One campus editor wanted to boost newsroom diversity. Her solution: pay student reporters.

Serena Chow
Serena Chow (Courtesy of Serena Chow)

For years the journalism industry has debated unpaid internships — if they’re ethical, if they’re exploitative, and if they’re a barrier to diversifying newsrooms, racially and socio-economically. 

But for Serena Chow, a recent graduate of Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the first step to creating more equitable newsrooms isn’t internships. It’s the campus newspaper. As the former editor-in-chief of the Wesleyan Argus, she saw that even before internships, one major barrier for low-income students and students of color entering the journalism industry is that they’re often working multiple jobs and don’t have time for the demands of being a staffer at the paper.  

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So Chow and a few other students created the Argus Voices Fund, a new initiative that raises money to support low-income journalists of color at the campus newspaper. Last year the fund collected about $3,000, which was used to provide stipends for two students through the 2020-2021 school year. This summer, she said the fund is hoping to raise the same amount. 

“It comes back to this issue of access,” she said. “It’s important because when we compensate people fairly, when we take into account the barriers for people, our coverage becomes better, we become better as a newsroom and so does the news judgement that we’re all sharpening.” 

Chow spoke to NBCU Academy about how she started the Argus Voices Fund, the importance of equity in student journalism and how other campus newspapers can replicate the initiative. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

NBCU Academy: What did you see in the newsroom in terms of diversity and inclusion that made you realize there’s a problem that needs to be fixed? 

Serena Chow: A lot of it stems from my experience in the newsroom. When I entered, there were very few journalists of color, and I found it difficult. When I became an editor, I would hear from a lot of new writers of color that even coming into production in our newsroom was intimidating. They’re coming into a predominantly white space and are navigating feelings of condescension. That’s one aspect, newsroom culture, which I realized is really important in retaining journalists of color. And there was also the obvious barrier that it can be very time-consuming as a full-time student. A lot of students of color who come from low-income backgrounds depend on multiple campus jobs. So coming into a paper that publishes twice a week is not a feasible time commitment. That really skewed who’s in our newsroom.  

Having so many white student journalists who don’t depend on jobs — they weren’t tuned into all the stories about low-income students, students of color, what’s happening with identity groups and activism. And we started seeing that directly affect our coverage. It also impacted our bonds with those communities. If they don’t see themselves and their peers reflected in our newsroom, a lot of the coverage became, if something bad happened, if there was a major event that rippled across campus, that’s when a white journalist came in and said, “What’s your trauma?” and would leave.  

Can you explain how the Argus Voices Fund works? 

None of the editorial positions on our Argus staff are paid, so this created a social media donation campaign to give two student journalists a stipend of about $660 per semester. We received over 18 applications for those positions, so it was great to see that people wanted to do it. But it’s fragile because it’s dependent on donors. I think that’s been the biggest obstacle — finding sustainable sources of funding. 

In the spring we also piloted a student forum that taught the basics of reporting, and Wesleyan gave one credit for it. So for those who we can’t give monetary compensation to, there’s also the option for class credit, which hopefully can help with the time commitment.  

Another thing we did that stemmed from Argus Voices is a coverage tracker. At the end of every semester we can say, what section was this piece in, have we had stories about these groups before, did you interview students of color, and was it only because it’s about students of color? There’ve been a lot of conversations about what gets printed above the fold and what gets printed below the fold. In the past there were a lot of stories about student of color productions that were printed below the fold, and stories about non-student of color plays and productions were always above the fold. That sticks with people, but that decision might not be conscious in layout. It could be implicit bias, and I think it’s important to recognize that.  

Why is paying student journalists one of the keys to increasing newsroom diversity? 

There are a lot of conversations around why unpaid internships are harmful in terms of blocking who gets opportunities to what, and there are so many factors discouraging people of color from coming into the industry. I think it comes back to this issue of access. It’s important because when we compensate people fairly, when we take into account the barriers for people, our coverage becomes better, we become better as a newsroom and so does the news judgement that we’re all sharpening. It’s not even about giving people a voice, because we all have the voices whether people are listening or not.  

What advice would you give students at other colleges who want to create a similar program? 

It’s tough because the logistics of every school is different. But the core of what the program is aiming for — improving accessibility in journalism specifically for people who felt alienated from student journalism — can be done through a variety of efforts, even if it’s not paying student journalists. It all starts with having a good faith conversation with people on staff and being honest. And that’s really, really hard to do. One editor said, if we’re using “they” instead of “we,” it’s a good indicator of who’s not at the table.  

Something that we did that was very uncomfortable, because it shined a mirror at us, was having conversations with student of color identity groups, and if they were willing, to talk about the coverage that really upset them and things they enjoyed. A student in one of those groups was previously a contributing writer so we heard all the reasons why they stepped back. It was disappointing to hear that those issues were still so prevalent and had tangible effects on who was no longer continuing to write. But having those conversations is good, even though it can be easy to try to avoid them or try to forget. It humbles us, and it’s good to humble us. There are so many people who are so talented and who have so much empathy and care and we need more of it in a newsroom. I think conversations are always a good place to start.