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Rebuilding campus newsrooms. The ReNews Project revives student university presses, particularly at HBCUs

Gretchen A. Peck | for Editor & Publisher

Wesley Wright is the assistant student media director at Florida Atlantic University. A former student journalist, Wright knew that he wanted to counsel other aspiring journalists one day. Working with Michael Koretzky, Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Florida president, Wright, ReNews Project Coordinator Nadia Gordon and Outreach Coordinator Leslie Gray Streeter have brought the ReNews Project to life. The Project aims to stimulate student press nationwide, especially at Historically Black Colleges or Universities (HBCUs). Many have had funding cuts or have experienced censorship threats.

“When there’s no outlet to cover the campus, there’s no way for students to learn what’s going on at the university. It’s something I began thinking about even before the ReNews Project. There were schools that didn’t have any student media,” Wright recalled.

The ReNews curriculum is tailored to each campus. Wright and Gordon make sure it’s interactive and engaging. Before arrival, they meet with the students and advisers virtually to understand the newsroom and the training and resources needed.

Wright said one of the questions students ask is, If I do a story that doesn’t reflect well on the university, will I be in trouble with the administration?”

In some cases, what’s needed most are basic reporting skills — for example, a story about low graduation rates.

Nadia Gordon, project coordinator, ReNews Project

“A lot of students have to work full-time to afford to go to school,” Wright said. “Maybe they couldn’t figure out a financial aid issue and had to stop. … During COVID, some had to care for a parent who had long COVID. Whatever the case may be, this type of context is fascinating, and I try to show the students that they should consider it all when reporting.”

Recently, Wright and Gordon virtually spent time with students at Coppin State University in Baltimore, where they helped students produce the first print issue in more than two decades.

They also traveled to Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The student paper there — the Southern University Digest — had been produced weekly until this spring, when the cost to print became untenable. There was talk of budget cuts, trying to find a new printer and publishing less frequently. A ReNews sponsor, Flytedesk, helped reignite advertising, and they were able to carry on.

ReNews Executive Director Wesley Wright and Project Coordinator Nadia Gordon pose with student journalists at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“Southern University is a good example of what we look for with the ReNews Project when after three or four days, we can leave it in the hands of the adviser on campus,” Wright said. But that doesn’t mean that they tap out.

“Just last night, I spoke with one of the reporters there who’s doing a story about student government. Back in March, their newsroom may have said, ‘We know there’s a story there, but we don’t know how to approach it.’ Now, they’re emboldened because they know that as long as they do responsible, ethical journalism, and the story stands up, there’s really nothing the administration nor the student government representative can do about it,” said Wright.

Next up, Wright will travel to William Patterson University in New Jersey, a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) experiencing similar challenges as HBCUs. They’re also planning to take the Project to Spelman College in Atlanta, where they publish The BluePrint and hope to establish a website and a newsroom.

South Carolina State in Orangeburg is also on their radar. “In their case, they had a student newspaper until about 2018. They also have broadcast and TV in the plans, and we’ll work on those [platforms], not just print,” Wright said.

Gretchen A. Peck is a contributing editor to Editor & Publisher. She’s reported for E&P since 2010 and welcomes comments at gretchenapeck@gmail.com.


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