Robb Murray (1992-1995)

When I attended Minnesota State University (class of ‘95), the greatest decision I ever made was working for the student newspaper.
To this day working for The Reporter was the most fun I’ve ever had as a journalist. (Yes, it’s called “The Reporter,” which I always thought was kind of a weird name. I mean, the guy who gathered news and wrote up an article with facts and quotes, that’s “the reporter,” right? But I digress.)
While working there, I covered everything from tattoo artists to meningitis inoculations. I reviewed films and punk rock albums. I reported on an incident of academic fraud that ultimately resulted in the resignation of the vice president for academic affairs. It was exhilarating.
But perhaps the most fun I had working there was during what we called “production nights.” Those were the nights when we, as a staff, would take all the news articles and advertisements and classified ads and puzzle piece them all together into what we believed was a cohesive news product. Using rudimentary design software, dark room photography and gallons of Folgers coffee, we’d ride a caffeine wave late into Monday and Wednesday nights to put newspapers out twice a week. Mistakes were made. Classes were skipped. Grades suffered. And I wouldn’t change a thing.

Those production nights were really something. You learn a lot about people on hour eight of running strips of paper through hot wax machines for paste up. You could learn even more when you have to tear everything down because you spotted a headline typo at the last minute (and you pulled it down and redid it because you knew that the minute the issues hit the newstands a student reader would spot that typo and drop a letter to the editor into an inter-campus mail box calling for our heads … and he’d be right. We wanted to get it right for that guy, we wanted to get it right for the students). We were idealists and procrastinators. We truly thought we were making a difference, at least on campus. And some of us, myself included, wanted to make a difference in the world. Don’t think I achieved that, but hey, a guy can dream, right?
When the journalism bug bit me, its bite sunk deep into my soul, which is why my feelings for my college newspaper run deep. I honestly love that place. Although it’s physically in a different location in MSU’s Centennial Student Union, I still visit occasionally. The powerful magnetism that drew me to that place is still there. Maybe it’s waned a bit. Maybe it feels a little different … but it’s still very much there.
The other day I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw something that struck me as bold and brave and sad and telling all at the same time. That student newspaper I love so much has launched a social media/digital campaign to help raise money to keep it afloat. If you’re familiar with the concept of GoFundMe, then you know exactly the kind of campaign I’m talking about: online donation capability, shareable links, comment section, etc. They need help.
As my close personal friend Bob Dylan once wrote, the times they are a-changin’.
When I was editor of The Reporter for two years, we dealt with some budget issues. Seems college newspapers are always dealing with some kind of financial problem. Although I have to admit the problems I dealt with when I was running the place — “Do we have enough money for a new printer?” “Should we increase section editor pay by $7 or $8 per production night?” “Ad reps are a few percentage points below last year; how will we make that up?” — were far, far less profound than what’s happening these days.
The Reporter’s current editor, Maddie Diemert, is a bright and talented young woman who is going to be very successful someday (she already is!). It makes me sad that, right now, instead of presiding over a brood of idealistic and hungry student journalists covering the campus’ news, she’s having to worry about literally making ends meet, and using crowdfunding campaigns and Pizza Ranch fundraisers (which are great) to keep the lights on and keep staff paid. Helping her out is Jane Tastad, a state employee whose many years of experience handling the business side of things at The Reporter has been a godsend to every student who ever held the Editor job. She was like my mom when I was there, scolding me when I wrote or did something stupid (which was, sadly, more often than I’d care to admit). Without her shrewd understanding of the business side, The Reporter would be a very, very different institution.
In the middle of all of this, of course, is yet another decrease in the amount of funds The Reporter receives from Student Activity Fees. Hey, I get it, times are tough all over. There’s belt tightening happening in all corners of government. But I can’t help but wonder whether The Reporter — in an age when it has become popular to pile on the media — has sacrificed more than its fair share over the years. Each year a small group of students takes the big pot of SAF funds and decides how much to give out. Their decisions are then approved by the Student Senate. In years when The Reporter, in its watchdog role, has been critical of the senate, you can imagine how long it takes for feelings of vengeance to creep into the conversation about how much to cut the newspaper’s budget.
I wonder if a comparison can be ordered up to compare SAF reductions for The Reporter vs. other similarly funded groups; if I’m wrong I’ll shut up about that … but I’d be surprised if I was.
Hanging over it all is the changing state of the media industry.
It’s no secret that newspapers aren’t exactly the cash cows they used to be. When I first started at The Free Press, I remember hearing about newspaper profit margins for some of the larger media companies hovering in the 20-25% range for a few years. Today, that number for most newspapers is far lower, less than half for some. Some newspaper chains have member sites that are losing money. And many newspapers have shut down altogether. Remember the Rocky Mountain News in Denver? Gone. Albuquerque Tribune? Gone. Baltimore Examiner, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Tampa Tribune — all gone.
Decline in print advertising, of course.
The migration of classified advertising to online.
Traditional media initially put all content free online, then tried to reverse that insanity with paywalls after consumers were used to getting it all for free. We’re still digging out of that and having to explain to readers why journalism isn’t “free.”
Traditional consumers are, um, aging out of their consumption periods (tried to put that in the nicest possible way).
And there are other reasons, of course, but let’s not lose our focus, here.
Here’s the thing: Right now, more than ever, Minnesota State University needs The Reporter to be viable. It needs a place for the twice-weekly celebration of student achievements. It needs beat reporters to cover the football and soccer teams. It needs a team of student journalists eager to tell the stories of the lives that make the campus tick. And it needs a place that understands the campus identity, and gives students, faculty and staff a place to read about and share new ideas.
MSU is an institution that, I’m guessing, values things like free speech and freedom of expression. It better hold tight to the student media outlets it has left. A lot of things are going well for MSU right now. Athletics are dominant. Enrollment is performing better than most schools in the system; it currently has the highest enrollment by far in the MnSCU system. President Davenport’s administration seems, from the outside at least, to be a smoothly running machine. New buildings are going up, new partnerships with industry — at every turn MSU looks successful.
So I’ll just finish by saying this: Having a place like The Reporter — which has decades of history and scores of successful alumni — build crowdfunding campaigns and bus pizza joint tables for tips is a symptom. They’re struggling. If they keep struggling, and keep getting cut, young journalists will see the campus community doesn’t see them as a priority, and eventually they’ll go away.
Does the MSU community want to be the place that lost its student newspaper because it didn’t care?
I’m not saying someone should write them a check (though I should point out that many alumni, myself included, have done just that). What I am saying is that MSU is a community of intelligence. Let’s figure this out. A vibrant and successful student newspaper is good for everyone.

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