Student journalists need your help

Melissa Gomez

I found my first love in a newsroom that had squeaky doors, faded couches and questionably-stained tables.

It was a former fraternity house, and it was at 1105 W University Ave. in Gainesville, Florida. It was home to the student-run paper, The Independent Florida AlligatorIt was old, and at times, dusty. But it was where I met fellow student journalists, who offered me the chance to practice real journalism. I joined staff after my first semester, and the rest is history.

The reason I constantly reiterate my start at The Alligator is because, with the help from all of you, I had a unique experience to be a student journalist. The pay is…not great, and the hours are ungodly. But I was able to tell stories, such as my university’s counseling center lack of funding meant longer wait times; I wrote about a group of friends and strangers riding across Canada and the U.S. after a woman’s brother died; I wrote about a student who was a survivor of sexual assault.

It’s why Florida needs New Voices legislation, which gives students a modest degree of legal protection against the abuse of school censorship authority.

Because the stories students tell are important. As professional newsrooms become pressed for resources, communities are having to lean more on students capable of producing news. During Hurricane Irma, a team of college journalists put out broadcasts to keep their audience informed through it all.

At a St. Petersburg elementary school once labeled a “Failure Factory” after Pulitzer Prize-winning investigations from the Tampa Bay Times, a student had a photo published in the Times while covering an event for his school’s paper.

In 2006, Emily Matras wrote about an achievement gap at a high school. She found a significant achievement gap among white and black students when it came to reading scores on the Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test. Matras was a high school student, and it was her principal who forced the paper’s staff to stay late and cut it out of the print edition.

The principal said he did it because he didn’t want to subject some students to feeling embarrassed. But an issue like an achievement gap is arguably an important topic, especially when the focus is also on what the school is doing to close it.

These students are learning how to write, take photos and hold themselves accountable. But it is hard to do if they are censored. New Voices isn’t absolute. It doesn’t protect libel or slanderous pieces. It doesn’t allow complete independence from administrative oversight.

It’s hard to consider the vulnerability students may feel when challenging authority figures. They need supporters, and who better than the Press Club of Southwest Florida, which helps fund the very students who get a chance to pursue journalism?