I was a college newspaper advisor

I am not one who likes to carry his anger.

When I’m mad about something, I write about it. Cliche as that sounds, it almost always works. For some reason, putting anger to pen is my release. Does it backfire? Sometimes. Mostly, though, it relieves me; sets my angst free.

I am angry.

I have been angry for, oh, seven months now. The anger has hung with me; followed me; tied itself around my neck. I’ve tried ridding myself of it—through conversation, through exercise, through positive mental imagery. Nothing has worked. So I’m here, at my laptop, on this blog, writing.

I am an adjunct journalism professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. I’m in my third year, and make—I believe—$2,500 per semester. I don’t do this for (obviously) money or (obviously) glory. I do it because I’m genuinely passionate about journalism, and when I think back to the teachers I had at the University of Delaware (specifically, Bill Fleischman, Chuck Stone and Ted Spiker), I recall inspiring men who made me want to leap from my seat and report and write and express and expose and emote. Like those three fantastic professors, I see journalism as, potentially, something beautiful and great. Despite the doom and gloom of 2013, I encourage my students to enter the field. It has, after all, given me a blissful life.

Beginning in the fall of 2011, I took over as advisor to The Touchstone, the school’s student newspaper. As far as I could tell, Manhattanville had never had a regularly published paper. In my first year at the school, it came out, oh, three times. Maybe four. Having attended Delaware, where our paper came out twice per week, I knew (and loved) what a quality student newspaper brings to a campus. First, of course, information. Second, a priceless and invaluable outlet for aspiring journalists. Literally, college writers need college clips to land jobs. Third—and perhaps most important—a sense of community. Back at Delaware, the Review was like its own little ink-stained fraternity. We’d stay up in the office until 3 … 4 in the morning, eating cold pizza, blasting Ween and Nirvana, debating over headlines and jump spaces and ad placement. It became my home away from home; the ugly, soda-stained orange couch became my second bed.

I had been blessed with some wonderful students at Manhattanville, and it pained me—truly pained me—that they were not offered this. So I asked to take over as advisor (unpaid position). And the college agreed. They said they would provide office space and allow complete editorial independence. I told them the paper would, initially, rely on financial assistance from the school (for printing costs), with the long-term goal of generating enough advertising revenue to be self-sufficient. I also told them I would, for the first year or so, work close up with the students, in order to teach them not merely how to be student journalists—but how to be journalists. Everyone was on board.

The first new Touchstone came out in September 2011. It was (I believe) 12 pages. The editor in chief was a student named Marina, a wonderful Brazilian woman who came from a journalism family. The executive editor, Julie, was an aspiring teacher with a magnificent eye for newspaper design and layout. There was a staff of, oh, 15 or so students—strong for a new endeavor. That initial edition was filled with errors and blunders. Bad headlines, run-on sentences, misidentified photographs—and I was as proud as a new parent. The students worked hard. Really hard. On deadline night, they were up until 3 am, eating cold pizza, blasting Tupac. I sat alongside Marina and Julie, exhausted, but also thrilled that, potentially, they were getting a taste of the bliss. A couple of days later I drove out to the Long Island printing press and picked up the paper. I helped the students hand out copies; thrilled by the pride in their faces. This meant something to them and, of course, to me.

Over the ensuing year, the paper came out (almost without fail) every two weeks. There were highs and lows, ups and downs. One columnist wrote a line about, “eating like we’re in Ethiopia” (or something like that), and several Ethiopian students complained. There was an ugly college incident involving racial slurs and a school bus, and the reporters covered it well. Some of the columns were blistering—the food here sucks, this college doesn’t care about us—and I encouraged it. A college newspaper is supposed to be a vent; a place to tee off; to express oneself. It’s a learning tool; a very important one.

Come year’s end, three editors landed top-shelf internships: One at MSNBC and the Rachel Maddow Show, one at Sports Illustrated, one at a Wall Street investment newspaper. I was giddy. Beyond giddy. Another staffer, our sports editor, was hired by NBC Sports. Again—giddy.

I didn’t love 4 am deadline nights; I didn’t love driving 1 1/2 hours to get the newspaper; I didn’t love the exhaustion. But, really, things could not have gone better. It was a wonderful start.

Summer came

Summer went.

Two days into the Fall 2012 semester, I called Marina (the editor) to ask about the newspaper’s first meeting.

“Are you still the advisor?” she said.

“Of course,” I said.

“You may want to check,” she said. “That’s not what I heard.”

I told her she was, surely, wrong. I mean, who dumps a free newspaper advisor? Especially one who helped revive a dead newspaper? Especially one who works in the field and has lots of contacts and loves, loves, loves, loves, loves, loves journalism? I mean, who would do that?

I e-mailed the dean of students.

The dean of students e-mailed me back. He said I should come in for a talk.

Fuck.

I came in for a talk. He stammered and stuttered; lots of “uhhh” and “ehhh.” He said it wasn’t his decision and wasn’t his call, but that the college placed another professor in charge of the newspaper; a professor who has spent the majority of his career doing public relations and consulting. Not that anything’s wrong with public relations and consulting. It’s just not journalism.

The dean told me it wasn’t his call.

“Whose call was it?” I asked.

He didn’t know. Or wouldn’t say.

“So I’ve been fired from an unpaid position?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

The editor, Marina, went to The Touchstone office. All the stuff belonging to the previous year’s staff was either removed or thrown out. Nobody told her about the change; nobody told any of the students about the change. A new editor was enlisted—without the new advisor ever telling the old editor she was, like me, dumped.

I was encouraged—by many—to quit the school. “To hell with them,” my mom said. “You don’t need it …”

“No,” the wife said. “You owe it to the students. And you love teaching.”

When I told the heads of my department about the happenings, they had no idea. We wound up having a meeting with the provost. She apologized, also said it wasn’t her call, but that the college was concerned about “the message.” What if prospective students, taking a campus tour, pick up the Touchstone and see a column about crappy food or bad policies? What then? I told her that journalism can’t be taught as public relations; that students must be able to voice their displeasure—and pleasure—in a free forum. A college newspaper is not a promotional pamphlet. A college newspaper is a newspaper.

To my great shock, I sat in front of her and my voice began to crack. Again, I told her, I made no money to do this; I certainly didn’t need to do this for my career. It was, 100 percent, about love, passion, developing journalists, seeing them published and, ultimately, hired. She nodded and smiled and empathized.

The meeting ended.

I was later told, by multiple college officials, that this came down to one thing, and one thing only: Image control.

I felt like I got over it. I really did. My class started its own online newspaper, The Pub Wrap, and that was fulfilling. I was told only my students could contribute; that it couldn’t compete with Touchstone. “Compete?” I said. “This isn’t a contest …”

I moved on; emotionally distanced myself from the college (I’m completing my final semester as we speak); tried to love my students without any of the lingering anger. I brought in some excellent guest speakers (Rick Jervis, a Pulitzer Prize winner; Amanda Sidman from the Today Show; Brian Mansfield of USA Today, Steve Cannella and Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated); had the students do a cool (well, I think it’s cool) final project; pushed the kids toward internships. My class evaluations were excellent. I am, I think, a good teacher.

I was fine.

Then the Touchstone came out. And it was brutal. A pamphlet. A PR pamphlet. Awful layout, no rhyme or reason; mugshots alongside every story. It looks like a bad high school newspaper, or a mediocre junior high school newspaper. (For the record, I don’t blame the students at all. At all. They’re new to this). I actually asked the provost for her take. “I thought it was quite good,” she said.

I was speechless.

And that’s when it hit me. The college doesn’t aspire to a quality student newspaper. It’s about safety. Easiness. Why have an established journalist advise students on journalism when you have a PR person advise students on journalism? Why aim for excellence when mediocrity is so comfortable? Hell, I could have helped my students put out a New York Times-quality product, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was never about the journalism, per se, or the newspaper.

It was about mediocrity.

So now, Manhattanville’s student newspaper is back where it was two years ago. It’s come out two times thus far, with a dormant website, no Twitter presence, no sense of purpose. The clips are—from a career standpoint—relatively useless, because creativity and aggressiveness are clearly not encouraged. I read it and, literally, feel like crying. So much potential; so much opportunity.

So little interest.

What hurts most (and what, I suppose, inspires me to write this) is that this sort of stuff is going on everywhere. Journalism is, undeniably, under attack. Newspapers are closing. Corporate entities are stifling free press; colleges and universities are cracking down on student-generated publications. We, as a nation, are increasingly comfortable with the idea of limited voice.

It’s a dangerous path.

One, come semester’s end, I no longer want part of.

85 thoughts on “I was a college newspaper advisor”

  1. I have a last thing to say — just that if the college wants to obtain more prestige, nurturing an actual journalism-oriented newspaper that was yielding internships, instead of replacing it with a public relations page would have achieved that, whereas they cannot gain prestige through public relations, just “image control.” A school’s image gains more from enhanced prestige than from parroting what the school has already achieved as dictated from the administration. The school gains status from success stories and the internships obtained. Those were really nice ones for one year running that paper.

    I thought there were good points made by “Journalism Is Worse Now” when he or she wrote: “It’s fine for students to complain about food, parking, or other college annoyances, but I hope you taught them to at least talk with both sides so they can also learn about things like food budgets and student/car ratios that sometimes help cause these problems. Otherwise, they’re not really accomplishing anything newsworthy, just griping for the sake of it.”

    On the other hand, the students complaining about food were writing opinion columns, not the objective news. Clearly the well-written straight news stories outnumbered the occasional sophomoric columns (which one might expect at a school), or the internships wouldn’t have resulted. The school will not see those types of internships again from a public relations shill page. But, hey, “image” is more important than prestige, I guess! LOL.

    Sorry that someone above objected to the F word appearing on the page. He was teaching college level students rather than infants, so it really is irrelevant that he might put that word in his personal blog. Tons of college literary page writing includes such words, for that matter. Whoever wrote that whine about that word doesn’t know anything about what matters in journalism and literature — the meaning, flow, facts, and soul of the story matters — the truth matters, not how pristine one keeps the wording.

    The former advisor is an honest man; hopefully he will find that when one door closes a better one opens.

  2. I am not a journalist or even a student, but I do like reading interesting and even provacative articles that tell things as they are. Truth is better.

    I suspect that many universities, like corporate America, don’t really care about creativity, their students (employees), their role as educators (managers, leaders), but only of the bottom line. Much of it is driven by those that they report to and they are powerless against it, like possibly the provost at Manhattanville. In some cases, being employed is more important than voicing an honest opinion, unfortunate, but reality.

    The sadest part of all and which the organizations don’t get is they do themselves more harm than good by trying to protect or project an image. Until the content is more important than said image, nothing will change.

    Potential college students should likely try to communicate with present students when evaluating where they go to school.

    Unless things change and I can’t imagine that happening, then get ready for a world full of gift wrapped mediocrity.

    It looks like what Manhattanville has done to Mr. Pearlman will do them much greater harm than the report of lousy food ever would have.

  3. You spend far more time talking about design and layout than about content. Worse, you shrug off tons of glaring errors.

    You should have been replaced. The staff is better without you. Accept this. Move on.

  4. Sad story, and my first newspaper advising job was at a similar institution (where I also revived a largely defunct newspaper, and taught students to use the IRS Form 990). I left after two years, and the newspaper is essentially dead (and the university nearly so).

    But now I advise an award-winning student newspaper at another private school, where the administration winces at times (and even grumbles once in a while), but also understands the value of student journalism. It’s a rare blessing, having administrators who take the newspaper seriously enough (agreeing to be interviewed regularly, even on short notice) but not too seriously (recognizing that student journalists will occasionally make dumb mistakes).

    In the last decade, the newspaper has done stories on a local cult, gender imbalance at the university, sexual awareness (complete with a life-size photo of a condom on a banana), a lawsuit against the university for a tenure decision, administrative and faculty salaries, race issues, harassment of gays, and gambling and drug use on campus, among other things — all at a private Christian university.

    A couple of times (years ago) administrators asked to see something (or have an attorney review it) in advance–but in each case, I managed to persuade them that such prior review would be a bad idea for the students and for the university. I make sure that students are familiar with the Student Press Law Center, and the Whitworthian has made good use of the SPLC.

    As adviser, I also don’t engage in prior review–I tell students I’d advise beforehand, if they ask, and criticize afterward whether they ask or not. I also hang out with them for part of deadline night, offer to proofread while I’m there (they’re generally glad to have extra eyes), and trust that they’ll ask me for advice if they have concerns.

    A few years ago, SPJ named the Whitworthian the top non-daily small university newspaper in the country. Just last week, it won the region again, and will be one of 12 considered for the top national award.

  5. Well said, though a shame. Had those same inspirational professors at UD and think of them, and my time at the Review, every day. Nothing beats experience, and college newspapers provide it. Wonder what happened to that orange couch?

  6. Jeff,
    As someone who spent four years at M’Ville, I would bet anything that two of the things you touched on led to your ouster. The first one you fleshed out a bit–the image thing. Manhattanville works hard to get their students money, and have rigged the first year curriculum to lessen the risk of transfer. As such, they are very much focused on new student matriculation because they operate (moreso than universities with bigger endownments) as a business. With that in mind, they don’t want anything (whether true or not) alienating potential customers.
    Secondly, you mentioned that some Ethiopian students complained about something printed in one of the issues of the paper. I guarantee you that was part of it as well. Manhattanville fosters a super politically correct environment (with a big time left wing tilt), and any complaints from minority students would receive the utmost attention.
    Also, certain academic departments on campus contain refugees from such reputable organizations as the World Workers Party and the American Communist Party. These individuals work hard to silence any speech they deem offensive. Welcome to Manhattanville, Jeff!

  7. This just sucks. I could try to say that more eloquently, but I think “sucks” gets the job done.
    I’m wrapping up my first year as a college newspaper adviser. I’m fortunate to be supported by some administrators and senior faculty who believe in student journalism and a free press, but this post shows me that if certain powers in the school get it into their heads, the rug could be yanked out from under us. I’m full-time, but not tenured, so they could oust me quickly if I fall out of favor or the paper prints something that irritates. After reading your post, though, I’m more resolved than ever to teach my students to ask tough questions and report stories that matter.

  8. This is why I love that my college’s newspaper is completely independent of the college. They have absolutely no control over us.

  9. Now I’m angry! The problem is we don’t have a limited voice – we have unlimited voices. Social media, etc. that are unfiltered. I like having everyone’s opinion, but at some point you need cold hard facts and context that can only be provided by journalism.

  10. Now I’m angry!

    The problem is we have UNLIMITED voices – social media, etc.

    What’s needed is more cold hard facts, context and thoughtful perspectives only jourmalism can provide.

  11. Within a year or so after we started a newspaper at Fordham’s CLC campus, someone committed suicide by jumping off the building’s 11th floor terrace. We covered it (the reporter was Laurie Loisel who went on to a career in journalism) and as the editor I soon got called into Dean Shea’s office. He was not happy, but he was reasonable. He didn’t like it that the suicide was our lead story. I pointed out that the story ended all of the rumors that had been flying around the campus, some of which were fairly lurid, and that once the campus knew the true, sad story of the man who had taken his life, people moved on because it wasn’t fun to speculate any more. Dean Shea took my point and admonished me to try to be a little less sensational in the future. Because without any other art to go with the story, we ran a bleak photo of the 11th floor terrace with the caption “A final view?”

    I saw how important the University regarded its image.Dean Shea could have come down with a much heavier hand, or decided that it wasn’t vital for CLC to have a newspaper and cut our funding. But he didn’t. I’m happy to say that the last time I checked that more than 30 years after we started it, the Obsever is still publishing. That doesn’t happen without institutional support. http://www.fordhamobserver.com/

  12. Jeff I am a current student at Mville and LEt me just say many students are outraged at your leaving of Manhattanville. You were truly one of the most passionate and helpful professors here. there are may professor who should be fired from Mville and you were abosolutely NOT one of them. I am very displeased to hear of this especially my girlfriend who came to me in tears when she finished your last class. it just sucks that this school can be so closed minded to the wants and needs of the students. even this weekends past quad jam they had the opportunity to bring in some incredible performers but instead brought some nobody to the school which no one had a clue who the hell he was. It really is sad to hear you are lleaing and hopefully MVille will realize what a grave mistake it was to let you go.

  13. Jeff,
    This is great. I’m glad you wrote about it and made it public. I completely agree with everything you say/think. You’re Ana amazing professor and the people who are smart enough took advantage of that. I personally learned a great deal from you and owe you a lot of respect. It’s sad that you won’t be teaching anymore because you’re amazing at it! You’re just one of those professors I’ll never forget.

  14. Last year’s Touchstone was abysmal. Ranting and venting does not equal good journalism. Also, comparing the access to a fully-stocked cafeteria on a daily basis to starvation and famine in Ethiopia is absolutely shameful. I’m glad that you will be taking your negativity and “high-quality” work elsewhere.

  15. Jeff, I am a community college student in California and I also wrote for the “campus” paper. I wanted to ask you your thoughts on the role of the adviser in publishing a college newspaper. I worked two semesters for an “award-winning”, “nationally-recognized” publication and left feeling like it was a propaganda machine for the administration and governing board of trustees while posing as the student voice of the campus. The adviser was constantly re-writing stories, not editing after student editors, but actually re-writing entire stories for students. He shamelessly plugged his plays and melodramas that were performing in the nearby communities and always gave positive press to his political friends. Thank you for your input

  16. Jeff, I know I read this when you wrote it, but apparently I didn’t comment, or maybe commented on some old system.

    Thank you for fighting the good fight for your students, both at M’ville and at Chapman. I had a great college newspaper advisor at Catholic University, who worked on the desk at The Washington Post, and like you were doing for your kids, we got the experience, the clips and the like to get journalism jobs.

    Keep up the good work!

    Pat Coleman

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