The CNM Chronicle sex issue shenanigans and the importance of student journo community

The CNM Chronicle ran a special sex issue on Tuesday, March 26.

The CNM Chronicle ran a special sex issue on Tuesday, March 26.

Whether we realize it or not, student journalists, and journalists in general, really, are a community. When issues come up – common procedural problems like staff issues, digital snafus or ethical conundrums or injustices like censorship or other First Amendment abridgments – we have each other’s backs. It should come as no surprise – we love what we do, and support others who do, too.

With the CNM Chronicle shenanigans, we have a pretty good example of just what that camaraderie looks like, and why it’s important.

First, the story:

Last month, Central New Mexico Community College caught flak from school administrators for publishing a special sex edition of their newspaper, the CNM Chronicle, which featured, among other things, images of sex toys on its front page and a couple engaged in BDSM role playing on its back cover (you can check it out here). For a short time, the issue was removed from its stands, and the newspaper disbanded by administrators indefinitely, pending a “full evaluation of the structure and oversight” of its operations, as reported on Jim Romenesko’s blog.

Soon, though, after facing backlash around the country from media critics and others, CNM administrators caved, walked back their efforts to censor The Chronicle, and allowed the sex issue to run.

The media, in their efforts to protect one of their own, pounced on the school for violating their students’ First Amendment rights. And for journos, who’ve had many tough pills to swallow over the last few years (I won’t get into any of the journalism blog cliches about the impact the Internet has had on the profession), the CNM success story brings hope in troubled times.

That week, in a showing of solidarity with the Chronicle, the staff at the nearby University of New Mexico’s independent student paper The New Mexico Daily Lobo got into the fray, publishing a “censored” paper edition. “All Daily Lobo stories for that day ran online,” according to a description of the protest in an editor’s note, “but the paper, with the exception of an explanatory editorial, had nothing but ads and X’s where content would have gone.”

Support for the move was mixed.

“I am keeping a copy of that newspaper as a souvenir,” a UNM staff member wrote, “because it will always remind me for whom the bell tolls.”

“Your decision to support a boycott as a show of solidarity for the CNM paper was a poor choice: You shut down a paper that belongs to the students while not consulting them for how they wanted to handle it,” a student wrote. “Your moves were only blessed by arrogance and the need of self-service, and hence irresponsible toward the school. You might look tough on journalism, but the articles you ran — or in this case, didn’t run — were to get you, Elizabeth Cleary, a feather in your cap. I resent your choice.”

Cleary is The Daily Lobo’s Editor-in-Chief.

My take:

From where I sit, what the Daily Lobo did for The CNM Chronicle was incredibly important, not just for the future of free student press, but for the necessary continuation of a culture of community among student journalists.

You see, college media organizations find themselves in the somewhat awkward position of criticizing the institutions that fund them. In our case, the paper’s operating budget comes from “student activities” fees all undergrads pay. We have an obligation, then, to provide students with useful content, but we also, by extension, owe thanks to the school itself for putting the funding system in place. School administrators sometimes confuse this connection with an ability to hijack a student newspaper once its content becomes unsavory in their eyes.

To get a better sense for just how pervasive this issue is, check out the SPLC’s running list of newspaper thefts – a common form of on-campus censorship – from the 2011-2012 school year.

Ultimately, they feel they can do this because no one is watching. But when it comes to censorship, we are watching. Closely. And making a big deal about First Amendment violations has to be part of what we do. The Daily Lobo staff made a very public, very controversial decision in running their blank issue. But that’s exactly what needs to happen in a community of watch dogs. If someone in the UNM administration decides to go bonkers and slash the Lobo’s budget, it follows, The Chronicle would do the same – something big, something noticeable, something loud.

When student newspapers get something wrong, they should acknowledge it and apologize. When they run something objectionable, they should take a community’s criticisms seriously, and, when appropriate, they should respond. But they should never tolerate censorship in any form, for any reason – be it inflicted on them or on someone else.

So hats off to the Daily Lobo staff for being brave and doing something radical when one of their own needed their help. The future of the free press is all the better for it.

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About spencerbuell

Editor-in-Chief, The Gatepost student newspaper at Framingham State University.
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