The State of HBCU Newspapers

At the recent 8th Annual HBCU National Newspaper conference, hosted by NC A&T from Feb. 8-11, students gathered to share their concerns. In addition to free speech issues, the problem with finding dedicated staffers was almost a unanimous question.

A few HBCU newspapers come out weekly or more often. This is often not from a lack of desire on the part of the senior staff, but merely a question of how. Without the staff to write, edit, design and produce a paper, it is impossible for an editor-in-chief to publish a paper so frequently on his or her own.

Consistency is a problem all over. On Tuesday nights, The Hilltop, the only daily newspaper at a HBCU, holds budget meetings where all interested students are welcome to take stories or suggest their own. Some nights the office is packed full of potential writers, and some evenings there’s only a handful, according to the staff.

“We don’t always have writers,” said Charreah Jackson, managing editor for the paper, “but it’s our job to make do with what we have. We still have a paper to put out, and we have to keep our eyes on that goal.”

Despite this, The Hilltop is one of the lucky ones. It benefits from an understanding administration, support from faculty and staff, dedicated editors and a large pool of writers.

“We have our problems, yes, but overall, we have it better than a lot of other HBCU papers,” Jackson said. “The administration is a lot more tolerant here, and our staff is very dedicated.”

Founded in 1924 by Zora Neal Hurston, The Hilltop went daily last spring with the full backing of administrators.

On the decision to go daily, journalism professor and adviser to The Hilltop, Yanick Rice Lamb said, “We’ve had discussions within the department of journalism and with administration to talk about the best way to proceed. We’re all on the same page, and that has helped us avoid a lot of the problems other universities have experienced.”

The problems at some HBCUs range from pulled funding to confiscated newspapers to prior editorial content review.

At the North Carolina A&T Register, an administrator insisted on approving the quotes in a story about changes in the school’s general education requirements. The editor of the Register prefaced the story with a note alerting readers to that fact that the administrator “requested that The A&T Register allow him to preview the story, but that is against our policy.”

Even without such blatant prior review policies, students must deal with school officials fighting them at every turn. Often, universities put their public relations interests ahead of facilitating a learning environment for student journalists.

Officials may attempt to convince students there is no story where one actually exists, or they may insist upon running a press release or memo in the paper. In 2003, the Hampton Script was confiscated for running a memo on page 3 instead of the front, as requested by then-acting president JoAnn Haysbert.

While nothing quite so dramatic has occurred since, other schools, including Howard, pressure the student paper to include content not produced by the staff. In January, the Office of the President requested that The Hilltop run a list of the more than two dozen books on President H. Patrick Swygert’s reading list. The list was to accompany a story about the selections. However, due to space restraints, an abbreviated list of ten books was published.

“The pr (public relations) people at the university were really pushing that we run a story and that the whole list be in the paper,” Hilltop campus editor Ayesha Rascoe said. “They thought it would be good pr. When we didn’t print the whole list, they let us know that they were not happy.”

Although the only consequences suffered by the staff were several vocal disapprovals, the situation remains problematic for students who are trying to put out a newspaper.

“It’s just an example of how the pr people don’t understand that we are a newspaper, not a newsletter,” Rascoe said. “Our job is not necessarily to promote the university.”