Open letter to ‘Cedars’

Once upon a time, I was News Editor for Cedars, the bi-weekly student newspaper of Cedarville University. Times were fun, I learned how to manage people (and how not to manage them). I published a few grating opinions that didn’t receive much response because there wasn’t much participation in the newspaper.

But now I’m at Columbia College Chicago, and Cedars has been re-designed, re-staffed, and is rearing to go once again. I applaud their efforts to resist the anti-media culture that seeps from the school’s hallowed halls. (Or, rather, seeps from the schools trustees and donors, but I won’t get into that now.)

Still… surely they can do a better job than this.

Just now I inquired about whether they have separate websites for on-campus and off-campus viewers. Stooping that low for preemptive damage control is a sad possibility, but not the saddest part of the setup.

That’s just simply the journalism. (Update, 2:15 p.m. CT: Cedars staff confirmed, via a comment on their Facebook page, that only one version of the website exists. Hooray!)

I want to say something. Hmm…

I literally can’t find a way to contact them other than posting a message on their Facebook page, so I’ll have to post my open letter here for the time being. I wish I didn’t have to put it in the open, but them’s the breaks. I’ll take it down if I get a message from them saying they get the point. Here goes nothing, after the break…

Dear Cedars staff:

For the record, I don’t mean to publicly put down my former student paper; only help it. I’ve focused on Miyah Byrd’s “Cedarville Trims Staff, Focuses on Affordability” because so far it appears to be the only topic worthy of a story in the news section.

1. Isn’t a “staff reduction” more typically referred to as a layoff?

2. Isn’t “released” an insider euphemism?

3. How much is a “limited” tuition increase? (Is it the whopping $200 the Pell Grant is expected to increase?)

4. “If universities are to deliver on our mission of providing each generation with the skills they need to be lifelong leaders, we must be strategic in our decision-making as well as careful stewards of our resources.” —did Brown really speak that, word for word? Because it sounds like a written statement. Press release or e-mail. Readers lose trust when it sounds like you didn’t physically talk to who you’re implying you talked to. If it’s a written statement (and if admin was ONLY willing to give you a written statement), say it’s a written statement.

5. The passive voice present throughout the piece leaves me stunned. It’s obvious the writer is (and editors are) trying to distance the actor from the actions. So obvious that students who aren’t Communications or Lang and Lit majors will notice something’s going on, and probably think poorly of the paper’s objectivity without really being able to say why.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand Cedarville’s staff was inflated before this layoff. But even if that’s the official position on the paper’s opinion pages, its (supposedly objective) news journalists need to consider the perspectives of the people being laid off. If literally none of them want to comment, maybe THAT’s the story. If admin won’t give any contact info for those laid off, say that in the story, and track down a few yourself. Shouldn’t be that hard.

And don’t get me wrong: I understand it’s difficult to do a story on a budget when administration won’t let you see that budget. But it’s possible, I’m learning. Take Mick Dumke.

Mick Dumke is everything Cedars wasn’t when I was there (and still isn’t, I’m finding). He’s the political reporter for Chicago Reader, and he doesn’t take “no” for an answer. The city wouldn’t give him a particular budget, so he talked to a lot of people, off-the-record. A LOT of people. Eventually he learned the right questions to ask, and asked them of a few people, on-the-record. He came up with the following articles.

http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-chicago-shadow-tif-budget/Content?oid=1218391

http://www.chicagoreader.com/TheBlog/archives/2009/12/04/the-city-releases-the-shadow-budget

http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/shadow-budget-tif/Content?oid=1251320

Please note: I’m not blaming Ms. Byrd; I’m blaming those tasked to keep biased prose out of the student newspaper, as well as those tasked to keep students who haven’t yet had enough experience from publishing there. If I were future-famous-journalist Ms. Byrd, I’d be a little upset someone let me publish a story like this. If I were a potential-employer-news-outlet and saw this clip, I’d think twice about considering a CU grad again. However, if I were a public relations firm, I’d probably hire based solely on this.

Very sad.

Sincerely,

Your friend Brandon

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