State government and the student press

Editor’s note: The following post is part of a larger article I will be submitting to another publication.

In the spring of 1990, The Chart at Missouri Southern State University embarked on an ambitious adventure.

The small, weekly student newspaper began a program that stationed a student reporter in the state capital, Jefferson City. The reporter’s charge was to provide coverage of state government.

At the time, it was groundbreaking. Now it should be commonplace. But, sadly, it is not. In the era of Internet information, cell phones and social media, there is no excuse for a college newspaper to not cover the deliberations of its state lawmakers and statewide elected officials.

There are four primary reasons why such coverage is vital to a college paper seeking to be the comprehensive news source for its readers.

1. The almighty budget

State appropriations at public colleges and universities are the primary source of funding. How are those dollars determined? What goes into the deliberations? If your college president testifies at committee hearings, what did he say?

State appropriations determine what students pay in tuition and fees. That money determines whether faculty and staff get raises. That money determines what maintenance and capital improvements can be made to the school’s physical plant/infrastructure.

2. Changes are coming to higher education

With the development of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and the movement to more economic brick and mortar delivery systems, educational institutions are changing. Many of those changes will be initiated on campus, but most will necessarily have to pass through state boards of education and legislatures.

And that is news that student papers need to cover.

3. It fills a news hole

It has been my experience that most local or regional newspapers don’t provide regular beat coverage of the state legislators within their coverage areas. They will do the requisite story when one of those lawmakers has a bill up for a vote, but they don’t usually cover the committee meetings or regularly follow the state ethics commission reports, for example.

It is becoming more and more commonplace that in an era of dwindling resources, the for-profit papers must cut back on investigative, enterprise and watchdog stories. It is just a sad reality. They have to pick their spots.

That is where the college paper comes in.

College papers can assign one reporter to cover state government exclusively. That is a luxury the professionals don’t have.

4. It gets your people jobs

I often tell students, “When you apply for a job, do you want to lay out your clips and say, ‘Look. I covered the Student Senate’ or do you want to lay out your clips and say, ‘Look. I covered my state Senate’?”

Imagine the leg-up clips from a semester on a state government beat would give a student vying for that entry-level cops and courts gig.

In my JOU 302 Advanced Reporting class this spring, students will actually get a chance to put this into action. For a time, they will cover the Missouri legislature.

In a future post, I will show you how this can happen. Even from half a state away.

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