Maintaining Journalism Tradition, Education at HBCUs

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by Pearl Stewart

When Gwendolyn Denwiddie graduated from Fisk University in May, her accomplishments exceeded the bachelor’s degree she raised above her head in celebration. Denwiddie had succeeded at something that other Fisk students had been attempting for more than a decade.

She revived The Fisk Forum, a student newspaper that had not been published since 1998.

The English major from Jackson, Tenn., had been determined since her freshman year to restart the paper, and, finally, in her senior year, after watching several other attempts fizzle, she made it happen.

“It was a united effort with the student government association,” Denwiddie says. “I took the position of SGA publications director, and, fortunately, the SGA president was supportive — part of her platform when she ran for office was to bring back the student newspaper.”

So Denwiddie put together a staff and sought the help of a professional, Fisk alumna Nancy DeVille, a reporter with the local paper, The Tennessean. The result was a monthly news magazine, a departure from the erstwhile weekly newspaper, but a publication, nevertheless. “We were only able to get it out monthly, so we couldn’t include real news stories, and we weren’t able to get the website going. That’s the next step for the new editors.”

Denwiddie’s efforts were laudable, given the backdrop of drama taking place at Fisk. President Hazel O’Leary has spent the past five years in a court battle over the historically Black university’s efforts to sell a valuable art collection that was donated to the institution in 1949. Meanwhile, a report by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, an accreditation body, has cited the school for its financial difficulties.

At many HBCUs, students like Denwiddie have invested time and energy into keeping their online and print publications afloat or reviving them from dormancy. In her case, the efforts paid off, but at other schools the results are often less fruitful.

The Meter at Tennessee State was an award-winning weekly just three years ago with a website that was updated frequently for breaking news. This year the print editions were monthly, and the website was down.

“We’re in a transition period right now,” says Meter adviser and Tennessee State assistant professor James Stephens. “It has a lot to do with bodies, just finding students who are interested in working on paper.”

Jaida McKie, a former editor of The Meter, agrees. “We tried to publish weekly, but we weren’t able to because we had such a small staff,” she says.

Stephens says the decline in participation in student media has reflected the decline in print majors at Tennessee State, yet he expects the situation to improve this fall. “We’re moving into our convergence lab this year, and we’re bringing the TV station, radio station and newspaper under the umbrella of student media.”

He is hoping this will solve The Meter’s staffing problems because all mass communication students will be required to rotate through each media operation.

At Jackson State University in Mississippi, The Blue & White Flash former editor-in-chief Vickey Williams experienced similar challenges. She persevered to keep the weekly print edition alive, “even though we didn’t have enough staff to cover events and we had a lack of resources.”

But the online edition didn’t survive. “Our adviser had to post stories online because none of the students wanted to learn how to do it or they didn’t have time,” says Williams, adding that the website has been inactive for 18 months.

Williams was so committed to the paper that after she graduated in December, she returned occasionally as a volunteer to help the staff. As a student, Williams wrote numerous stories, including controversial articles about campus security, but she is concerned about the future of The Flash. “If there isn’t more student interest, I don’t think it will survive,” she says. Williams is enrolled in a master’s program in communication at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

At Langston University in Oklahoma, lack of interest also was a factor in The Gazette’s transition from a weekly to a once-a-semester publication and the demise of the online edition last year.

Former Gazette adviser and journalism professor Chaz Kyser says she required all students in her news writing class to work on the paper, even if they were broadcast majors. “Most of the students said they didn’t want to write — the broadcast students didn’t even want to write scripts — but we always managed to find enough students for the paper.”

Former staff editor Lucia Tayo says Kyser’s departure from the university a year ago adversely affected student media. “She made sure we learned all forms of journalism, and she stressed the importance of writing, even if students didn’t want to write.”

But Tayo says when Kyser left the university did not find another adviser, and when students attempted to publish the paper themselves they were told they had to have an adviser. “No one wanted to be the adviser, so it never got started.” She says the two editions of the paper that were published were not student productions.

Dr. Lisa L. Rollins, chair of the Department of Communication, says students wrote the stories in those editions, but the editing, proofing and layout were done by faculty. “It is our hope that the search committee will find a competent adviser for LU and its students by the close of summer, and then we will be back online and in hard-copy format on a regular basis in the coming academic year,” Rollins says.

Another adviser who has made a difference is Dr. Lona Cobb, a professor of journalism at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina. She also has seen an anti-writing attitude among students. “Students are interested in journalism — but not in writing,” Cobb says. “They think they can get jobs on TV and radio without working on their writing skills,” she says in an e-mail message sent from Italy. She has taken five staff members to an international journalism summer program. Like Kyser, she insists that students hone their writing skills.

One of the reasons for the lack of interest in school papers is the perception by some students that the papers are controlled by the administration, the editors say.

At Hampton University, where an infamous showdown between The Script staff and the administration took place in fall 2003, the weekly paper is now produced by an energetic staff without interference — with one exception. They are not allowed to have an online edition. That bothers Talia Buford, the upstart editor who published a story about health code violations in the cafeteria, which led to friction with school administrators.

Since graduating from Hampton in 2004, Buford has worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and earned a master’s degree from Georgetown. In July she joined Politico’s staff as a reporter covering energy policy for Politico’s subscription-based service PoliticoPro.

Buford recalls that The Script was online in 2004 but the administration put a halt to it.

She says the staff should continue to push. “Students need to learn online skills. Web publishing and producing — that’s what people are getting hired for. It’s important for students to be familiar with that technology.” She also points out that student journalists without online outlets are not learning to cover breaking news.

In the years after Buford’s tenure as editor of The Script, There have been a lot of improvements,” Hampton journalism professor Wayne Dawkins says. “The editors don’t have problems recruiting staff, and there is a lot of energy.”

Dawkins says prospective employers “rave” about his students’ writing but are skeptical about their technological skills because their stories are not available online. “I’m finding other ways to expose students to digital media,” he says, adding that he posts his students’ work on the blog site WordPress.

Dr. Valerie White, a journalism professor at Florida A&M University and chairwoman of the Black College Communication Association, says, “HBCUs need to provide the educational and training tools that students need to be successful in the ever changing journalism industry. And university administrators need to vow not to interfere with journalists as they learn and practice their craft.”

Lewis Smith, journalism instructor at Prairie View A&M University and adviser to The Panther, says, “I’m seeing a decline in the number of students interested in print journalism because of the current state of the industry … they read about the cutbacks.”

So far, however, he says The Panther has continued to attract enough staff to keep its print and online operations going.

Perhaps the best example for student journalists at institutions with struggling or nonexistent media is Denwiddie’s never-give-up approach. “It was a battle sometimes, but the main thing is, we did it.”

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