As with many other demanding extracurriculars, committing to your student news organization means having journalism assignments sprawled across your schedule, always sucking up free time and sleep.
But these news organizations carry a more sinister implication than student government or professional societies: Could it be that these papers exploit their student employees?
Because many college papers — including The Daily Free Press — are completely student-run, there aren’t just staff writers and reporters. There’s also an editor-in-chief, managing editor, section editors and board of directors, all of whom are students. At the FreeP, editors work about 45 to 50 hours a week — the equivalent of a full-time job.
It’s not fair to ask so much of students who, despite being adults, are still young and learning. In most cases, there’s no financial compensation for our labor, and it’s definitely unfair to expect students to prioritize an unpaid position over schoolwork. The FreeP, for example, is unfortunately unable to pay our staff.
So on top of juggling classes, a social life, adulthood, a full-time unpaid position and sometimes other extracurriculars, many student editors have to work one or two part-time jobs to support themselves.
The lack of pay and long hours can be a major deterrent for low-income students and students of color, perpetuating the cycle of little to no minority representation and leadership in newsrooms. It takes a certain privilege or sacrifice — oftentimes both — to be able to work for school newspapers.
The FreeP conducted its own internal demographics survey for editors and staff, with not-so-surprising results: Of 96 respondents, more than 70 percent are white and 27 percent are Asian. That left seven staff members who identified as either Black, Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian, Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Seven.
Many student papers also take themselves incredibly seriously, which is necessary but to an extent. Journalism is an all-or-nothing pursuit, and without the presence of these independent news organizations on campus, who would hold their universities accountable? Who would keep students informed?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to cover as much as possible. But the journalism industry as a whole breeds elitism and an unhealthy work-life balance, and it is this culture that bleeds into our own campus media.
There’s barely any time off, and due to the nature of journalism, you’re almost always responding to emails or editing. Now that most classes are remote, it’s even easier to be distracted by editorial duties — the work day extends beyond our usual 5:00 p.m. to 2 a.m. and saturates our whole day.
This constant working is normalized and often glorified in the industry, but it shouldn’t be.
It’s the unspoken expectation that you should be ready and willing to sacrifice everything for your journalism — your time, energy and social life — that leads students to be silent about the effect these positions have on their well-being. Is one extracurricular worth the mental and physical strain?
Because we work for and with fellow students, there should be more understanding and flexibility woven into that culture.
Student journalists suffer a greater disadvantage compared to professional journalists as well: They’re still learning and have a responsibility to their classes as well as the paper. Rather than one priority, they’re split between two or even three.
The unpaid college newspaper problem feeds into a broader conversation about the inequality of unpaid internships and how it exacerbates the class divide.
Student newspapers, however, feel more accessible than internships because they’re less selective and competitive. It provides a good foot in the door for people who don’t have much experience and want to learn by doing.
Breaking into the journalism field requires that you have clips and experience. So although work done at the college level may not be financially compensated, it certainly gives you valuable professional experience and fills up your portfolio. If anything can prepare a student for the stress of a real journalism career, this is it.
The experience may not be as valuable for students who aren’t pursuing journalism, though. Regardless of which way you spin it, “free” labor isn’t appealing, feasible or accessible to many students.
The reality is we don’t have much say over the funding, and without it, there’s no way to pay our staff what they deserve. However, with each generation of editors, we improve how we conduct ourselves and the paper. We will only continue to evolve and push for fundraisers and ways to support our staff, such as our Editors’ Equity Fund.
Communication is also crucial — one way to alleviate stress and avoid a toxic work environment is to be transparent about how hard it is to manage so much work. We should be open about our struggles rather than putting on a facade and perpetuating the notion that it’s normal to function at such a high capacity 24/7.
As a consequence of being more open and understanding of students’ workloads — and perhaps in the future, being able to pay them — these organizations can outgrow the journalism industry by being more inclusive and equitable.