When the Student Newspaper Is the Only Daily Paper in Town

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Dan Levin’s recent article in the New York Times reports the impact of 2,000 newspaper closures on more than 1,300 small towns and cities and how some of the coverage is picked up by the local college paper. Most of the article revolves around Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the Michigan Daily provided local coverage after the Ann Arbor News shuttered its daily print operation more than a decade ago. More than 300 students write for the Daily, a number made possible by the size of the school and that all of them are unpaid. Although the University of Michigan does not have a journalism school to provide them education and training, the students understand the need to cover their local community. The Daily prints about 7,500 copies each day with much broader readership of its electronic version, which garners nearly 500,000 monthly page views.

One challenge of having students cover local news is that their tenure as reporters is short, two or three years at most. By the time many establish connections with local politicians or understand the workings of the local city council, they’re moving on to graduate school or employment. Sometimes their lack of institutional knowledge subjects their coverage of a municipal issue to the political spin of the elected official they interview. Residents of Ann Arbor interviewed for the story are grateful for the local coverage even though several yearned for the past when the News published daily.

I am intrigued by Levin’s article and curious how many similar situations exist. While some Duke Chronicle reporters moved up to successful careers in journalism, most of us chose other professions. Writing for the college paper was a valuable part of my college experience, allowing me to understand the process of assignment and event coverage and how the editors influenced article prominence and how much of the article was published.

The ability of the press to report and frame political issues has led some to refer to them as the Fourth Estate. If the Fourth Estate continues to shrink in all but the highest populated geographic areas because of a depressed economy, perhaps more public/private partnerships can develop with local college and university papers and area residents. In Ann Arbor, it appears that it already has.

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