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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.

For 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.

But this 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.

Stoll notes 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 paper’s 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 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 staff had 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 see.”

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 and improve the paper’s quality and to provide what Stoll describes as “a venue for students to express their views apart from the administration in a format that is available to the entire community.” The help of the Smith community has simply allowed them to do that job even better.

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