely on student government. It’s a news beat which she’s found benefits greatly from experience and specialized knowledge, and which few reporters enjoy.

“I liked covering it because I got tons of ideas for stories and I liked seeing how student government used tuition money,” Sidersky said. “Which, it’s interesting because that made me really prepared to be a government reporter when I graduated.”

Abe Aboraya, who report on health news for Orlando NPR affiliate WMFE, attended UCF and served in several editorial positions at the Future before graduating in 2007. He wrote an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel arguing for a solution to continue the paper.

“As a community, we can lament the passing of yet another award-winning news organization. Or we can save the Future — and make it better in the process,” Aboraya wrote. “I’m calling on Gannett to donate the Central Florida Future’s name, and just as important, the stewardship of its archive to a nonprofit entity.”

When asked about the prospect of such a donation, Jeff Kiel, the president and publisher of FLORIDA TODAY, said a number of individuals and groups had approached him, before and after the announcement, expressing interest in taking on the storied paper.

“It was an emotion that was in the right place,” Kiel said of those who made inquiries, “But then when it came down to it and people considered their own situations, nothing came from any of those conversations.”

This decision, while coming as a surprise to Sidersky and doubtless many other alums, was portended two years ago when Kiel and FLORIDA TODAY approached the faculty at UCF’s Nicholson School of Communication to announce they were scaling back from two printed editions per week to one.

“When they told us that, little warning bells went off, and we knew that this didn’t look good down the road,” said Lance Speere, a journalism instructor at UCF with more than two decades’ experience advising student media.

“So, we really began talking, then about what would happen if the Future disappeared, if Gannett shut it down.”

Speere was tasked with formulating an alternative to the Future in the event that the paper folded. The solution he came up with borrowed partly from the journalism school model at Missouri School of Journalism, and Nicholson Student Media launched in February of this year.

NSM is an umbrella project encompassing UCF’s existing student broadcast news productions, Knightly News and Knightly Latino, alongside the student-produced Centric magazine and now the reporting and writing assigned in both the general and specialized journalism courses across the program.

“The students in all of the classes are writing for Nicholson Student Media,” Speere said. “So, all the faculty have changed the curriculum in those classes to have students out writing and reporting and creating content.”

Still, the school wanted to provide some editorial independence to this new curriculum project.

“We created a new class, called the Senior Capstone in Journalism, and this is a class for senior-level students who’ve gone through the pre-reqs,” Speere said. This class commenced just this summer after the faculty spent the spring ironing out the roles and responsibilities as well as the copy flow of this collaborative effort.

“They now serve as the editors of the site. And so, they communicate with, direct, even attend the budget meetings, and many of the classes to find out what’s going on.”

It’s a hopeful note to an otherwise heartbreaking loss. Richard Brunson, who advises the Centric student magazine, is a UCF alum, himself, and worked at the Future in the early ‘80s.

“It’s like a death in the family,” Brunson said. “Just about everybody I’m friends with in the news business here in Central Florida, at least in the print and digital side, are all people I worked with at the Future.”

While Brunson mourns the loss, writing an op-ed for the very last edition of the Future, he sees the longer view of a changing media landscape, and he’s determined to give NSM a fighting chance.

“This has kind of been forced on us, so to speak,” he said. “With the closure of the Future, it ramps up the importance for us to have these conversations.”

He, and others, also point out that Knight News, an online, independent student news organization, offers yet another avenue of experience for student journalists and has taken a proactive stance serving as a watchdog at UCF. They recently sent student reporters to both the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

“They’re very aggressive, and they’re not going away,” Brunson said.

To that end, the university has been engaged in several protracted legal battles with Knight News over the last several years. The independent news website has called the administration and student government to task over withheld hazing records, closed-door student government meetings, and delayed, then redacted, budget records.

In the meantime, Kiel says there may be some opportunities for former Future writers to contribute to FLORIDA TODAY. He said he spoke with a few parting students about the possibility of being stringers for the paper when local HS sports teams play in Orlando.

As for the failed experiment in corporatizing student media, he attributes the decision to discontinue the Future to the changing media landscape.

“Back in the day, we could really have projects or initiatives like that,” he said. Now, he says, Gannett has an imperative to evolve.

“We just need to be very much focused on prioritizing what we’ve actually got the bandwidth to manage. We just couldn’t pay the right amount of attention to it that it needed.”

Speere notes that, since the announcement, the Future paper bins across campus have been emptying out. Readers are grabbing the last few editions while they can.

“People don’t know they need something until they find out it’s going to be gone.”

Meanwhile, at NSM, Speere says the inclusive, collaborative nature of the project, blending broadcast, print, and digital, will hopefully expand and strengthen their students’ multimedia skills. Brunson agrees.

“We’re in an entrepreneurial age, especially in journalism, and this represents an opportunity for our students to become more entrepreneurial.”

The consensus appears to be that, in an era of change, the inherent determination and ingenuity required of reporters is more useful than ever.

“I think journalism students are pretty enterprising and creative, so I think they’ll find way to get clips and get experience, even if it’s not through the Future,” Sidersky said. “I think if you’re dedicated enough and you’re committed to being a journalist and being a student journalist, then you’ll find a way to make it work.”

Kiel, for his part, is optimistic for the students and the profession.

“I wouldn’t read into this as some bellwether of get out of the business and go do something else,” Kiel said. “Because there’s plenty of examples of moving forward successfully.”

As for the students, they’ve invested significant time and effort into their sendoff edition, writing a comprehensive history of the paper, of the university itself, and of UCF sports. They also put together a farewell video and ran a “Where are they now” column of Future alumni.

Sidersky’s parting thought on her own experience was whimsical.

“It was really fun to call people and say, ‘Hi, I’m calling from the Future.’”

This story includes reporting by SPLC Staff Writer Evelyn Andrews.

SPLC Publications Fellow Roxann Elliott can be reached by email or (202) 833-4614.

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