From Jacqui Neber: ‘We need student newspapers because they are real newspapers.’

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Name: Jacqui Neber

Where I am now: Opinions Editor at The Johns Hopkins News-Letter (Baltimore, Maryland)

My experience at the News-Letter has been transformative. I started working for the paper the first week of my freshman year as a News & Features writer, then became a News & Features Editor, Managing Editor and now Opinions Editor. The paper has given me a home and a family, and it has reaffirmed that I want to go into a career in journalism. Covering important campus and city events as a Neatures Editor provided me with the fundamentals of the craft, taught me how to work in a team, and introduced me to the moral and ethical questions that we run into even as student journalists. Being a Managing and Opinions Editor introduced me to the magic that is working on our Editorial Board, which has been my favorite part of the whole four years. Discussing what’s important to our community each week with such a talented team of fellow editors is always invigorating, and it feels good knowing we’re so thoroughly deciding how to present the paper’s view on an event or cultural trend. We hold Hopkins accountable for what the administration does, which is I think the most important role of a student paper.

I wouldn’t be the student journalist or person I am today without my experience at the News-Letter. Student newsrooms are vital to both the people who work in them and the students and community members reading them. When papers are independent and driven to hold their administrations and peers accountable, it creates a healthier climate and discussion across campus. Shock waves can even ripple into the community, something that is rewarding and exciting. We need student newspapers because they are real newspapers.

From Ron Thompson: ‘This independence must be preserved going forward.’

Name: Ron Thompson

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator

Where I am now:  Senior Photo Editor, Tampa Bay Times (retired)

I came to the Alligator as it was moving from the old freezers behind the Purple Porpoise to the location on University Avenue that was recently sold. The newsroom was filled with eager young journalists who took pride in their work, and were not afraid to step on toes at the University when necessary. Many of those students went on to become leading journalists working throughout the world. There are numerous Pulitzer and World Press Association award winners in those alumni. Most, if not all, can point back to their days as student journalists working in a newsroom independent of strict university dictates as the invaluable first step in their careers. This independence must be preserved going forward.

From Emily Cochrane: ‘Independence meant you fought for every story and challenged every authority’

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Name: Emily Cochrane

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: News assistant at The New York Times

It was the first day of class, and I already felt behind.

The professor took an informal poll to determine everyone’s journalism experience. Hands shot up: newspaper editors-in-chief, yearbook editors-in-chief, freelancers for the local paper.

Me? I had two weeks of journalism camp and a gut feeling that journalism was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t have much more than that.

The Independent Florida Alligator was the first place where none of that mattered, where engineering majors could become masters of AP Style and age was only a problem when the election watch parties were in a bar. It only mattered that you worked hard and wrote the truth.

I lost track of the sunrises I watched from the back parking lot, the ones I caught because I was there so early, or stumbling out so late. I knocked on doors, figured out how to read police reports and attended funerals for strangers so their names were more than a line in a press release. I found my best friends in a blur of late night transcripts, deadline coffee runs and election night pizza.

Independence means you get to experiment. Cover the women’s golf team for a semester? Go for it (and realize you never want to do it again). Experience college football games from the photography sidelines (and have your family watch on TV when a linebacker runs into you by mistake). Keeping the paper from going to print until the moment when you can slip the final election results? Do everything in your power so the newsstands carry the full story.

But most importantly, its independence meant you fought for every story and challenged every authority. Questioning professors and the administration doesn’t jeopardize your education. The student government leaders become politicians and lawyers, and they do so knowing what it’s like to have a press holding them accountable.

To borrow a phrase from one of my mentors, the Alligator was the place where I fell in love with journalism and with its people. Independence, outside of a classroom, is what made that possible.

From Jordan McPherson: ‘It was the best decision of my life.’

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Name: Jordan McPherson

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Sports reporter at The Miami Herald

When I think back to my time at the University of Florida, the memories almost always flash back to the Independent Florida Alligator. It makes sense, considering I spent more time there than I did my dorm room, in classes or sleeping.
But walking into that fraternity house-turned-newsroom at 1105 W. University Ave. two weeks into my freshman year was utterly terrifying.
On one side of the conversation were the editors, upperclassmen who seemed so confident, so ready to take on whatever challenges might come their way. On the other side was me, an 18-year-old wide-eyed newbie who knew he wanted to be a sports writer … Yeah. That’s about it.
I wholeheartedly expected a “Thanks for stopping by. Come back next year.” Instead, the staff took me in with open arms. Even when I doubted myself. Even when I made amateur mistakes early on. Even as I experimented with my writing.
So I continued making that walk a couple blocks off campus. Each time I walked into the newsroom, I felt accepted. I didn’t want to leave.
For three-and-a-half years, I didn’t.
It was the best decision of my life.
I grew as a writer and an editor. I learned how to craft features, write breaking news stories and deal with stubborn sources.
But just as important, I became part of a family that extended far beyond whoever was on staff any given semester.
We bonded over ledes and nut grafs, sleepless nights and endless caffeine, Election Night pizza and fried chicken potlucks. We pushed each other to get better every day. The high-quality journalism followed suit – just like the staffs before us and the staffs that will come long after us.
Even when the paper moved from that former fraternity house two summers ago due to financial setbacks, we weren’t fazed.
The physical home changed. Our purpose didn’t.
We laughed. We cried. We succeeded. We failed. We made a newspaper. We made a difference.
The Alligator and student newspapers everywhere are still making a difference. They need to keep making a difference.
Student journalism is not just the future of journalism. It is journalism. And most of the time, it’s damn good journalism. It needs to be supported.

From Ian Cohen: ‘College newsrooms are the training grounds’

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Name: Ian Cohen

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Reporter at the Palm Beach Post/Palm Beach Daily News

The old Alligator building was my second home.
And then it wasn’t. About two years ago the location was sold and the offices were torn down. Newspapers all over the country were downsizing, and so were we.
We memorialized the building the night before. All of us. Not just the 50 or so student journalists working at the Alligator at the time, busting our asses five nights a week with little pay to put out a newspaper we could be proud of, but Alligator alumni, too. They came to celebrate the decades of student journalists who had worked within those walls, paying respect to a place that had meant as much to them as it did to us.
We all piled into the Alligator and drank champagne. We talked and laughed, we swapped stories and shared memories, we sniffled and smiled and sobbed. We went to pay homage to the place where we learned to do journalism. Where our careers began. Where we made lifelong friends.
That place meant so much to so many people. It meant so much to me.
And it still does. That old building may be gone, but the Alligator found a new one. The newspaper may print three days a week instead of five, but the quality of its content is just the same.
I share this story to show the impact the Alligator had on so many people, and how fearlessly it has endured. I have no doubt there are similar stories about other student-run publications across the country.
And that’s why we have to help save them.
College newsrooms are the training grounds for so many of today’s best professional journalists, and if student-run newsrooms lose their independence, then many of the world’s future reporters will be less equipped to watch over a country that relies on a free and independent press.
The Alligator could not have provided decades of students with the journalism experience that it did without being completely independent from the University of Florida. And it could not have provided me with the friendships and the experience that will last a lifetime.

From Isabel Bonnet: ‘Student journalism teaches you what school can’t’

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Name: Isabel Bonnet

College newspaper: The Independent Florida Alligator (Gainesville, Florida)

Where I am now: Founder of The Amsterdammer

I arrived at 1105 W University Avenue for the first time in early 2016. I went to the old Alligator office without prior notice, wanting to apply for a photographer position. Luckily for me, the only person who was able to understand me in the office was the photo editor, who gently gave me the position — when honestly he had no reason to do so. I barely knew how to speak English, and for several months I was unable to even write the captions for my pictures. Two semesters later, I became the photo editor of the paper.

For many, joining a student newspaper while at university is like joining a student association to meet people who share the same interests. However, it is much more than that. At The Alligator, I not only learned how a newsroom works, but I had the opportunity to cover events I never thought I, as a student, could do. While being the photo editor, I experienced the U.S. presidential elections from the first row, assigned events to cover to the photographers and assigned them to myself too. I have to admit it was not easy, but my parents have always told me that “if something is easy, it is because it is not working.” And they are right. Being part of a student newspaper is not easy, but it works.

At the Alligator I was able to take pictures of former President Bill Clinton, and current President at that time, Barack Obama. I covered devastating news such as the aftermath of the Pulse shooting in the city of Gainesville, and joyful events such as a DJ Khaled concert. It seems like there was no limit. It is not because we were students that we weren’t able to do a good coverage of the local news. My coverage at the Alligator taught me how to report the news through the lens of the camera, a workshop that I now give at my university to the students.

I arrived at 1105 W University with nothing but experience in citizen journalism, and I left it with an acceptance to do an internship in the French newspaper Le Monde in my mailbox. Exactly one year later, I created a student-run newspaper myself in Amsterdam, The Amsterdammer, that uses the Independent Florida Alligator as its model. Every university should have a student newspaper, and if they don’t: do it yourself. Student journalism teaches you what school can’t, and introduces you to the practical journalism right away.

Without the Alligator, I would have never had the opportunities I had. And not only when I was part of it, but the ones that came later. During my internship, I was prepared for what was coming. I knew what a photo editor does. I know how a staff meeting is done. I know what a copy editor is — which is not often talked about at university. But essentially, I would have never had the idea, or been able, to create a student newspaper myself. I will be forever grateful to the Alligator for giving me a place to learn without letting language be a barrier.

From Alissa Smith: ‘I owe the entire life I’ve built to my student paper’

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Name: Alissa Smith

College newspaper: Central Florida Future (Orlando, Florida)

Where I am now: News Associate at the Associated Press

On March 30, 2015, the student newspaper at the University of Central Florida changed my life. It’s a day I still celebrate as the anniversary of my first published piece.

The Central Florida Future gave me so much of what I have today: my support system, my career, my hobbies. The Future ignited a passion in me that even I find tiring. I had the chance to ask questions of anyone and the ability to write about; it was a turning point. I majored in business management and entrepreneurship. I realized too late in my college career that my real passion lied in journalism, and I couldn’t afford to change my major. Without the Future, I wouldn’t have had the clips or experience to become a reporter.

On Nov. 29, 2015, I became the Future’s news editor and walked into our small office, decorated with decades of inside jokes and pictures of people I’d never meet but who understood me to my core.

Over the next nine months, I’d cover everything from Pulse and local politics to human trafficking and human interest pieces. I met amazing people inside and outside of the newsroom that made me a better person and writer.

The Future ceased publication after nearly 50 years on Aug. 4, 2016. It broke my heart. The staff poured so much of themselves into that paper. We hated it for the low pay, late nights, breaking news in the middle of classes — but we loved it for all the same reasons.

I owe the Future — and my editors Marina Guerges, Caroline Glenn and Bernard Wilchusky — for where I am today.

I owe the entire life I’ve built to my student paper, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.