Lack of financial support makes journalism inaccessible at Mac

Rebecca Edwards, News Editor

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I was an editor for the news section of The Mac Weekly for two years. Now, I’m out of money, I’m out of time, and as of this article, I have resigned from my editorial position — because at Macalester, if you want to be a student journalist, you’d better be able to afford it.

Like too many small colleges, Macalester doesn’t pay (or selectively pays) its newspaper staff. That ought to change — because for a school that prides itself on inclusivity, making journalistic work inaccessible to those who rely on other jobs or must prioritize their health and schoolwork is unjustified.

For those unfamiliar with the inner workings of The Mac Weekly, I’ll explain: there are three paid positions on the paper (Ad Manager, Web Editor and Editor-in-Chief) each of which is paid hourly based on time spent in the office (without exceeding their work-study award, where applicable). Staff members in those jobs may choose to receive class credit instead of pay for their work.

There are six sections of the paper, each managed by one or two unpaid section editors and associate section editors. The editors are supported by unpaid staff and contributing writers, who write on assignment as frequently or infrequently as they like throughout the semester.

Section editors put in varying hours depending on the amount of content they publish. They are required in the office during Tuesday and Wednesday night layouts until their articles and pages are fully edited, and many moonlight as managing editors (who stay until the bitter, 4 a.m. end of Wednesday layout) at least once a month. Editors also host one-hour section meetings once a week where writers pitch or are assigned stories for the upcoming issue.

All of this means that in-office hours for section editors vary from a lucky seven per week to a less lucky fifteen — and that’s not including the time it takes to write articles, conduct interviews and support writers. All inclusive, most section editors spend at least ten hours each week working for their section, if not upwards of twenty.

To publish a special issue, like “Colonial Macalester,” the time commitment can double. And with every extra hour in the newsroom, something is getting cut: time spent on schoolwork, time at a job that pays or sleep.

For students under financial duress, working a standard job and editing for the paper can be the time equivalent of a full-time, forty-hours-a-week position for half the pay — all while managing four courses, personal health and other commitments. That is a problem. Luckily, there are tried-and-tested solutions in place at colleges and universities across the country.

The University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Daily, for instance, pays contributors a stipend per article and editors a stipend per semester. Metro State University’s The Metropolitan pays its editorial staff a stipend, but not contributing writers. Columbia University’s weekly publication, The Spectator, pays editorial positions hourly. St. Thomas’s TommieMedia does the same.

I would support implementing any of these systems, or simply expanding the one already in place at The Mac Weekly, to include more than three positions. I would even support a system that just makes it easier for students to register a time-intensive, extra-curricular learning experience as an independent study for course credit, as is possible for internships. But to rely on volunteer work, as the paper so far has, is bad for the volunteers and bad for The Mac Weekly.

I should note (though maybe it goes without saying) that the newspaper is not the only student group that provides unpaid labor for the college: members of MCSG, student activists and writers and editors for other publications (looking at you, SPACES, Home and Chanter) are in the same boat, and many of those groups don’t have any paid staff. 

For my purposes, I’m sticking to discussion of The Mac Weekly — not because I think the work it does is more valuable (I don’t) but because I have a word limit and it’s the organization I know inside and out. I would support any initiative to pay or provide class credit to students working for the benefit of the campus community.

Because of my personal predicament, I do have some beef with this situation. But my real concern has nothing to do with me. I was lucky enough to work for the paper for two years — there are great writers on campus who won’t get that opportunity. And for those who don’t have the time to invest in an unpaid part-time job, it will limit their access to the journalism industry should they choose to pursue a role in it after graduation.

Working for a college newspaper is often considered a prerequisite to working in the newspaper business — just plug ‘journalism’ into the Handshake search engine to see how many internships request experience at a school publication. Working at a weekly paper with tight deadlines is an invaluable experience to prospective reporters and should not be kept on lockdown.

The argument could be made that paying student journalists, making them employees of the school, would limit their ability to hold the school’s administration accountable.

To that I say, the Editors-in-Chief are already employees of the school, and I don’t think the paper has so far failed to be critical of the institution. My experience leads me to believe that student journalists take their work plenty seriously even when it would be better for their grades, health or wallet not to, and I don’t think an accompanying paycheck would change that.

Besides, creating a more inclusive newsroom could significantly improve and diversify the content of the paper. Journalistic work provides writers and editors a unique opportunity to engage with the campus, amplify community voices, educate and check power — all of which is done better when students with varied interests and perspectives participate in the process.

The Mac Weekly can’t reach its full potential if the only people who can participate are those who can afford to, or if its staff lacks the necessary time and resources to give journalism their full attention — which is where I find myself now.

I loved being a news editor, despite (and sometimes because of) the insanity of the hours and the intensity of the work, and stepping down is not my first choice. But I believe in the power of this publication, and I know that The Mac Weekly does its best work when staff members write, report and edit like it’s their goddamn job. I suggest Macalester give them a reason to.

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