A week ago a Fordham College student took his own life. At least one of the New York tabloids published the story, and it made the Internet, but the Times passed it up. The Fordham Ram gave it two stories on page one. He was a bright, promising, honors program, prep school freshman. Though brilliant he was described as “utterly humble to the core and completely unimpressed by himself and his accomplishments.” Prof. Harry Nasuti, director of the honors program, called him a “really nice guy” whose “loss leaves a hole in the program.”
The story did not tell the readers how he died. I imagine the editors decided that everyone already knew how he died anyway, and it would honor him more to talk about his life. But right under the lead story they ran a context piece about the recent student suicides all over the country.
I tell this story as a snapshot on the role and responsibilities of the student newspaper wherever it may be. The staff members have to be mature young men and women with not just a nose for news but a sense of responsibility toward the intellectual, social, and moral life of the campus. A teacher is fired, a coach quits after one winning season to go to Notre Dame, a fire burns down a dorm, a young woman brings in thugs from her neighborhood to slash the face of a guy who “dissed” her, a fraternity’s by-laws say “whites only.” Some are stories I’ve witnessed where the student journalists were tested.
There are several reasons an ambitious student willing to test him/herself and who loves to write should jump to join the student newspaper staff. And, frankly, if you don’t start publishing your work when you are in college, chances are you will not start later. The older you get the less willing you become to take chances, to risk rejection, to listen and learn from experience. You might get an MBA or go to law school or even teach high school or college, but you will have passed up the opportunity to cut and sharpen your prose when you were young enough to change.
Let’s take for granted that the student paper has the same role as the city or national paper: to educate the readers, give them the information they need to act as responsible citizens in their community, whether voting for president of the United States or deciding how the 21-year-old drinking age should be enforced. Sometimes the paper has to print stories that embarrass both students and the administration— those cases where an administrator orders that all the papers be scooped up before anyone can read them. But here are two suggestions that might make the paper more responsible and more fun.
1. Trust the faculty adviser. Nearly every student paper has a faculty advisor, but how much he or she actually advises varies with the school. The basic purpose is to prevent libel. Then to teach informally, critique the issue after it’s out. But very few advisers read the stories before they are printed. The theory is that adviser pre-reading interferes with student freedom and also makes the school more legally responsible in a libel suit. I pre-read all the stories in the Loyola New Orleans Maroon and St. Peter’s College Pauw Wow in the 20 years I taught at those two schools, made suggestions, caught some grammar problems, but never cramped their style. One time when the Maroon caused a very big controversy I was glad to help absorb the abuse heaped on the whole paper. In the long run the staff bonded beautifully and taught Loyola something about the First Amendment.
2. Build up the editorial page. My father was editorial writer for the Trenton Times and Brooklyn Eagle. I was editorial editor of the Ram, then writer for America and later Commonweal magazine. So excuse my zeal. Signed columns are not editorials, they are personal opinions. Some student papers don’t know that. Look at a major paper’s editorial page. The editorials are anonymous essays running down the left side of the editorial page. This page is the paper’s and the community’s conscience. Editorials speak for the whole staff, to the college, for the good of the people.. They throw the newspaper’s prestige behind an idea: on how to vote, how to reform the curriculum, or whether the U.S. should pull out of Afghanistan next year or next week. This is when students teach.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.