LAST Dec. 2, journalist Carol Arguillas from Mindanao posed a question to the students filling the Center for Performing Arts at the University of San Jose-Recoletos: do you want to become a journalist?
Arguillas, news editor of the online news service Mindanews, is the 2011 Marshall McLuhan Prize winner. The Canadian Embassy, which initiates the annual search, awarded Arguillas last June for the excellence of her body of works as a reporter and editor.
During the Dec. 2 Marshall McLuhan Forum Series on Responsible Media at the USJ-R, the audience, dominated by coeds taking up Mass Communication in different colleges and universities in Cebu, answered Arguillas with a soft but instant, “No”.
Arguillas then discussed the demands of journalism—read, research, serve the public—and showed images of a beauty-drenched Mindanao rarely glimpsed in the war and conflict coverage of national media.
When Arguillas posed again the question—“Do you want to be a journalist?”—the answer became a resounding, “Yes”.
What caused the change of heart? I mused in my seat. On the jeepney ride back to my college after the forum came the second question: how many of those aspiring to be journalists write for a campus publication?
A few years back, when a local newsroom advertised for applicants to fill the posts of reporters or editors, the advertising copy cited that a campus journalism background was an asset.
Based on expectations, writing for the student paper seems to be an essential rite of passage for a person intending to devote his or her professional life to journalism.
Realities reveal the contrary: if anything, the campus press is at risk of losing a mass audience and a deep pool of talented individuals that could have committed to the unrelenting, uncompensated rigors of campus coverage.
Let me qualify key terms. By campus press, I refer to the publication that is funded by every student who “contributes” every semester, whether he or she likes it or not, a fixed amount for a publication, which may find print or not.
This suspension of several conditions any publisher lusts for: a regular stream of funds to ensure publication of material that may or may not be read by a mass audience. Outside campuses, publications survive to print another day because these are patronized by their audience.
The condition for survival? A publication must be read. To be read, a publication must be credible, viewed as filling a need for information and meaning. Nowhere but in campuses can you find ghost or irregular or ignored publications that continue to be printed for ghost audiences.
To be relevant, who should campus publications be addressing? The studentry, whose fees sustain the production of the so-called student publication. A mass audience is not a select niche of individuals. It is not the administration or the faculty. Nor is it any student party or the student council.
Like the administration and faculty, campus politicians and student councils are subjects of coverage. A student paper controlled by any entity or ideology enters conflicts of interest that will eventually bleed it of balance, accountability and credibility.
In the 1980s, I was a campus journalist. In the words of my editor, I am now a quasi-journalist: one foot in the academe, the other in the industry.
My younger and older selves agree: the campus paper has to keep its balance between reportage and advocacy, somehow connecting the sleepwalking majority to those who are awake to and vigilant about student rights and responsibilities.
My older self, though, has seen what the younger couldn’t even imagine: that technology would advance and open campus journalism to desktop publication, blogging and online networking.
In the 1980s, students still got copies of campus publications, unreadable or not, to fan themselves with or sit on.
Today, with Facebook, Blogger and scan-and-print, who will wait for you?
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*First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Dec. 4, 2011 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday column