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Appellate Judge James A. Stewart • Location: Butler, PA
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Independent Lens premieres college newspaper documentary Tuesday, December 11
December 10th, 2007 10:00AM

If you want to see how the media will evolve in a changing world, the best place to see it is in a college newspaper office.

That’s the view of filmmaker Aaron Matthews, who tracked the staff of Penn State’s Daily Collegian through the 2004-05 academic year for his documentary, The Paper, Matthews shot around 350 hours of film for the 78-minute documentary, spending nearly every day of two semesters in the Collegian office in downtown State College, Pa.

The Paper is scheduled to premiere on PBS’ Independent Lens series on Tuesday, December 11. Please check your listings for the time in your area.

“One of the reasons I was interested in covering young people as journalists was that it offered a chance to look at the media in a new light. The New York Times wouldn’t have held the same interest for me. … Because they’re students learning, it forces viewers into the position of young student journalists,” he said.

“College journalists struggle with the media’s ethical questions for the first time in their lives. I just thought it would make for exciting cinema,” Matthews said.

As the Collegian staff dealt with ongoing issues that included criticism of their coverage of campus race-relations issues--one scene in the movie features a discussion between Editor James Young and a leader of Penn State’s Black Caucus who suggests that the student journalists hype up events (he mentions a press conference that was referred to as a “rally” in print) and doubt his accounts of racism on campus--and problems between the paper’s sports department and the Penn State sports information office, the editors spent the year struggling to cope with a circulation decline.

When I saw The Paper at a recent screening, the documentary was personal to me. I was one of the students who “majored in Collegian” while attending Penn State in the late 1980s. I still remember laying out news pages on dummy sheets and sending type, not completed pages designed on the computer, to the composition room. The people I was seeing on screen were just like me and the people I spent my school days with, albeit under a bit more pressure--a year at Penn State now tops $20,000, the long hours spent at the Collegian have inched upward, and the job market’s more uncertain. Even the knowledge that they’ll always see fellow students reading their work (or at least a paragraph or two before scanning for coupons) in the dining hall over breakfast isn’t as sure. When you’ve actually spent time in the shoes of the people in a documentary, the experience is fascinating and unsettling.

The circulation decline, which came in spite of increased Penn State enrollment and the availability of free copies throughout the campus, was the issue which weighed most heavily on the 2004-05 class. The student journalists were concerned with making the front page brighter with shorter reads, as you’d find in USA Today, and did experiments with the fly-on-the-wall experience of reality TV, in one case following a theater troupe through auditions to capture emotions and reactions. Despite some objection in the newsroom, the Collegian started a page covering sex and relationships. “They were desperate to try to turn things around,” Matthews said. None of these steps made much of a dent in those circulation numbers, though.

What did start to reverse the circulation decline was controversy. When the Collegian printed a letter to the editor condemning gay and lesbian students, it became an issue in itself, with gay and lesbian students protesting the newspaper and area radio and TV stations picking up the story. “This sequence is really about the media culture we’re living in, the way stories kind of reverberate. Suddenly, the newspaper finds itself the subject of the media. It’s a modern-day phenomenon,” Matthews said.

“The students were a little swept up in it when it first happened – it all happened so quickly,” he said. “They’re a little more media savvy that way; they’ve grown up with the twenty-four/seven news cycle. … That’s another part of the film: students struggling with what is news and how to cover it.”

Despite the extra pressure students and student journalists face today, the Collegian staffers Matthews met were optimistic about their future. “There were times when they--especially the editor-in-chief--take it really tough. He’s really sensitive--embattled--about the circulation issue,” Matthews said, “but they’re hopeful about their future--the future of writing for a living--and about their mission as journalists. They debated really tough issues--black-white relations, the lack of diversity in their newsroom, the lack of access to people in power. They weren’t resigned to it; they were really engaged in these issues.”

Matthews kept in touch with five of the students featured after the 2004-05 academic year. Two are still in journalism; Editor-in-Chief James Young worked as a police reporter after graduation, but has gone on to seek a graduate degree in urban planning.

How did Matthews choose his subjects? “I decided, probably the way journalists decide on their subjects. I looked at people who were willing to share their stories,” he said. “I looked at people who were dynamic and articulate--and thoughtful. They were also covering issues reflective of national media issues.”

How did the students featured react to the documentary? “One of my credos is that I show my films to all of the main characters involved first … They said pretty universally that this is an honest, accurate portrait of what went on,” Matthews said.

Although there’s one scene that shows the staff cracking open champagne bottles at an end-of-the-year celebration, Matthews didn’t follow the students outside the newsroom. Viewers won’t see much of the drinking and partying that many associate with campus life; that’s a choice of both Matthews and the students featured.

“One aspect that appealed to me was that it was a chance to do a film that wasn’t Animal House or Girls Gone Wild. It shows a side of college life that’s real and exists, students who work hard and are committed. It’s kind of like a nerd college documentary. It’s a side of college life that we never get to see. College in America is portrayed as a wild, crazy place and there’s a large section of the population committed to working really hard and studying, putting out an earnest product,” he said.

Like the students he followed, Matthews is optimistic about the future of The Daily Collegian. “One difference on college campuses is that they’re more self-contained. News about a college, you can only really get from one source. When they report on the issues people care about – like the letter controversy – circulation does go up. People can still count on The Daily Collegian because it covers news you can only get in The Daily Collegian.”

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