A friend and former student senator joked with me the other day, saying he had a running bet with an ASMSU employee that the Exponent wouldn’t publish another nice thing about student government this semester.
My friend’s comment, meant more as a playful quip than an indictment, actually gets to the heart of issues that define how our newspaper relates to the community.
In fact, I think it points to a core problem with local newspapers today. Strapped by tight budgets and reliant upon advertising revenue, small-town papers like ours are often reluctant to actively examine other community members or institutions. They sometimes feel like they literally can’t afford to offend sensibilities, question those in power, or risk dividing a community in which everyone knows everyone.
To help explain my trouble with such an editorial attitude, I want to offer a classic newsroom motto: “Everybody needs an editor.” Anyone at the Exponent — or who has taken WRIT 101 for that matter — can testify to the contentious, yet potentially enriching, nature of the editing process. I think a somewhat similar process must occur in community discourse.
Just as obstructive editing can ruin relationships and produce poor writing, insensitive, careless or malicious accusations by the media can indeed divide members of a community. The student journalist cannot simply knock on department doors, telling each that they must change their ways. Such an approach inevitably trivializes the hard work of others, and I think it turns off readers as well.
At the same time, a paper that strives only for features and feel-good stories will shortchange its readers and its community. Institutions like ASMSU are bestowed by students with real power and responsibility, and students deserve an independent group that keeps track of student government’s decisions.
Striking that editorial balance is tough, as we seek to simultaneously reflect the good work of those on campus and offer perspectives on how that work could be considered or accomplished differently. Overzealousness for critique can make it easy to overlook the exceptional efforts of others, while reluctance to raise tough questions will leave them unanswered.
In trying to accomplish both, we at the Exponent start by recognizing that we want our peers to succeed and our campus to thrive. When an Exponent columnist, our Editorial Board or I offer feedback to an individual or group, we think it should always be delivered for their benefit and the benefit of those they represent. Funded in part by student money, we ourselves are a public entity committed to the common cause of making MSU a better place.
Sometimes the resulting perspectives yield insights, sometimes disdain. I hope each one offers — like my friend’s betting quip — a mixture of both. But all students, especially those who learn in an editorial environment, can contribute to the reflective, ongoing and mosaic discourse so necessary for strong communities. Those individuals or groups who find themselves at the receiving end of critical commentary must keep that in mind.
Moreover, in drawing out those critiques publically, we hope to present a clear portrait of the importance and complexity of the considerations at-hand, so that more students can join the conversations that nourish communities. If our newspaper has an “agenda” when covering ASMSU, Montana Hall or any other public institution on campus, it’s our hope that our columns will open portals for participation into the process of representative governance.
I believe newspapers, at their best, can provide one of the most effective mechanisms by which a community can develop a culture of reciprocal openness. Our aim at the Exponent is to provide that public service on MSU’s campus.
As we continue our experiments to that end, I hope you will let us know how we are doing.