Students Fill Gaps Left by Professional Journalists ; College Papers Provide In-Depth Coverage That Local Media Can't Afford

Article excerpt

As newspapers around America shut down or severely trim staff and expenditures, college journalism students increase local coverage.

In January, residents learned that the senior place-kicker for the University of Michigan's football team had been permanently "separated" from the school for violating its student sexual misconduct policy. The violation, an alleged sexual assault, occurred in 2009, when the kicker was a freshman, and his punishment was not determined until his athletic career had ended this past winter.

The article describing all of this, based on documents reviewed by two reporters, stated, "It's unclear why sanctions were not decided in this matter until recently." A month later, the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights began investigating the university's handling of the case.

It was a shocking revelation for a university town that has a population of 116,000 and a football stadium of nearly the same capacity. But almost as surprising was the origin of the report: The story was not broken by the local professional news organization, The Ann Arbor News. Instead, it was uncovered by The Michigan Daily, the university's independently run student newspaper.

The Ann Arbor News, owned by Advance Publications, changed in July 2009 from a daily newspaper to a web-first model that produced a print edition only twice a week, making Ann Arbor among the first American cities to lose their only daily paper. Since then, The Michigan Daily has been the only Monday-through-Friday print publication in town.

As daunting financial pressures force newspapers around the country to shut down or severely trim staff and expenditures, a new model has emerged in many communities in which college journalism students increasingly make up for the lack of in-depth coverage by local papers.

"I keep questioning whether this scandal would have come out sooner if we had a vigorous local paper here," said James O'Shea, a former editor in chief of The Los Angeles Times and managing editor of The Chicago Tribune who is now a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Michigan. "But I also don't know if it would have ever come out without The Michigan Daily." The place-kicker, Brendan Gibbons, has not been criminally charged.

The Ann Arbor News, which for several years was named AnnArbor.com, went through its latest rebranding last September, when it was integrated into the statewide platform of Advance's MLive Media Group, which includes, among other properties, seven other print newspapers.

The constant changes have muddled The Ann Arbor News's identity and, according to some residents, eroded its standing as the go-to source of news in the community. That sense was reinforced by the football article, on which The Ann Arbor News played catch-up after student reporters broke the story.

"I feel The Michigan Daily fills an important niche in Ann Arbor and a need that is unmet by our regional newspapers in an era of constrained resources," said the student paper's editor in chief, Peter Shahin, sitting with the two reporters who broke the football scandal story, Adam Rubenfire and Matt Slovin, in the daily's conference room. On the far wall, a bookshelf holds hardcover volumes of archived issues of the newspaper dating back decades.

"We have 200 to 250 staff, and though we are a trade publication first covering the university, we are also trying to fill a void in other areas here, like the arts," Mr. Shahin said. "I think we truly have the pulse of the town."

The editor of The Ann Arbor News, Paula Gardner, declined to comment. John Hiner, vice president of content for MLive Media Group, said, "I respect all the student newspapers across the state, not just The Michigan Daily. I tip my hat to them when they get a big story like the Gibbons story, but it is not as if I worry about them as competitors in our business planning -- their niche is campus, and we cover a lot of other parts of the community beyond the university, as well. …

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