Rice University’s Student Newspaper — Since 1916

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Rice needs more student investment in student media

By Miles Kruppa     3/9/16 4:26pm

Who here remembers the RU Observer? If you’re a freshman you most likely have no clue what I’m talking about. But for the older members of the Rice community, the RU Observer occupies a specific niche in our institutional memory. They were the digital-first outlet, the disruptor, the Buzzfeed of Rice, and they acted as a supplementary news source to the Thresher, for better or for worse.

The RU Observer still exists as a website at ru-observer.com, but as a publication its existence is a ghost town. The top two posts, the most recent from April 2015, are fairly blatant advertorials for Red Bull, and the last three posts on the Twitter account appear to be advertorials for a travel blog. As so many things at Rice go, it appears that the publication folded with the graduation of its founder, Cory Wynn (Lovett ‘15), and turned into a half-hearted advertising money grab.

The RU Observer’s disappearance has somewhat coincided with a shake-up of the Rice media scene. The rebranded Rice Video Productions almost lost their blanket tax funding before being saved by a general election student vote tally just shy of the 66.7 percent necessary, and the same voters made Catalyst a blanket tax organization. The student body has a clear demand for (well-funded) student media beyond the Thresher.

At the same time, the Student Association blanket tax standing committee did not recommend that Student Senate approve the Rice Standard’s application to be a blanket tax organization. The committee found that “the mission and purpose of the organization in our opinion is not unique enough from the Rice Thresher to justify a creation of another Blanket Tax organization.” It seems, according to the committee, there’s a limit to the amount of blanket tax-funded student media Rice needs.

On the contrary, I strongly believe Rice needs a more vibrant, more consistent and solidly funded student media scene. If we have no independent, student-run publications, we only have news.rice.edu and occasional fly-by coverage from local print and broadcast outlets. This dearth is why, looking back, I miss the service (with all its flaws) the RU Observer provided before fully succumbing to the lure of digital advertising revenue. At the very least, the RU Observer competed with the Thresher to publish information the student body cared about. While the Thresher covered the weekly Student Association meetings, the Observer published polls for the best Beer Bike shirts or Orientation Week themes.

But the RU Observer could also be too much of what the student body wanted and too little of what it needed. It often missed stories that didn’t generate clicks or lend themselves to sensational headlines, and when it reported on critical topics like tuition, it gave the story the headline, “Just wait until you see how much Rice’s tuition & fees have increased over the past 10 years.” The article consisted of a chart taken from official Rice data with no commentary or extra reporting.

To their own credit, and detriment, the Observer published a highly-critical article by then-Campanile editor in chief Anya Bolshakov (Duncan ‘15) titled “I do not like the RU Observer.” The piece, which the Thresher decided not to publish without specific edits made, accused the Observer of shoddy journalistic ethics and denied its claims to being a “news source.”

“The RU Observer does not follow the basic rules and principles of news writing,” Bolshakov wrote. “I’ve seen inaccurate information, sensationalized stories and opinion passed off as fact. It uses pronouns in news stories and uses Facebook as a source without confirming the information is accurate. The RU Observer is a tabloid. A news source is supposed to provide its readers with a truthful, unbiased account of the facts.”

Bolshakov was right, in a sense. The Observer once wrote, incorrectly, that Thresher staffers pay themselves using blanket tax money. They also used a sensationalist, photoshopped photo of Dean of Undergraduate John Hutchinson for a story about Baker College limiting its lunch hours for non-residents. To call the article an “article” is also a bit generous — it mainly consists of an RU Observer editor’s email to Hutchinson and Hutchinson’s reply. The article followed an Observer-led petition against Baker’s proposed changes, which were ultimately passed and enforced.

Clearly, the Observer didn’t aspire to be a “serious” news source, but instead a source of entertainment and occasional news and commentary. It’s vital that we remember its role in the campus discourse and find lessons in its demise. Personally, I’m ready for more entertainment, as well as more news and commentary.

RVP’s rebranding has brought more comedic video sketches and almost no news coverage — the student body’s narrow approval of their blanket tax status shows an interest in this type of coverage, but RVP shouldn’t take it as validation. Instead, RVP must continue proving to the student body it deserves their funding. As the only source for broadcast news on campus and the owner of its own Rice television channel, the task shouldn’t be too difficult, given a few organizational tweaks.

Similarly, the Standard can do more. I both agree and disagree with the blanket tax standing committee’s assessment of the Standard, but still believe the Standard uniquely serves the campus. Yes, the Standard has a similar mission to the Thresher as a journalistic publication, but it also publishes from a more broadly critical, socio-political and cultural perspective. Rice needs more coverage from the Standard’s point of view, with an emphasis on “more”: more articles, more print editions and more support. If the Catalyst deserves blanket tax funding, then the Standard certainly does as well, if only for its potential to give voice to stories that would otherwise not be told.

Bolshakov urged Observer staffers, in her Observer article, to be more involved in existing student media organizations: “Maybe they should try to join the Thresher or the Standard and make those publications better, with the help of an adviser that understands journalism, instead of being the yellow press of Rice. Part of the blame should fall on Rice, which does not have a school of communications, or journalism, even though there is an obvious need and want.”

Though I disagree with Bolshakov’s call for a school of communications or journalism — no more professional schools please — I think she’s on to something else. Beyond more direct involvement in student media, Rice needs more student investment in student media. Just as crucially, Rice needs students to understand the stakes of their investments in independent media and their power as a check on organizations’ continued funding.

Without student funding, student publications lack real, sustained student investment, which directly translates into readership. There’s only so much student publications funded by outside means can do before they’re lost into the annals of the internet. Let’s not allow the rest of student media go the way of the Observer — let’s explore the possibility of a media-rich campus that serves every student’s needs.

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