Unhappy trails for a once-feisty Wyoming watchdog that's been neutered

Farewell columns from departing editors are a staple of the semester’s end. But the sign-off at Northwest College’s newspaper came with a mournful ring of finality.

In a series of columns in the Northwest Trail‘s Dec. 14 edition, former editors describe the life-changing opportunities they received working on a feisty fortnightly paper that, regrettably, is expected to fold with the cancellation of Northwest’s journalism course sequence.

Former managing editor Abbe Breeding wrote:

I am very disheartened to see the “Trail” go, and even more sad to think that the opportunity I experienced will never inspire another individuals in their lives. … The absence of the “Trail” will put a large hole in the curriculum of Northwest College, one that they will not easily replicate.

Northwest College’s president insists that the decision to pull the plug on journalism was a purely financial one motivated by declining enrollment. Without a budget to pay contributors, the newspaper was wholly dependent on students in laboratory classes generating content to fill the Trail’s pages. With neither pay nor academic credit as incentive, there will be no critical mass of volunteers able to sustain the paper into 2017.

Although two journalism advisers over the last six years have reported experiencing administrative retribution — and one of them, Ron Feemster, was fired under suspicious circumstancesTrail columnist Jeff Victor chose the high road in his valedictory, declining to assign a retaliatory motive:

Of course, there is no conspiracy to target the newspaper and the school’s budgetary concerns certainly call for hard decisions. But how heartbroken was the administration to nix the journalism program and consequently its sister the Trail? I do not think it is too much to suggest that some offices in [the administration building] are gleeful about the prospect of never having to avoid a student journalist’s calls and emails and relieved they no longer have to weasel around the truth during an interview.

Like all student publications, particularly those at turnover-plagued junior colleges, the Trail went through cycles in quality and participation. Still, the Trail produced some superb journalism, including breaking a national news story about how Northwest’s former president used college resources to advance a personal religious agenda. Some remarkably talented journalists learned their craft in its newsroom, including the winner of the SPLC’s 2010 College Press Freedom Award, Mark Keierleber (who later came to work for the SPLC) and a gutsy staff that responded to their adviser’s discharge by redoubling the aggressiveness of their reporting.

The Trail, its adviser Rob Breeding wrote, “died with dignity.” It continued fulfilling the public-service duties of a community news source even after President Stefani Hicswa and her board signed the program’s death warrant.  

While it’s possible that journalism fell victim to nothing more than numbers, it’s also true that Northwest made no special effort to salvage journalism in recognition of its unique role as a service provider to the entire campus community. When a college kills off a newspaper, it’s not just depriving the participants of a training opportunity; it’s disconnecting the information lifeline that enables citizens to participate effectively in campus decision-making.

If visits to the infirmary dipped, or if fewer people started taking meals in the dining halls, or if calls for assistance to the police department went down, it’s doubtful that a college’s response would be to declare the programs “too expensive” and discontinue health, food or police services. Because those services are recognized as foundational to the well-being of the community. News coverage belongs on that list. As stated in a recent report disseminated by the American Association of University Professors (“Threats to the Independence of Student Media“):

Candid journalism that discusses students’ dissatisfaction with the perceived shortcomings of their institutions can be uncomfortable for campus authorities. Nevertheless, this journalism fulfills a healthful civic function. 

On any campus, but most especially on a geographically remote campus where people may be isolated from their families, the campus newsroom offers a haven where the displaced can build a home. One German student, reflecting on the newspaper’s imminent closure, reminisced about the homemade pasta, pancakes and soup that his adviser served to sustain the crew during late nights on deadline.

The magnitude of the loss is already being felt the Northwest community. One supporter asked the question that could be posed at many campuses today: “What kind of college is it that silences its media under the guise of cutting costs?”

Unrestrained by the check of an independent journalistic voice, Northwest is about to show the people of Powell what kind of college it is. As Victor told a community that is soon to find itself without its most reliable watchdog: 

Free now from the oversight imposed on it by fledgling journalists, the administration can be as underhanded or deceitful as it pleases. It can also be as open and honest as it wants. But now there is nobody to check for you, so you will never know.