Photo illustration: Anthony Gerace. Sources: Hill Street Studios / Andersen Ross Photography Inc / David Soanes Photography / Leon Halip / Getty Images

How College Journalists Are Reshaping Media

The future of journalism is being written at America’s college newspapers

In November 2019, former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Northwestern University to make a speech he called “The Real Meaning of the Trump Agenda.” Sessions, who had been invited by the College Republicans, had been out of office for a year. But he was still an infamous figure of the Trump administration, an anti-migrant, anti-asylum, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-marijuana henchman who introduced “kids in cages” to American history.

His presence at a liberal school like Northwestern was bound to be viewed as a provocation. One student Facebook group called for a “Night of Action” protest in a parking lot outside Lutkin Hall, where Sessions was speaking. Another group of about 150 students went up to the building itself, banging on doors and windows and trying to make enough noise to disrupt the speech. One student broke a window with a skateboard, and others forced their way inside and were thrown out by campus police. The protesters shouted slogans like “I-C-E, K-K-K, how many kids have you killed today?” and “Fuck Jeff Sessions!” Sessions’ supporters countered with chants of “We’re not racists!” and “Trump 2020! Make America great again!” as they were escorted from the event by the police.

The Daily Northwestern, the school’s student newspaper, was there to cover it. A photographer snapped photos of the police skirmishing with the protesters and posted the pictures to Twitter. Reporters used a student directory to contact activists who attended the protests and interview them. The paper published two articles the next day.

One article focused on what happened inside the building. There were interviews with people in the crowd, which included pro-Sessions College Republicans, anti-Sessions students mostly intent on heckling him, and members of a “support group” that a representative from the school’s Division of Student Affairs said was supposed to create “an environment where we are listening and engaging and understanding different points of view.” The second focused on what was happening outside. Unlike other, nonstudent publications, the Daily Northwestern didn’t conflate the “Night of Action” protest in the parking lot, which was large and apparently peaceful, with the smaller but more aggressive one at the building.

Sessions’ appearance, and the protests against him, raised all kinds of questions about free speech on college campuses. Who should have access to the public square? What are the ethics of tolerating despicable fucks like him on campus? What are the ethics of keeping him out? The Daily Northwestern’s coverage described those issues, which is conventional for a news story in a newspaper, but offered no explicit editorial opinions, which is also conventional.

In the days after the event, students at the school, many of them people of color, complained to the newspaper staff about its coverage. They were upset about the photos that had been posted to Twitter and objected to the use of the directory to contact students for comment. (The photos were taken down shortly after.) One protester, a student named Ying Dai, tweeted that a photo of her at the protest, which captured her after being knocked to the ground by police, was “trauma porn.” The use of the directory, which was open to all Northwestern students, was viewed as an unfair reporting tactic. It wasn’t clear that the protesters actually wanted media coverage, which is a common aim of social activism. “We weren’t there to get in the newspaper,” Dai told the New York Times. “We weren’t there to get national attention.” There was also a more general sense that the Daily Northwestern should have done more to represent the harm Sessions’ presence caused students of color and other vulnerable groups. (At the time, half of the editors at the paper were students of color.)

Perhaps closer to addressing that general sense was an emergency resolution passed the day after the speech by the student government. It called on the administration to lessen academic workloads and temporarily loosen attendance requirements for marginalized students who may have been affected by the event. Daniel Rodriguez, a student senator who drafted the resolution, said, “You can’t expect such rigor and also expect such great performance when students aren’t able to have healing.”

A few days later, the editors of the Daily Northwestern responded to the complaints and published an apology for its coverage. “Last week, The Daily was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve.” They agreed that the paper’s photo coverage of the protest had “harmed many students” and acknowledged that posting the images to Twitter was “retraumatizing and invasive.” Contacting protesters through the student directory was an “invasion of privacy,” and the paper would stop the practice. They also described Sessions’ appearance as a “traumatic event” that set it apart from other kinds of stories and argued that it should have been reported with more “empathy.”

As the “paper of record for Northwestern,” the editors wrote, the goal was to “document history and spread information,” but “nothing is more important than ensuring that our students feel safe.”

College papers occupy an interesting niche in the journalism world. They do real reporting and break real news — during the pandemic, some of the best reporting about Covid-19 outbreaks on campuses have come from student papers — but they are also staffed and run by novice journalists who are just beginning to figure out the practice of reporting and editing.

I am a journalist and magazine editor with years of experience at national publications. In my estimation, the Daily Northwestern’s coverage was professionally done and impressive. You wouldn’t have found anything better in the New York Times or the Washington Post if either paper had chosen to cover a campus protest where no one was arrested or seriously injured. (They wouldn’t have because of another journalism convention: If it bleeds, it leads.) The articles were clear, fact-rich, and straightforward—a good example of how newspapers can provide the fabled “first rough draft of history.”

But these students aren’t — nor should they be — held to professional standards. They should also be allowed to question those standards and change them for their newsrooms. It’s part of their education, and it enables them to bring new ideas to professional publications when they graduate. That’s how the industry replenishes itself. The best reporters and editors from elite college publications such as the Daily Northwestern and others like it also serve as a pipeline to highly competitive entry-level jobs after graduation. The stakes for their work are real.

College newspapers break real news. But they are also staffed by young journalists who are just beginning to figure out the practice of reporting and editing.

The Daily’s apology was quickly plucked from the campus and dropped headlong into America’s culture wars. It became a national story, consuming an entire take and counter-take cycle online and in large publications. For some journalists, the paper’s response typified just about everything wrong with the cult of harm and trauma among millennials and Gen Zers. One reporter tweeted that the apology was “groveling” while another called it “a travesty and an embarrassment.” Matt Taibbi tweeted that he thought it was “an Onion piece at first,” and the New York Times ran a headline that actually read like The Onion: “The Daily Northwestern Apologizes to Students for Reporting.”

I would suspect that most of the journalists who read the apology (or probably read about it) were more confused than outraged. I know I was. As a journalistic practice, it seemed to make no sense. Why did students think there was a right to privacy at a public protest? Why did they believe Sessions’ mere presence on campus was enough to traumatize their fellow students? And why would the campus “paper of record” prioritize feelings of emotional safety among its readers over its primary mission to report the news?

The counternarrative to the criticism of the Daily’s apology focused, in part, on the paper’s editor-in-chief, Troy Closson, who is Black. Closson has now graduated and is a reporting fellow at the New York Times. During his tenure, he was the fourth Black editor-in-chief at the paper in its more than 135 years of publication.

“One of only [sic] black students in history to hold his position,” tweeted Wesley Lowery, who was then a reporter at the Washington Post and who is now at CBS News. “Student journalist who makes incorrect decision based on sincere desire to not harm marginalized campus group is publicly decried by industry’s most powerful (white) journalists. Definitely a lesson to be learned here!” (Lowery later deleted this tweet.) Others used it as an opportunity for lukewarm self-examination: “Yes, the Daily Northwestern screwed up. But who are we to judge?” was the headline of an article by Eric Wemple, also of the Washington Post.

Closson eventually tweeted his own response after a couple of days of intense criticism. He called on people to direct their anger toward him rather than the rest of the staff, and he conceded that parts of the apology were “over-corrected.” But he also said that his tenure as editor-in-chief had been devoted to the “incredibly challenging” task of balancing the paper’s coverage with his “racial identity” and that the Daily Northwestern had “historically failed students of color, particularly Black students.”

Perhaps the most striking assertion of the Daily Northwestern’s apology was that it had caused particular harm to “those who identify with marginalized groups.” (Its coverage did not characterize the racial or ethnic makeup of the protesters.) In its coverage, the Daily Northwestern had detailed the damage Sessions’ tenure as attorney general had subjected immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people, but it hadn’t directly stated a belief that seemed common among students who were concerned about the coverage — that there were groups on campus who were uniquely vulnerable to Sessions’ presence and the Daily’s traditional reporting tactics. That was the “empathy” the editors referred to when promising different standards for stories involving marginalized groups.

Troy Closson in the newsroom of the ‘Daily Northwestern’ in late 2019. He is now a reporting fellow at the ‘New York Times.’ Photo: Troy Closson

I take no issue with these assertions, but they are not typically a part of traditional newspaper journalism. That was made clear by Charles Whitaker, the dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, who published his own statement on the same day Closson tweeted his. Whitaker, who is Black, defended both the Daily Northwestern’s reporting and rebuked the apology. “Let me be perfectly clear,” he wrote, “the coverage by The Daily Northwestern … was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism.” Whitaker then explicitly addressed what had been implicit in the paper’s apology: “I patently reject the notion that our students have no right to report on communities other than those from which they hail, and I will never affirm that students who do not come from marginalized communities cannot understand or accurately convey the struggles of those populations.”

The controversy seemed to be part of a larger pattern of confrontations between students and student reporters about what journalism can and should do. In 2015, for example, student activists protesting racism at the University of Missouri at Columbia confronted two student journalists, one of whom was trying to take pictures of a group of tents being used as a safe space in the middle of campus. The second journalist, who was videotaping the encounter, refused to leave, and a white professor named Melissa Click, who was also protesting, called for “some muscle” to have him removed. Or, in 2019 at Harvard, where the student government voted to condemn the Harvard Crimson’s reporting because it sought comment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as part of its coverage of campus protest of the government agency. More than 900 people signed an online petition calling on the paper to apologize “for the harm they inflicted on the undocumented community” by contacting ICE, which did not reply.

For older, more established journalists, many of whom are white, and who are working in newsrooms with very different conventions and norms than a college campus, these conflicts might seem absurd and even a little frightening. But these journalists would do well to pay attention to what’s happening at campus papers. Young people are not inventing new standards for their newsrooms in a vacuum. They are acting out changes in the culture that extend beyond the campuses, and that touches everyone in the profession.

For this story, I spoke to more than a dozen journalism professors, working journalists, and student reporters last fall, including the editors-in-chief of some of the most highly regarded college newspapers in the country. Nearly all of them were familiar with what had happened at Northwestern, and opinions varied about whether the apology was a good idea or not. But they all saw the Daily Northwestern as part of a larger effort by college journalists to do something about what they saw as the connection between systemic racism and standard journalism practices.

One person I spoke with was Maryam Zafar, the editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun, who is Muslim. I asked her about the balance she has tried to strike between achieving diversity and sensitivity goals and conventional reporting standards. “I’m thinking of a nice way to phrase this, Ted,” she replied. She didn’t balance them at all, she explained, because they were not at odds with each other. In a country in which, as she put it, “the default framework of a story is still one in which the reporter is white and the story is white,” diversity only makes a true story truer.

Zafar’s views may seem straightforward and perhaps even inarguable. And they aren’t unique to college newsrooms. Efforts such as hiring more writers of color, interviewing more sources of color, and increasing coverage of marginalized communities are taking place — with very mixed levels of success and sincerity — at practically every outlet except ones that identify as conservative. But she is, in fact, talking about something that is a significant change to the traditional framework of newspaper journalism, which would define what she is saying as more like activism than journalism. Conventional wisdom about newspapers still holds that reporters have to be “objective.” This means they shouldn’t take sides in a political or social debate; they shouldn’t participate in protests, however righteous, or do activism work, however necessary. Some older reporters think they shouldn’t belong to a political party or even vote. They are supposed to act as neutral arbiters of what is happening in society, the good old “first rough draft of history” folks. That sort of thinking leaves little room for debates over the possibility of “traumatizing” readers while reporting the facts.

This is pretty self-evident nonsense, of course. Objectivity may have a specific meaning in the philosophy department at Northwestern, but for journalists, it is a decidedly squishy adjective. The origins of America’s newspaper industry are plainly partisan, nonobjective, and financially driven. That truism about the “first rough draft of history,” which is most often attributed to Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham, only dates to the 1940s. And the period in which these views were widely adopted, according to political scientist Lee Drutman, writing in the New Republic, began in the 1950s and stemmed from “a consolidation of distribution technologies (more network television and fewer local newspapers), broad political consensus and bipartisanship, and a strong professional credo of independence.” These factors, Drutman added, with some understatement, “came together like never before and perhaps never again.”

Money also played its part. “Historically, prior to the 1830s, there were no nonpartisan newspapers,” Lewis Raven Wallace, the author of The View From Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, told me. “There was a shift in business model toward penny papers, and publishers had an incentive to sell a lot of papers and to sell advertising.” That financial model relied on big audiences to justify the rates papers charged for advertising. And the biggest audiences could be attracted by staying in the neutral, take-no-sides, objective middle. If you have even a cursory knowledge of what the internet has done to the financial fortunes of the media, you know this model, built on low-cost subscribers and high-cost ads, has broken down. But the gloss of objectivity has remained. For example, Wallace, who is transgender, was fired from their job at American Public Media’s Marketplace in January 2017 after refusing to take down a blog post on Medium titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it.” (American Public Media declined to comment on “personnel matters about current or former employees.”)

Reporters have prejudices based on their backgrounds and opinions that creep into their reporting, even if they try to keep them out — particularly if they try to keep them out, some might argue. “You’re not like a whispering wind asking a question,” was how Melissa Yasuko Morris, the editor-in-chief of UCLA’s Daily Bruin, put it. “You’re a journalist.”

These concepts were at the root of the bad doings over the Harvard Crimson’s request for comment from ICE. Calling for comment is a basic tenet of objective journalism. Reporters are supposed to give the subjects of a story, particularly those who come under criticism, a chance to respond to the reporting about them. Fair and balanced! But in this case, if ICE had responded, it would have meant giving it an opportunity to “balance” out the reporting with Donald Trump-approved doublespeak. That’s not just falsely objective, it’s unfair.

The origins of America’s newspaper industry are plainly partisan, nonobjective, and financially driven.

But the students didn’t actually take issue with the Crimson on these esoteric grounds. The online petition denounced the paper for the “cultural insensitivity” of its reporting and claimed that “in this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping [ICE] off.” Undocumented immigrants have legitimate reasons to fear and mistrust ICE, which has caused them, and immigrants of all kinds, undue suffering during both the Trump and Obama administrations. It didn’t seem to matter that the Crimson had taken steps to mitigate the risks the protesters might have faced from their reporting. The Crimson contacted ICE after the protests and, according to the paper, did not give identifying details, such as names, immigration status, or extended quotes, to the government agency. The petition’s writers, the students who signed it, and the student government, which in a sense represents the consensus of the student body, rejected these facts and the line of journalistic reasoning that underpinned them.

Another problem for the Crimson was that it got sucked into a long-running debate about language that became particularly tense during the Trump administration, when reporters were often unwilling, at least early in Trump’s presidency, to directly call lies lies, racism racism, and so forth. Comment can lead to euphemism — you’ve probably seen people go bonkers after reading about Trump’s “racially tinged remarks” — and euphemisms allow the powerful to hide. But it strikes me as a smaller crime, of omission, and one that can be fixed. The headline writers of the New York Times and the Washington Post are today considerably more forthright in calling Trump a lying sack of shit than they were in 2016.

Getting rid of the pretense of objectivity opens up some intriguing possibilities for newspaper journalists. Let’s say you agree that the first rough draft is a white history, as opposed to the history. That means there are other versions of the rough draft, which is really another term for the truth, and you’re going to have to choose, as a publication, which one you want to favor by publishing. There is a lot to this logic that could be argued about. But it isn’t some sort of cultural relativism thing. It’s not waffling about gray areas and complexity. It’s saying that the stories we tell are biased because they are made by people, who are biased. So, if you have to choose a truth, why wouldn’t you choose the one that protects the oppressed and struggles for justice?

The students I spoke with all seemed to agree with the premise that the traditional norms of journalism were white and that reforming those norms meant bringing diversity not just to the workplace but to the work.

To address that harm requires a lengthy series of steps and includes, among other things, directly acknowledging longstanding breaches between publications and communities of color and other minority groups on campus. It means undertaking, as many papers have, demographic studies of their staffs and, perhaps inevitably, issuing an apology for the low numbers of people of color. It includes new reporting and copy standards, such as making sure that reporters don’t only quote white and male experts and that Black people aren’t only quoted in stories about poverty or crime. “We want to make sure our coverage is not harmful or reductive,” says Raymond Rapada, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California, who is Filipino-American. “Everything is covered in terms of reporting on protected classes.”

Forty-four journalists of color at the ‘Philadelphia Inquirer’ staged a virtual walkout after this headline was published during Black Lives Matter protests in June. Leadership later apologized, and the top editor resigned.

It’s possible that America’s newsrooms are so irremediably racist, sexist, xenophobic, and rife with anti-LGBTQ+ bias that they can’t change. (People of color make up 22.6% of reported newsroom jobs according to the News Leaders Association’s 2018 Diversity Survey, its most recent.) In October, a group called Media 2070 made that kind of argument in a manifesto that traced an unbroken chain of racial aggression in the U.S. media stretching from the present day’s much-publicized uprisings to the colonial era. The Boston Gazette, an early American newspaper that was founded in 1719, ran more than 1,100 slave sales ads, which resulted in the sale of approximately 2,000 people. Media 2070 called for “media reparations” for Black people, potentially levied by the federal government, describing it as “central to achieving a fully realized, multiracial democracy” in a country that had “historically weaponized [media] narratives to further the political goals of protecting and preserving a white-racial hierarchy.”

It’s also possible to link the slow pace of change to the industry’s existential financial problems. The status quo is bleak and relatively well understood. The nation’s papers have been in steep decline for years, cratering under private equity ownership and falling even further due to the nearly apocalyptic impact of the pandemic. Legacy media corporations such as Hearst and Condé Nast face a bleak future in which glossy magazines, their raison d’etre, will continue to wither.

The reckonings taking place in newsrooms all across the country are certainly not free of this context but neither do I think they are too tightly linked. Fix the money, and you would still need to fix the morality.

The questions I asked students were guided by curiosity about how they understand those fears. For example, one thing I wanted to know was whether the editors-in-chief had considered stepping down in favor of a candidate of color or someone from a more marginalized group. None had. Some said there were no other experienced and interested candidates in any racial or ethnic category. “I was the only candidate,” said the Daily Bruin’s Morris, who is half-white and half-Japanese. “It’s not a job in high demand.”

Rapada, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan, said he, too, had not considered stepping down. “I don’t know if you’ve taken a look at the rest of the managing team,” he said, “but I’m the only person of color on it.” (There are now five students of color on the managing team, all appointed by Rapada.) The Daily Trojan’s 2020 diversity report, however, showed that Asian Americans were not a minority group on the paper. They made up 38% of the staff, compared to 31% for white people, 9% for Latinx people, and 6% for Black people.

If you have to choose a truth, why wouldn’t you choose the one that protects the oppressed and struggles for justice?

That may be an unfair imbalance at USC or in college, but it doesn’t translate to professional newsrooms. According to the News Leaders Association’s survey, people in their categories for Asian ethnicities make up just 6.4% of the media workforce and 4.5% of leadership. Still, Rapada said he would be fine with fewer Asian Americans on the staff in the future. “Even though I love having Asian Americans represented in media, our goal [at the Daily Trojan] is to be better representative of our campus community and to recruit more Black and Latinx journalists. I’m all for making space for those communities, even if that means hiring less Asian Americans.”

This, too, was not an uncommon sentiment. Rose Wagner, the editor-in-chief of New Orleans’ Loyola University’s The Maroon, who is white, said she had “focused my term as EIC on ‘stepping back,’ not writing much, and trying to create an infrastructure for other students to step up and define the space.” She added that the “most important thing is recognizing my whiteness, but also not just my whiteness, but also all the things I don’t know.”

Only one editor-in-chief, Anna Pogarcic of the University of North Carolina’s Daily Tar Heel, who is white, objected to the question. “I have a lot of issues with that. Women still face a lot of different battles in media. It’s not fair to ask women to do that. It’s not a fair question,” she said, adding that there was a “‘white savior complex’ to it. ‘The only way someone from an underrepresented group can be EIC is that a white person let them do it.’ Not a fair question.”

I didn’t ask Maryam Zafar, at Cornell, if she thought about stepping down. She is a Muslim woman — the question didn’t seem to apply. Instead, I asked her if she thought white editors-in-chief should. She said no. “It reminds me of something I read somewhere about the glass cliff, which is about women but could be applied to other identities,” she said. The “glass cliff” is a term for how women are most likely to be promoted during periods of crisis at work, when the chances for failure are highest. “Put a person of color in front, and wham: We fixed diversity! Then, when that person doesn’t fix everything, they fall off the glass cliff.”

I asked the student editors-in-chief if they planned on pursuing a career in journalism after graduation, like Closson had. The answers were mixed, but most said they were. UCLA’s Morris wasn’t sure. The practical considerations weren’t great, she said. “This is the year that I’m looking at the job market and engaging with economic issues. And it seems like if all years are like this one, journalism is a terrifying place to be.” But it wasn’t just job security that made her hesitate. “One of the big issues in journalism is the diversity of newsrooms,” she said. “As a white and Asian person, I’m not sure I’m needed to improve the field.”

It saddened me a little that she would choose to exclude herself. But what could I say? People of color have been excluded for many years and not often by choice. Or, as Lewis Raven Wallace put it, “Newsrooms are a winnowing down that is inherently political. It is tied up in who we are, our worldviews, and the stated mission of the outlet.” Change the people, you change the worldview.

Zafar, who was talking to me on the phone while she was at the grocery store, turned the table on these kinds of questions when she asked me why I think diversity matters. “I want to ask you to answer that,” she said. “Why does it matter in a newsroom in this context?”

I didn’t reply right away. Like a lot of journalists, I suppose I’m more comfortable posing questions than answering them. Plus, if there was one consistent perspective I had come across in my conversations with college journalists, it was that people’s ideas were essentially defined by their social characteristics and status. You think as you do because you are who you are. I immediately felt self-conscious of my white maleness.

There was also the risk of saying something offensive, a possibility I was aware of every time I opened my mouth to a young person. I wasn’t scared to answer, but I was definitely wary of saying the wrong thing. I ended up blathering something about diversity creating a fair environment, one in which everyone’s achievements are more valuable because they are earned on an even playing field rather than inherited by a right of privilege.

“I want everyone to have a fair shot,” I said.

Zafar politely batted that away as “sufficient” and then reeled off a lengthy reply.

Diversity matters, she said, “because we are all living life a little bit differently. My job at a student paper is to chronicle what is happening. And if I don’t have people from the community that I am covering doing the first draft of history, how can I know that I am telling as much about it as I can? It’s silly to assume that every student on campus is independent of their race, sexuality, and immigration status. Experiences are different and shaped by social identity. If you want a good shot at doing journalism, at saying what is happening with some degree of accuracy and a high degree of purpose, having a staff that reflects those situations is important. People are best equipped to recognize flaws in institutions that have harmed them. And if everyone with the potential to be good at journalism is not in their newsroom because they don’t think they can exist in that space — that is a problem.”

The headquarters of the ‘Cornell Daily Sun.’

I spoke with Troy Closson by phone recently. He said he hadn’t read the Daily Northwestern’s apology for more than a year and asked for a moment to review it on his computer. Closson was thoughtful, soft-spoken, and careful with his words. When I asked if he’d experienced any racism during a college internship at the Chicago Sun-Times, he paused. “I can’t think of an example that I’d want to say,” he said. He also told me he didn’t think the Daily Northwestern had issued an apology. “After it went out and people were tweeting it, that’s what everyone was calling it. It was confusing for me.” He called it a statement, a way to respond to the negative feedback they had received from students of color, particularly Black students. “It was less to say we’re sorry. More so ‘we hear you.’”

Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. “We wanted to apologize for and address the mistakes that we made.” That’s a quote, and that’s an apology. It is also irrelevant. What matters is that the statement says something significant about how Closson and many college journalists like him believe race and diversity can be used to organize a newsroom and direct reporting.

Closson was appointed editor-in-chief in his senior year on a platform of increasing the diversity of the Daily Northwestern, in the newsroom and in its coverage. College papers have different ways of naming editors-in-chief, but many of them do it by voting. After they are elected, the editor-in-chief can often name their own managerial board and senior staff and can implement their own policies. Obviously, the paper turns over its staff all the time due to graduation. (Closson’s predecessor, Alan Perez, is Latinx, and his successor, Marissa Martinez, is a Black woman, the Daily Northwestern’s first. Martinez was succeeded in December by Sneha Dey, who is Indian American.) There’s always a new person in charge. That fluidity is part of what makes college papers such interesting journalism laboratories. Every couple of years, a totally new group of students takes a totally different run at the same problems.

“Put a person of color in front, and wham: We fixed diversity! Then, when that person doesn’t fix everything, they fall off the glass cliff.”

Closson’s course at the paper had not been an easy one. He had actually quit after his freshman year. “I was the only Black reporter at the time, and I had heard from other Black students that I should not get involved with the Daily. They would say, ‘It’s just not a place that you’re going to enjoy. It’s not supportive of students of color.’”

Closson said he didn’t believe there was open racism in the newsroom, but he still wasn’t comfortable there. “Look, my hometown was majority people of color,” he said. (He grew up in a Maryland suburb between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.) “The Daily, and the school, was mostly white. I hadn’t been around that many people who didn’t look like me before. That was a big jump for me as a freshman. And the Daily wasn’t a super welcoming place. A lot of people felt like that.”

He also told me he had always resisted the idea of becoming editor-in-chief. “People would encourage me to go for it, and I would say, ‘Absolutely not. I would never do that.’ I knew there would be a ton of pressure on me to do all these diversity things, given who I was.”

But it seems to me that, once he was in charge, the protests forced him, or allowed him, or inspired him, to pick the truth he wanted. That was a truth of Black people, of people of color, of people who had been suppressed in society, of people the newspaper had ignored or mistreated in the past. So, when, as he told me, groups of marginalized students pushed back on the paper’s reporting, it only made sense to call it a mistake. They had published the wrong truth.

More stories about the next generation

Young creatives around the country are reckoning with what their work means, and who it’s for, in an increasingly alienating, digital-first era.

Producer, writer, editor. Author, Am I a Jew? a memoir.

Get the Medium app