What's in a 'student newspaper' anyway?

I’ve always cringed a little at the phrase “student newspaper.” Not for any lack of accuracy, but for the connotations it carries. For instance, whenever other outlets cite a story by The Daily Tar Heel, they inevitably preface the mention with “the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s student newspaper…”

Don’t get me wrong — I totally get it. It’s really the most accurate descriptor for what we do. The only people who are allowed to produce our content are UNC students.

Still, I’ve always felt this classification automatically undermines credibility by lowering expectations. First, it implies that the identities of “student” and “volunteer (or paid employee) of the DTH” are somehow connected, which they are not. Regular readers of this blog (there are none) will recall that the DTH is an independent non-profit, and that our content is produced completely separate of University channels (the journalism school has no oversight or advisory, for example).

While calling the DTH a student newspaper is accurate in that students do produce its content, it is inaccurate in that it implies these reporters, designers, photographers, etc. are student reporters, student designers or student photographers. It creates the impression that these staff are somehow bound in their work by their student status, in a way that necessarily restricts what they are able to accomplish.

During the past few weeks, I’ve witnessed two examples of “student reporters” who would be more aptly called “reporters.” DTH Senior Writer Caitlin McCabe has produced story after story on the University’s sexual assault response policy, including this barn-burner on alleged administrative ignorance of federal law. Melvin Backman, also a senior writer, has spent the year examining the athletic department budget, and he came up with a gem today about how one major change since the NCAA investigation is costing Olympic sport athletes their access to one-on-one tutors.

I hate to think that this good work is cheapened by the fact that some would classify Caitlin and Melvin as student reporters, not professional, or serious, reporters. In fact, the only thing the student half of that phrase indicates, to me, is that they have to work their reporting around their class schedules. If we’re going to insist that these reporters be defined by their student status, we should also call professional reporters with kids at home mother or father reporters, since they also deal with debilitating time commitments in their professional lives.

(A more appropriate description would undoubtedly be student-produced, community newspaper. The DTH serves the UNC campus, but also Chapel Hill and Orange County.)

On the other hand, I recognize there is some good in the phrase “student newspaper.” There’s a quote that hangs in the DTH’s conference room that embodies this sentiment:

“But the eternal youth of The Tar Heel nevertheless is considered a blessing because it is youth that keeps it, like a typical adolescent, defiant in the face of authority, eager for growth and protective of its freedom.”

Our identity as a student paper, while it can imply amateurism, also is a constant reminder of the perpetual learning that is an inherent trait of journalism — whether it is done by college students or anyone else.


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