EDITORIAL: Free Student Presses Help Meet the Demand for Local News

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EDITORIAL: Free Student Presses Help Meet the Demand for Local News

By The Editors

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January 29 is national Student Press Freedom Day, a day sponsored by the Student Press Law Center to celebrate the accomplishments of student journalists across the country and the importance of student press freedom. It marks the anniversary of the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision, which restricted the rights of student journalists by authorizing censorship in some cases.

Since that decision’s frightening infringement on First Amendment rights, 14 states, including Illinois, have passed “New Voices” legislation—a law that more strongly protects the free speech rights of student journalists. Now, according to Illinois law, student presses are exempt from censorship, except in extreme cases like libel and the encouragement of violence.

As a result of this law, the staff of the Niles West News has the legal rights of the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. With these rights come great responsibility; one that increasingly compensates for the deterioration of local journalism.

With the decline in local newspapers, free student presses like ours are becoming increasingly important pieces of the local news puzzle. According to the Brookings Institution, over 65 million Americans live in a place where there is only one local newspaper or none at all. The traditional newspaper business model—one in which local news was sustained mostly by classified advertisements and supplemented by subscriptions—has become increasingly obsolete with the advance of free, online journalism. From 2008 to 2018, print newspapers saw their revenues decline by 68 percent.

Declining local news represents a catastrophe for journalism and democratic engagement. Localities whose newspapers closed experienced a concurrent decline in both the number of candidates running for local office and the area’s voter turnout on election days. Those communities are also more likely to be severely politically polarized.

Local news draws communities together; it is the first line of defense for a democracy.

When many of us think of a student newspaper, we likely think of coverage centered mostly on the school’s clubs and activities; articles predominantly focused on what happened on a class’s field trip or how much money an organization raised. These are certainly necessary and good functions of a school newspaper—these events are newsworthy and relevant to the newspaper’s main audience. The staff of the Niles West News prides itself on our enduring coverage of school events, which are and will always be a mainstay of our front page.

But it is necessary to remember the true focal point of journalism: news-writing and reporting as a method of accountability, sorting through facts, and telling stories that have a meaningful impact on the local community. With the decline in local journalism, student newspapers must begin to pick up the mantle of pursuing accountability and truth and become a central component of local news. Indeed, we already are; our newspaper receives an average of 30,000 views each month. Having an audience of that size is both a privilege and a responsibility.

It is also necessary to acknowledge that the reason we are able to produce high-profile coverage that benefits our audience is our press freedom. Working in a public school allows us to publish without the burdens of prior review or prior restraint, two legal modes of censorship that many school newspapers struggle with. We also strongly benefit from the openness of the school community to be a part of our coverage; students, teachers, administrators, and district leaders all regularly contribute to our reporting, which improves the accuracy of our news and solidifies our commitment to provide fair, neutral, and balanced coverage to all.

Press freedom is not something we take for granted. This commemorative day exists to call attention to the fact that many schools continue to struggle with suppression and prior restraint. As our community and localities across the country grapple with the loss of local news, student newspapers must continue to be afforded the utmost press freedom in order to produce the kind of coverage communities demand and deserve.