A Student Press
Ready to Bloom
By Jacqui Shine ’05
For the first time in two years
the staff of the Sophian has been able to lay out the paper
in its Capen Annex office -- but there’s a hitch. When the copy and layout
staffs arrive on a Monday night in late October, ready to put their new
computer equipment to work, the heating system isn’t working and
the office is freezing. They adjourn for the evening, agreeing to lay
out the paper the next night, after Physical Plant has had a chance to
fix the problem. Though this will complicate meeting the week’s
print deadline, it ’s
the best solution for the moment.
Editor-in-chief Elaine Stoll ’04 and her small but committed staff
of journalists and editors, the process of putting together a weekly
campus newspaper is a constant challenge and a labor of love. In its
daily efforts, the staff confronts an array of challenges that are both
common to student journalism (uneven ad sales, cyclical staff turnover)
and unique to the Sophian (equipment needs; a beloved, but aging, facility;
a checkered financial history; or even heating problems).
One night a week the copy and
layout staff gathers, ready to put new computer equipment to work
and prepare the
next issue of the Sophian for printing. Seated, left to right,
are Elizabeth Whiston ’05, associate editor; Stacy Braverman ’06, calendar
editor; and Elaine Stoll ’04, editor-in-chief.
"We’re always trying to keep
the quality of the paper up,” notes
Associate Editor Elizabeth Whiston ’05. This is particularly difficult
because Smith students generally have many other commitments, which make
for a constantly changing staff with various skills and interest levels.
year is proving to be one of positive change for the paper, which has redoubled
efforts to retire its debts and to advance the quality of the publication
with help from the college, from external sources and from its staff members.
The impetus for this new focus on the paper’s
development came last spring, as Stoll and others examined the paper’s
financial history. Declining ad revenue, which has been a national trend
for student and mainstream media outlets,
coupled with spotty recordkeeping by previous staffs, meant that the Sophian’s
debts to the college were mounting and that a lack of funding was negatively
affecting the paper’s publication schedule and circulation.
that the paper had been working toward greater fiscal responsibility since
2001, seeking to “increase ad sales, decrease dependence on the college
and increase subscriptions” from alumnae, parents and friends of the college,
but that it was time to ask for help from both the Student Government Association
and the administration.
Assistance from the SGA came in the form
of a one-time grant of $13,000, which
was used to pay down the paper’s debt to the Office of the Dean of the
College. Seeking help from College Hall also meant raising awareness of the
goals and clarifying its most pressing needs.
Working closely with Dean of the
College Maureen Mahoney, Dean of Students Mela Dutka, and the Office of College
Relations, the paper’s staff invited a
panel of four college media advisers from around the country to help the Sophian
to determine how best to restructure its business practices, as well as to take
thorough stock of the paper’s strengths and to uncover opportunities for
improving its quality. Perhaps the self-study’s most important conclusion
was that the Sophian has strengths to develop, rather than weaknesses to correct.
“The Sophian had a good core for a student press that was ready to bloom,” says
Jim McKellar, director of student journals at Harvard Law School and a former
vice president of the College Media Advisers. “All the good structure was
there -- it’s just basic improvements.”
Those improvements included
creating a business plan for generating steady ad revenue and taking the paper
online at www.smithsophian.com through College Publisher.
The paper also received $15,000 of new computer hardware and software from
the Office of the Dean of the College to facilitate production, as the
been doing all of its work on a single computer in an academic lab across campus
from its offices.
The recent updates to those facilities -- five networked
Macintosh G4s, a
scanner, newly repainted offices, and a 15-foot boardroom table -- as well
as the SGA’s financial assistance, “buys some time so students can
begin to focus on the quality of the experience, rather than on bottom line nuts-and-bolts,” says
Dean of Students Mela Dutka.
Dutka notes that the college had not traditionally
been involved in the management
of the Sophian, but the paper’s dual role as a source of information and
a tool for student learning necessitated administrative involvement. “We
want this to be a high-quality experience for students in terms of developing
both writing and leadership skills,” she says.
The Sophian is already reaping
some of the rewards of these efforts to advance its goals. The paper can, in
its online format, reach a broader audience, including
alums, families and students who are studying abroad. A special edition coincided
with the inauguration of Carol Christ, and an updated layout has given the
paper a fresh look.
In larger terms, however, little about
the Sophian has changed. Although the administration has
stepped in to help with the business end, the student staff,
the most important tool for success, still maintains complete control over
the editorial policy and content.
“We have a great staff,” says
Stoll. “The Sophian is both what
you see in your hands and the people it comes from, who you don’t always
So while new computers and increased ad
revenues may make things easier, the staff will still be putting in
long hours as it strives to maintain
the paper’s quality and to provide what Stoll describes as “a
venue for students to express their views apart from the administration in
that is available to the entire community.” The help of the Smith community
has simply allowed them to do that job even better.