The humor page: Is it worth the risk?
by Kathy Schrier
The opportunity to fill in as interim newspaper adviser at one of Seattle’s largest high schools was an offer I couldn’t refuse in November 2012. I was to step in for an experienced adviser who was leaving to take a position as an editor with a large media outlet. The job would allow me to spend time with a great staff of motivated student journalists at a well-established paper in this city high school; a school where the paper enjoyed no history of administrative prior review or censorship.
What I didn’t know, as I stepped into my new position, was that the boom was about to be lowered.
Two editions before my arrival, the paper’s back page, regularly featuring jokes and satirical innuendo-laced content, really did cross the line. You’ve heard anecdotes, I’m sure, about “wrong versions” going to press by accident. Well, that’s what happened. The page that was just “iffy” did not get sent to the printer; instead, an even worse version, not intended for public viewing, was printed, then distributed to the school community.
The page that was just “iffy” did not get sent to the printer; instead, an even worse version, not intended for public viewing, was printed, then distributed to the school community.
My second day in class, the principal received an angry email from a prominent alumnus about the page in question. This alumnus said he was canceling his subscription because he felt the paper was going in the wrong direction, and had finally crossed the line with this offensive back page. The principal sent me a copy of the letter, then came to the publication room, tersely summoning all editors to his office.
This principal, fortunately, refrained from demanding the cancellation of the page, or insisting on prior review. He did, however, make it clear he was disappointed, embarrassed, and expected a change. This prompted a huge discussion back in the newsroom about the back page.
I listened, then posed the question: Why is a page with this kind of humor so important to them? Didn’t this content diminish the value of the good journalism and hard work that went into the rest of the paper? I said I believed in their right to choose content, but I’d rather go to the mat for them over a controversial, well-researched story, than over tacky, offensive humor on the back page.
But it’s the first thing students read, they told me. It’s the reason everyone cares about the paper. We can’t get rid of it! It’s tradition.
I told them I believed they were selling themselves short. The staff worked hard to produce some commendable journalism: interesting news, thorough features, challenging commentary. Did they really think no one read the paper without this back page? Did they realize how close they had come to being forced to submit future papers for administrative prior review?
Knowing that students must make the final content decisions, I had to accept their choice to continue with the back page. They did, however, decide to be much more vigilant about content and final checks before going to press.
To other student media staffs who choose to include this kind of content, I say tread carefully. It’s a minefield that could cost your publication its independence. This especially applies to the ever-popular April Fools editions.
Tread carefully. It’s a minefield that could cost your publication its independence. This especially applies to the ever-popular April Fools editions.
Really think through what your purpose is, and don’t undermine your hard work as journalists by resorting to cheap humor. It could backfire.
See this article by the SPLC about April Fools issues and the use of satire in student media: http://www.splc.org/news/report_detail.asp?edition=48&id=1467