Journalism often falls under the umbrella of pre-professional majors, making it unlikely that liberal arts colleges offer a journalism major. That means at liberal arts schools, the best place to get started with journalism is the student newspaper. Not only do student newspapers provide the necessary skills for a career in journalism, but many employers say they want to see that students have worked on their student papers. I’ve seen countless journalism job postings requiring or recommending previous newsroom experience, oftentimes noting that college newsrooms count.
But while liberal arts colleges are known for their emphasis on broad general knowledge and developing critical thinking skills, many student newspaper positions, especially editorial ones, are unpaid.
Through my work as editor-in-chief at The Wesleyan Argus, and speaking with students at peer institutions, I’ve firsthand seen just how inaccessible journalism is for liberal arts school students. I spoke, via email, with over 30 editors-in-chief at the helm of liberal arts college newspapers, and about half said their papers didn’t pay students in editorial positions. The ones that do can’t necessarily pay everyone, setting varying degrees of payment based on a student’s role at the paper.
Low (or no) pay dictates who can be involved in student journalism. Not paying student journalists makes the newsroom inaccessible for low income students of color, which in turn affects the newsroom’s demographics and coverage. It also shrinks editorial bandwidth, and devalues the work they are doing. Even at schools that do have the funds to pay their workers, students are oftentimes paid less than other on-campus jobs or are capped at how many hours they can be paid for.
Every so often, Twitter reignites the debate on the problems with offering unpaid internships but a similar phenomenon plays out in the college newsrooms. Working for a student newspaper without pay (especially during a pandemic) is only realistic for students who come from more privileged backgrounds and don’t have to worry about spending their time juggling jobs or other commitments, especially if the newsroom pay is lower than other jobs or nonexistent.
Mikayla Patel, who is the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Sophian at Smith College, where students do not get paid, emphasized she was able to be involved with the newspaper because she didn’t have other major responsibilities or jobs. Patel has had other time commitments alongside the paper while at Smith, like participating in the campus radio station, holding a social media position with an environmental group, and driving for Doordash, but she said nothing else outside of class has been nearly as time-consuming as working for the newspaper.
“Participating in the newspaper, definitely, being in most leadership positions, but especially as editor-in-chief — I don’t know how you would be in school and do that and have a job at the same time,” Patel said.
As she explained, a position like Editor-in-Chief requires availability not only for board meetings and work nights to help with editing, but also for answering emails and Slack messages from staff members throughout the day, looking at articles, or fixing website issues.
“Being available in this capacity while also working a part time job along with school would be difficult,” she said.
Similar to Patel, I had very few other commitments beyond the Argus. Although I took on a few course assistant jobs throughout my time at Wesleyan, I did so more for the experience rather than the need for money, and could dial back hours if I needed to devote more time to the newspaper.
The lack of compensation for student journalists is a major barrier to access for students from less privileged backgrounds, whether that be students of color, those of lower socioeconomic status, or as is often the case, both. It’s also a major factor behind the overrepresentation of white reporters in student newsrooms.
At Colorado College, Cutler Publications, a student-run non-profit that funds campus publications, pays students per piece or with stipends. Lorea Zabaleta, vice president of Cutler, said both amount to less than what other on-campus jobs pay, and this difference is evident in the demographics of the various newsrooms.
“At such a predominantly white school like C[olorado] C[ollege], it’s very clear who it’s easier for to participate in journalism, and it’s the people who don’t have to worry about feeding themselves or paying rent,” She said. “That’s why we want to get more funding for Cutler, so that we can pay as close to a liveable wage for college students as possible, so that it’s a real job that can support students that are interested in journalism instead of something that takes time and doesn’t give them the money that they need.”
This disconnect between the demographics of student newsrooms and the communities they are reporting leaves gaps in the paper’s coverage. A newsroom cannot fully represent campus stories if the people staffing it aren’t representative of the community.
“Student journalism and newspapers are a really important part of building a culture at a school and connecting the community,” Patel, from Smith College, said.
“If you only have students that are in positions where they don’t need to be working, or students from [only] certain groups of your campus [are] able to participate, then you’re not representing everybody on campus and as a newspaper, we want to be able to do that.”
Some editors also say not being able to pay all staff inhibits their ability to help writers fully develop their journalism skills, which hurts student journalists even when they are able to commit to a paper. Sonia Lachter, the outgoing editor-in-chief of the Colby Echo, explained that while both editors and writers are paid, hours are capped and many end up working more than their allotted hours and this affects their ability to build community and journalism skills.
“As editors-in-chief, we’re uncomfortable asking people to do more than the bare minimum of their job requirement because we know we’re not paying them even for that,” she said. “We want to do staff development and give them feedback, but don’t want to ask them to come in for another hour every week when we’re not able to pay them for that.”
The paper’s other editor-in-chief, Conall Butchart, said that editorial staff have begun marking up at least one writer’s article a week to provide feedback and working with the copy team to point out things that may have gone under the radar that week.
With student newsrooms often serving as a pipeline to full-time newsrooms, the lack of payment for student journalists perpetuates the continued overrepresentation of upper-middle class, often white, reporters.
Not paying student journalists also devalues the work we do. We are already in a unique position, as we are responsible for reporting on peers and the institution we are a part of, without the same legal protection full-time journalists have.
Maxwell Mondress, the current editor-in-chief of The Clerk at Haverford College, is currently paid a stipend for his work on the Clerk. Mondress said paying student journalists is an acknowledgment of the labor they put into holding administrators accountable.
“Working with administrators whose stake is in their continued success and their positions, it can be very difficult to interface with them as journalists especially because they’re administrators and we’re students at their school,” he said. “If students are willing to put themselves out there, it’s nice that you’re able to be compensated for it.”
I don’t fully know what a solution would be. Some newsrooms, including The Argus, have made strides to try and make the newsroom more accessible. In the fall of 2020, we established a small fund to pay students of color from low-income backgrounds for their work on the paper, and a similar model has been adopted by The Amherst Student. The program has been successful with the few students we were able to fund, as they are able to be compensated for their time and devotion to the Argus. However, it is not enough to completely shift the industry. In an ideal world, everyone would get paid for their contributions.
Some editors-in-chief at liberal arts colleges I talked to have considered–– or are in the process of–– getting funding from their respective universities to pay their workers, but there’s always the question of editorial independence. That is, if newspaper staff are employed by their university, there is always the possibility they can be censored by their respective colleges.
And although pay is a huge issue that perpetuates inequity in the newsroom, it’s also about the resources required to break into the industry that liberal arts students lack. Those interested in journalism at liberal arts colleges are locked out of a number of privileges larger institutions with journalism programs have, whether that be classes, journalism professors with ample connections, or journalism awards (as many are only available to students in accredited journalism programs).
But liberal arts students who face those problems aren’t alone: students at public colleges without established journalism programs, whether state universities or community colleges, experience the same.
As it currently stands, the journalism industry values journalism experiences that are not accessible for students who don't come from well-known undergrad journalism schools or do not already have plans to go into journalism at the outset of their college career. If the journalism industry at large wants to remain true to its promise to diversify, it needs to be more inclusive of all kinds of recent graduates — not just those with Medill or Merill degrees — and those who aren’t graduates at all.
Hannah Docter-Loeb is a freelance writer finishing her last semester at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She loves to write about pop culture, science, and her hometown of Washington D.C. You can follow her on Twitter @keepitonthehdl or check out her website at hdocterloeb.com.
This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy editing by Gabe Schneider.
Editor's note (March 24, 2022): An earlier version of this piece contained a misspelling of Lorea Zabaleta's last name. The Objective regrets the error.