Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Upstart Student Media: Kicking Some Butt

College journalism has long been dominated by rather staid, official publications, subsidized by universities and often under the control of journalism faculty or administrators.

But lately, two “upstart” student media outlets have been making some waves.

We are talking about, of course The Warrior (right here at Marquette) and Front Page Milwaukee (over at UWM).

The two publications are quite different. Indeed, about all they have in common is that they show what some journalistic enterprise, outside the confines of traditional outlets, can accomplish.

Front Page Milwaukee

One could argue that Front Page Milwaukee is actually a sort of “official” publication, since Journalism Department Lecturer Jessica McBride is the Faculty Supervisor, and appears to have quite a lot of say about what’s in the publication.

But McBride, a former Journal-Sentinel reporter, is also a conservative, has a radio talk show on WTMJ radio, and is critical of the mainstream media. Not, in other words, your typical journalism professor.

Many of the stories are written in McBride’s journalism classes, and others are independent submissions to her.

Front Page Milwaukee goes after “scoops” and exposés, and the very young publication has gotten an impressive number. Being in McBride’s journalism classes must be an exciting experience. Do a really good piece of investigative reporting, and your story will appear on the web, be talked about by Charlie Sykes and McBride herself, and echo across the blogosphere.

The Warrior

The Warrior is in may ways a lot more conventional than Front Page Milwaukee. It has a print edition, and a web site that essentially mirrors the print edition. It specializes not in “scoops” but in in-depth reporting of campus events, front-page feature stories of interesting people at Marquette, and political commentary. Of course there is the usual student newspaper coverage of food, entertainment and the arts -- as the undergraduate culture defines these things.

But it’s not just a clone of the official Marquette Tribune. Perhaps the most significant difference between it and the Tribune is the paucity of journalism majors on the staff.

Listing all the majors represented, we see Journalism/Political Science, English, Marketing / Operations Supply Chain, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Science, Broadcast & Electronic Communication, Advertising, Biomedical Sciences, Public Relations, Spanish Language & Literature, Pre-Law/History, Computer science/ Theology, Law School, International affairs, English literature, Civil engineering, Accounting, Finance, Studio Art.

A listing of majors supplied by Editor Diana Sroka shows a majority of the staff not to be journalism majors.

Just what sort of journalism can these dilettantes produce?

When the Milwaukee Press Club handed out their 2006 journalism awards, The Warrior won four in the Collegiate category -- twice as many as any other student paper in Wisconsin.

This doesn’t automatically make The Warrior better than the Marquette Tribune (which won two). Newspapers, like major league batters, have great years and not so great years.

(The Tribune won several awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, but The Warrior wasn’t eligible for any awards from either of these groups, in the former case because they haven’t paid the expensive membership fee, and in the latter because they are not the official school paper. But where they competed head-to-head, The Warrior won more awards.)

Further, The Warrior has a history of being ahead of the Tribune in certain ways. The Warrior started running feature stories, accompanied by large color photos on the front page, before the Tribune moved in the same direction.

At a minimum, the upstart paper is a challenge to the guild mentality of mainstream journalism. It seems you don’t have to be a journalism major, don’t have to identify with the mainstream media and don’t have to have liberal political opinions to produce good journalism.

Getting Competitive

Saying that The Warrior is a bit “conventional” isn’t to say that it lacks competitive drive.

On Monday, January 29, The Warrior rushed the web version of the paper online to “scoop” the Tribune (which was coming out the following day) on two stories: the rejection of Students for Academic Freedom by Office of Student Development bureaucrats, and the decision to perform “The Vagina Monologues” on campus.

Normally, the web version of The Warrior would have appeared online on Tuesday evening, before the paper hit the streets on Wednesday.

The following week, we talked to Tribune Editor Ryan Nilsson, and he disclaimed any concern with competitive pressures. He insisted that the Tribune staff “don’t play games of scoopsmanship or one-upsmanship” and that getting beaten on a story is “not something I worry about” and that his staff was “not checking the Warrior website every two minutes.” He was more concerned, he said, that there “weren’t any inaccuracies” in material run in the Tribune.

But other sources suggest that at least some Tribune staffers were more interested in what The Warrior was doing than Nilsson suggests.

On the Monday night in question, the Tribune was apparently checking The Warrior website regularly, since a Tribune staffer e-mailed comments to Diana Sroka by 1:45 a.m.

On a different issue, when The Warrior was the first campus paper to report the retirement of Athletic Director Bill Cords, one Tribune staffer told Sroka “they were all wondering” how The Warrior got the story so fast.

However the Tribune scooped The Warrior on the “Vagina Monologues” story -- getting confirmation from the Administration before The Warrior got their calls returned.

The advertising department at the Tribune apparently feels the competition too. They appear to routinely e-mail a solicitation to advertisers whose ads appear in The Warrior. Our colleague McGee Young got such an e-mail after placing a free notice about the Truman Scholarships competition in The Warrior.


In their hearts of hearts, people who are in -- and identify with -- the mainstream media like to inhabit a cozy monopoly. After all, they think they know what is important and what is not. They think they know how events should be interpreted. They are fully convinced they know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.

Their Golden Age was during the 60s, 70s and early 80s, when a single newspaper dominated most markets. On TV, ABC, CBS and NBC presented a pretty uniform picture of what was happening in the world. There were no bloggers. Talk radio wasn’t much of a force.

But things have changed.

Mainstream media types have been distinctly grumpy about having their monopoly challenged. Their attitude toward conservative talk radio has ranged from contempt to downright detestation. They don’t much like independent bloggers (even while starting their own corporate blogs). They hate Fox News.

But they can’t have the old days back.

Given this fact, it’s part of a journalist’s college education to have to work in an environment where there are pesky competitors.

Or, with The Warrior or Front Page Milwaukee, to be the pesky competitors.

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