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The washington post: College newspaper reporters are the journalism heroes for the pandemic era

In New York, it was the Washington Square News that first reported a covid-19 outbreak in a college dorm. In Gainesville, Fla., the Alligator is the newspaper that has been painstakingly updating a map of local cases. And the Daily Gamecock alerted the public to the ways that University of South Carolina officials were withholding information about covid-19 clusters.

While the pandemic economy has devastated the local news business, there remains a cadre of small newspapers that are more energized than ever, producing essential work from the center of the nation’s newest coronavirus hot spots. Those would be college newspapers, whose student journalists have been kept busy breaking news of campus outbreaks, pushing for transparency from administrators and publishing scathing editorials about controversial reopening plans.

“I do feel and I know the staff feels a sense of responsibility,” said Jacob deCastro, editor in chief of the Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University. “We want to make sure people know what’s going on both on-campus and off-campus so they can make informed choices. We also want to hold the university accountable in keeping students safe and making sure they’re using our tuition dollars to keep us safe, to keep the community safe.”

Working for a college newspaper is a rite of passage for many budding journalists, who get hands-on experience in the kind of reporting and editing they learn about in classrooms. But the pandemic has also demonstrated how valuable this brand of journalism is for the broader public. 

Student-run newspapers have been reporting about the prevalence of covid-19 at fraternity and sorority houses, in campus residences halls and among student athletes. Professional media outlets have been crediting them for scoops, like the one at NYU. And student newspaper editorials taking school administrators to task for reopening plans — like Notre Dame’s the Observer’s front-page editorial titled “Don’t make us write obituaries" and the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel’s f-bomb headline — have made national news.

“If we weren’t covering these efforts and if we weren’t diving deeper into these issues — I shudder to think about it,” said Elizabeth Lawrence, editor in chief of the Michigan Daily, which has extensively covered covid-19 strikes by graduate students and resident advisers at the University of Michigan, where testing is limited. “The fact that we’re able to keep the conversation on this and really bring it to so many people, is part of the reason the university just feels it needs to respond to it.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s student newspaper sums up school’s coronavirus policy with an f-bomb The Michigan Daily had been the only daily newspaper in Ann Arbor for the past decade, but this semester they’ve cut back to printing a physical newspaper just once a week. It’s a move other college newspapers have made because of pandemic-related declines in ad revenue.

But that doesn’t mean they are cutting back on coverage, as they keep up with issues including anti-racism protests and campus preparations for Election Day. The Alligator at the University of Florida has even added new beats to cover the Gainesville area. While the city has a professional daily newspaper, its staff is relatively small, while the Alligator has nearly 60 people on staff, and “we can fill in a bunch of gaps,” said editor in chief Kyle Wood.

“We’re doing our best to hold the university accountable if and when that’s necessary" he added, as well as disseminating campus covid-19 information. "But one of our focuses this semester is not to sacrifice any coverage of the university and also expand out into the community. We’re trying to become the community newspaper.”

The contracting media industry has left few local outlets with dedicated higher-education reporters, leaving student journalists as “really the best watchdogs” in this moment, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida."They’re the ones who are going to get the invites to parties, and they’re the ones whose friends are going to be reporting symptoms, and they’re following all the right people on social media, so they know first when there’s an outbreak or when there are unsafe conditions."

The coronavirus crisis is devastating the news industry. Many newspapers won’t survive it. Readers are responding. College newspaper websites are breaking online readership records with stories for students, faculty — and, increasingly, parents who are "sending their students off and they’re really not getting that many answers from the university,” said the Daily Gamecock editor in chief Erin Slowey.

Her reporters’ biggest challenge is “not being able to get people on the record” for stories about the pandemic. “People are very fearful over their jobs, whether they work in housing or had an experience in the quarantine dorm.”

Indeed, one of the main setbacks facing student journalists is accessing public information about covid-19. Universities have often cited the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law protecting student education records, “as an excuse to not release data that should be released,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Association. Her organization is also hearing from student journalists who are “seeing a slowing down, if not complete cessation, to open records requests.” Universities can’t use privacy laws to withhold data on coronavirus outbreaks, experts say

College newspapers have long been filled with journalists who sometimes think of the school newspaper as their actual major. The pandemic has pushed these students to work even harder, as they juggle reporting duties with the same concerns facing the rest of the student body, from navigating the complex maze of in-person and virtual classwork to financial troubles. And then there’s mental and emotional toll of covering a pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 people in the United States. “I’ve been doing a lot of our updates on testing data, and seeing those numbers at times can be overwhelming,” said Matt Cohen, enterprise reporter for the Indiana Daily Student.

Still, Cohen and his peers, like their professional journalism colleagues, talk about their sense of duty and drive in covering the biggest news story of their lifetimes. “IU is one of the larger campuses in the United States, and having this many students back in person for classes is a big deal,” Cohen said. “Telling the stories of what’s going on so people can have a sense of this is something that impacts everyone’s lives.”

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