“The Bucknellian was my college education” — Former Editors-in-Chief speak on student journalism

Bucknellian+staff+circa+1992

Bucknell University Archives

Bucknellian staff circa 1992

“Who reads The Bucknellian, right?”

While at a Bucknell Student Government (BSG) meeting earlier this week, that was the pitch that I made for people to apply for the paper’s staff. The inside joke — that we publish exclusively for Brent Papson and our family — is a common refrain here at the paper. It’s a joke… well, mostly.

But it belies a deeper truth.

The role of journalism, including the journalism of The Bucknellian, is rapidly changing in accordance with larger social trends. That is fully undisputed. Why we’re here — what The Bucknellian does and what it should do — is a bigger question to answer, and one we’re thankful we don’t have to answer alone.

I had the chance to speak with a few who have recently served as Editor-in-Chief for the paper. They shared their experiences on The Bucknellian, what they’ve learned, and their vision for student journalism as a whole.

Nancy Campbell ’85 — now the Department Head of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — was one of the first who I spoke with. She oversaw The Bucknellian’s “final issue” in 1983, and spoke warmly of her experiences directing student journalism here at the University.

 

As The Bucknellian is in a unique position to document the events of the University and Lewisburg from a more detached perspective — “stewards of the public record” as this year’s editor Griffin Perrault ’22 affectionately put it — this sort of work draws a variety of dedicated people.

“We had a lot of fun—our editorial meetings were raucous. Even though we were stressed and sleep-deprived,” Campbell said, “we were smart, serious, frenetic and deeply immersed in what we were doing.”

Culture, too, was a shared thread throughout the conversations I had.

“The paper was fun to work on when I was there,” said Ben Kaufman ’14, “we wanted to create an environment where people could have fun and try new and different things.”

The Bucknellian has comprised a “motley crew of students from all grades, all majors, all interests, all talents,” Morgan Gisholt Minard ’17 said, who’s now a journalist for the BBC News.

“It was an incredibly fun environment (she says fondly, reminiscently, hopefully?!) and the level of collaboration between all areas of the staff was something we tried hard to foster,” Minard said. That’s her parenthetical, by the way.

E. J. Crawford ’99 remembers The Bucknellian as “a really good, collegial atmosphere.” Even though there were often disagreements on editorials and coverage, “I felt like we all came together each week to put out a product we could be proud of,” Crawford said.

Kaufman and his staff was focused on a club-like atmosphere and “working together, putting out the best paper that we could,” he said.

In a way, he and his peers could “express ourselves creatively in a way that Bucknell’s education wouldn’t necessarily let us” otherwise.

And producing a great physical and digital edition was validating.

“Seeing students on campus and in town picking up the physical paper that we’d poured so much time and effort into every week, and receiving emails from peers and university staff about how the Bucknellian was a publication worth reading ‘for the first time in a while’ confirmed that the entire staff’s efforts were paying off,” Gisholt Minard said.

“We had a mission. There was drama. There were antics,” and, in a way, Campbell said, “being at The Bucknellian was my college education.”

And creating The Bucknellian has been a formidable mission, at that. Nearing 30 pages of content some years, the act of assembling the paper is a feat in and of itself.

“While it was a huge undertaking and project every week, it’s something with which I could repose trust in with my staff,” said Perrault, this academic year’s outgoing Editor-in-Chief.

Coming together to The Bucknellian’s offices helped facilitate the process.

“We were in the basement of Roberts,” Kaufman said, “one of the scarier places to find yourself on a random day on campus. There were no windows so it could be any time of day down there and look the same.”

Campbell remembers the heating pipes’ near-constant clanging amid the din of hot wax pasting and a full film lab. With those tools, “we prepared camera-ready copy, editorial cartoons, photos, ads, and other art,” Campbell said by hand.

Brett Tomlinson ’99 spoke of Roberts’ 80-degree heat in the middle of winter. “There must have been a furnace room nearby,” Tomlinson said.

Those old offices in Roberts sported, according to Gisholt Minard, “slouching couches, less-than-stellar internet connection, aging computers on which to do layout spreads.”

The Bucknellian completed its move to its permanent location at Stuck House in 2016, leaving behind the decades-long legacy of working in Roberts. It shares the house with VBU streaming radio and a WVIA satellite station.

“Say what you will about location being unimportant, but Roberts was literally in a basement near a boiler room,” Perrault said. “Moving to the new location centrally located on campus — even if it might sometimes be cramped quarters with old software — shows the paramount importance of student communications in daily life,” Perrault said.

 

Part of what The Bucknellian does is report on its eponymous University. That sort of inside-out understanding of the University means working with all players: faculty, students, parents, alumni, staff and upper administration alike.

Any time The Bucknellian wants to hear from a staff member for an article, for instance, we must contact the University’s Director of Media Relations. That means developing and maintaining a relationship with the University’s leadership itself.

Crawford spoke positively of his staff’s relationship with administration and BSG. He recalled, though, after a negative reception to an editorial “stating explicitly that [the Bucknellian wasn’t] an organ of the university,” Crawford said,  his current career helped to frame The Bucknellian’s relationship to administration.

He now works at Yale as a Senior Director of Marketing and Communications for their alumni association and can “see the other side of the coin.”

“I do believe that Bucknell was acting — and continues to act — in the best interests of the students,” Crawford said.

Campbell also spoke on that relationship.

“To us, being ‘independent’ meant not being an ‘organ’ of administration or student government,” she said, “and having the autonomy to deliberate editorial positions based on documented evidence,” Campbell said.

However, Campbell still emphasizes the importance of a fully independent publication, especially through her experience serving as an informal advisor to another student-run publication.

“The Bucknellian needs to represent student voices independent of the University administration and student government,” Campbell said. “My views on that have not changed.”

Crawford emphasized fair, fact-based and good-faith reporting as the goal of student journalism. No institution is perfect, he said, and because “I know we saw it as our responsibility to report on the university accurately and truthfully,” Crawford said, not all coverage would be purely positive.

“I do feel like we did our very best,” Crawford said, “and in retrospect, I appreciate all within the administration who gave us the room to grow.”

Campbell spoke differently of her relationships with the leadership of universities.

“Administrators get nervous when students have autonomy,” Campbell said.

Perrault averred similarly.

“Consistent with their role as a private institution, the administration tends to impose barriers to the release of potentially adverse or negative information about them,” he continued. “I don’t blame them — they need to promote a positive image of themselves and the University — but that attitude impedes our duties as journalists to get information relevant to the student population,” Perrault said.

“BSG is often treated the same as the Bucknellian,” Perrault said, “their concerns and questions are often dismissed or only considered with secondary importance. We share BSG’s opinion, of course, that issues like police accountability, food insecurity, University finance and tuition are really the central questions of higher education right now” Perrault said.

University administration had actually tried to invade or sway those in the newsroom during Campbell’s time at the University, according to her.

When that happened, she said, “we resisted.”

“The Bucknellian was not a compliant culture, in any sense of the word,” Campbell said of her staff in the early 80s. “We were scrappy. We were always pointing out what could be done better. We thought that was our job,” Campbell said.

Gisholt Minard described more warmly her interactions with administration. “We had a mutually respectful and cordial relationship with individuals in the Office of Communications,” Gisholt Minard said.

She described a delicate dance: “holding a powerful institution to account for its many shortcomings and areas for growth, while maintaining a relationship that allows you access to tell the stories that help your readership better understand the community they exist within.”

“With a few exceptions, the University did not try to interfere with any of our coverage — and when they did, it provoked robust conversation about the purpose of an independent news media, for which we were always grateful,” Gisholt Minard said.

 

All the former editors that I spoke with agreed that this sort of work and culture has proved deeply informative in the rest of their lives.

For instance, Kaufman’s staff “without thinking much, changed the font of the title The Bucknellian.” The impact of that significant choice, as he described it, “helped us understand the gravity of changing a detail about your brand… which has stuck with me throughout my career,” Kaufman said.

Tomlinson said skills he learned at The Bucknellian were vital for him. “I have written and edited every day of my working life, and I think that’s true for people in many professions, not just those who work for publications,” Tomlinson said.

“Knowing how to write clearly is enormously helpful; knowing how to revise is even more valuable,” Tomlinson said. “A newspaper forces you to do both, on deadline.”

Crawford, too, shared that the writing editing skills from The Bucknellian laid the groundwork for a career in sportswriting and communications alike.

Campbell uses her skills from the paper “all day, every day — having written five books, hundreds of scholarly articles, blog posts, op-eds, reports, syllabi, conference papers, I’ve never missed a deadline.”

She also spoke kindly of the soft skills that The Bucknellian helps those involved to develop.

“I learned to build relationships with everyone from service and maintenance folks dealing with the building, to deans, administrative staff, and the president. The Bucknellian was where I first worked out how to organize people towards a common goal—getting a paper out every week—but also recognize that they are people who have other responsibilities,” Campbell said.

In fact, in a self-promotional full-page ad from 1986 — often done when there’s too much paper and not enough content — the staff’s tinges of pride and a sort of self-assuredness bled through.

To promote applying for the paper’s staff, the advertisement decries campus activities that only pad an already “pitiful” resume: “B.S.G. Rep.,” “Luigi Fiji Waiter,” and “Ultimate Frisbee.” Instead, the ad entreats the reader, one should apply for The Bucknellian.

“Full-time students are often just learning to take on additional responsibilities of independence and contribution to the community,” Perrault said. “They’re not gonna be perfect journalists; they’re going to have to take charge of things on their own schedule.”

That sort of reputation — with which today’s staff would describe themselves as hardworking and productive despite being almost comically scrappy — also follows from the fact that editorial staff receive no pay or credit for their efforts.

Being unpaid, said Kaufman, meant that he had to balance taking journalistic responsibilities seriously, but also know “that this was not the top priority for most students,” Kaufman said.

Campbell also described how relationships and shared goals were important to keeping The Bucknellian going.

“We at the Bucknellian couldn’t afford just to be critics,” she said. “We had to enroll everyone in the process or… they could just quit. We didn’t have any extrinsic rewards—it was all about satisfaction in a job well done,” Campbell said.

Building relationships — while no literal substitute for pay or credit — often formed the core of what differentiated The Bucknellian.

 

The former editors also discussed the idea of being “independent” in The Bucknellian’s context.

While Kaufman remembers having editorial autonomy for the most part, there were “definitely times we would want to write something and the school would interject,” Kaufman said.

However, “having autonomy is of key importance when it comes to an independent publication,” Kaufman said, like The Bucknellian.

“I think the importance of being viewed as being independent from the University, its power structures, and any kind of editorial manipulation,” Gisholt Minard said, “is paramount to earning the respect and trust of the people who the newspaper exists to serve.”

Avoiding bias — and even the possible perception of bias — is something that she emphasized.

“It’s a balancing act and something that I’ve personally wrestled with many times over the past decade, as democracy seems to have begun a slow slide into decline,” Gisholt Minard said.

Crawford added that the mistakes made from students’ independence created the space for both growth and learning. “The important thing is that those mistakes come from an honest place,” Crawford said.

“You need to have room to make those mistakes to find the great stories and tell them well, and that is first and foremost what I think all journalists should strive to do,” Crawford said.

Those challenges, Campbell acknowledged, were just part of the bargain for her staff.

“Independence comes with great responsibility, and we tried to get to right, to strike a balance, to ground our editorials and opinions pieces in the realities of Bucknell,” Campbell said.

At The Bucknellian, Perrault felt “independent, but not empowered.”

“There’s no active compulsion on the part of the University to cast something in a certain way,” Perrault said, “but I also feel no assistance to pursue the information considered important for students to know.”

 

The move from print-first consumption to digital media is something that several editors made sure to point out. As news was digitized and popularized, students considered how to contribute in different ways.

“In 1998, if you were quoted in the Bucknellian, your friends might tease you at the caf that night. But in 2022, that quote might pop up when a potential employer Googles your name. I suspect that students are less candid because of that,” Tomlinson said.

Kaufman said that the paper’s reception among students wasn’t ideal. “There was even a Twitter handle that was created making fun of the Bucknellian” which, he added sarcastically, “was super fun to watch as people enjoyed that more than the paper,” Kaufman said.

Crawford, in reminding that few students owned cell phones during his 1999 stint at The Bucknellian, said digital-first news “requires more pressure to break or cover stories as they happen, which can lead to more mistakes,” Crawford said.

He also said that it moves the incentive towards engagement as opposed to content, “which can lead media organizations away from core values of truth and fairness and toward stories that are sensational.”

Not only for student publications, Crawford said the balance is a tough one to strike, “but it’s critically important.”

Campbell reflected on the nature of how her content would have been received in 1985 if the “focused, eyes-down” and “individual screen” culture had existed then.

The Bucknellian has published online since the early 90s. With a few exceptions, though, most of the content pursued has stayed print-focused, and a physical Bucknellian has been delivered every year save the 2020-21 academic year due to COVID-19.

Due to the rise of online media, Campbell further lamented the closure of local news outlets, including ones run by students. “This loss,” Campbell said, “is incalculable.”

Over 100 local newsrooms closed during the pandemic alone, according to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

While the face of local journalism rapidly changes, “student publications are covering important stories that often are not being told elsewhere,” Tomlinson said. Publications like The Bucknellian, he says, should even contribute to local news beyond those associated with the University.

And even though some independent investigative news outlets exist in small spaces online — most notably ProPublica nationally and SpotlightPA locally — “even major newspapers lack investigative journalists,” Campbell said. “They are an endangered species.”

In fact, employment at newspapers has fallen over 50 percent since 2008, according to Stanford Business Insights. And of that, only a fraction of content produced is investigative in nature.

However, she also argued those changes in media, at the behest of non-investigative conservative outlets, have bled into academia.

“Student journalists have been attacked by their own administrations for doing their jobs as investigative journalists,” Campbell said. “The very students whose independent voices should be heard are shouted down.”

Indeed, student journalists at private institutions have faced challenges in the last few years. A recent survey found that over 60 percent of student journalists have been asked by their administration not to publish at least one article. At least ten percent reported threats of disciplinary action or funding cuts because of their reporting.

Campbell recalled an editorial from 1983 which she wrote with her staff.

It reads, “The voice of The Bucknellian has been misused or perhaps used to irresponsible advantage in the recent past. […] We have a voice, a voice which need not stoop to sensationalism nor to triviality. We have a voice and that means we have a commitment to journalistic responsibility. We feel it is high time to use that voice to make the campus aware of serious issues. We do not feel this is a radical demand.”

The sands have shifted, causing what The Bucknellian does to be all the more vital, she says.

“It was, and it still is,” Campbell said, “a radical demand for a free and independent press on a college campus like ours.”

A free student press, they overwhelmingly averred, also allows for a broad yet unique subset of voices and topics to be showcased.

“While Bucknell struggles with diversity issues, the media on campus should do its best to be as representative as possible of the different students that exist, which can allow them to showcase different opinions and thoughts without holding a bias towards any one idea,” Kaufman said.

Crawford reflected on the responsibility incumbent upon media: “find the important, interesting, and compelling stories and tell them well,” Crawford said, with honesty and fairness but also with deference to the truth.

“Media is a powerful tool to hold those in power to account,” Crawford said. “That doesn’t mean muckraking or sensationalizing, but a reliable, honest source of news has always been important — and perhaps never more-so than today.”

Gisholt Minard invoked Voltaire — “with some reservations, and aware of the pomposity” — when describing for what independent student journalism exists.

The famous “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” informed her ideas of what to discuss at the paper.

While carefully noting exceptions for calls to violence, questioning someone or some group’s humanity or existence, etc., she feels “reasonable, rather than radical, freedom of speech is something I’ve come to appreciate tenfold in my career as a journalist for BBC News, where our mission is to be free, impartial, and fair,” Gisholt Minard said.

 

I never thought that I’d end up writing for a newspaper.

I was never a particularly strong writer in high school: I produced dense copy, fragmented and vague ideas strung together with vocabulary I barely understood. It makes sense that I’m an engineering major, I guess.

So, it makes sense that the editors that I spoke with were unanimous that The Bucknellian teaches. It teaches writing and AP style, but also leadership, attention to detail and the importance of getting stuff done. It’s still flooring for me that for 125 years, a student-led effort has produced award-winning journalism and world-class journalists.

My time with The Bucknellian taught me so much. And it’s beyond encouraging to know that I’m not the only one who has learned, that my peers can continue to partake in such a foundational educational experience. As The Bucknellian rides the waves of media all-too-often corporatized and hyper-politicized, it’s comforting to know there’s some sort of niche for student journalism. I know neither my peers nor myself will let these skills go to waste.

As an editor, it’s been a singular honor to learn the ins and outs the University, to interview two Chiefs of Public Safety, to spend time with dedicated staff — just before I walk out the door somewhere else. Tragic comedy.

It’s my time now — as a senior, there are no more articles to write, no new investigations to lead nor opinions to opine. I may be done as a student, but the Bucknellian stays of and by students.

President Bravman often says that to believe in education is to believe in the future. I agree.

But, I also think that to believe in student journalism — impactful and challenging investigations by those receiving an education — is to believe in the future, too. A bright future: a future where students understand and question the systems and structures that govern them, where trusted, independent journalism informs peers, faculty, community members and former students alike.

The University will stay around. Hopefully, The Bucknellian does too. We need it.

 


Editor’s note: this article’s conclusion has been updated from its original version.

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