“Student News—Faculty News—Alumni News—All News”
For decades, these were the words that appeared on the front page of Western Kentucky University’s College Heights Herald. Today, they can’t be found.
The exemption of this tagline may seem like an arbitrary choice on the part the university’s primary student newspaper, but it is representative of a very real transformation. But some students on campus feel that the Herald, as it is commonly known by its readers, has lost touch with being a paper of “student news” first and foremost.
Heather Whitlow, 21, Glasgow, Kentucky, is a senior at WKU. In her four years of attendance, she claims she has picked up the paper copy of the newspaper twice. Her review of the newsletter students receive in their email is not much better.
“Unless the headline of it is interesting, I don’t just pick up hand copies of papers. I maybe will read it if it’s in my email, but it depends on the heading,” said Whitlow.
Rory O’Connor, 19, Mt. Washington, Kentucky, is a sophomore at WKU who feels that those headlines are targeted towards the wrong audience.
“I feel like it’s a lot of current events, especially right now it’s a lot about COVID and nobody cares about COVID anymore,” said O’Connor. “I feel like they’re targeting to like an older population and the younger population normally isn’t as into like current events and stuff.”
Jenna Vaughn, 20, Dunville, Kentucky, is a junior at Western Kentucky. Unlike Whitlow and O’Connor, she does read The Herald. However, she still takes issue with the publication’s coverage.
“It only seems to talk about COVID cases and stuff like that,” said Vaughn. “They don’t ever talk about like specific things. I feel like other people would want to read about things that are specific to their major and nothing is specific to that at all. They don’t talk about anything that is specific to anyone.”
There was a time when these feelings weren’t common among The Herald’s primary audience. Timothy Broekema began working as a photographer at The Herald as a sophomore in 1985. In his memory, the paper was a part of campus culture.
“The cover was, almost every single week, was what would be called a stand-alone image,” said Broekema. “A huge amount of our work was camera in hand walking campus finding interesting everyday slices of life.”
One edition published during Broekema’s time at The Herald included articles on the return of a student-run comic on campus, disastrous low-budget dates, and recent clothing trends among students. The front cover was dominated by a picture of a student demonstrating how to do a handstand on a skateboard. Today, it reads like a time capsule of the culture on campus.
It’s a marked difference to the stories the publication contains today. A recent version of The Herald’s newsletter included reports on COVID-19, a networking event hosted by the criminology and sociology departments, and a recap on sports; nothing to connect students with the community they experience. Broekema, who is now a professor at WKU, is very aware of the differences.
“The assignments are there is a building being torn down, go take a picture of that building,” said Broekema. “I think there was a semester not too long where we did not see a face of a person in any photograph published in the newspaper for nearly an entire semester.”
Vaughn describes the stories she finds in The Herald as “homework for journalism students.” It isn’t hard to see why.
But to say that The Herald is incapable of covering topics students want to hear doesn’t tell the whole story. When the school decided to lower students’ allowance for printing from $75 to $10, The Herald covered the issue. The story struck a particular chord with Whitlow.
“I’ve definitely talked about it a lot more knowing other people had the same issue,” Whitlow said. The story was about something that students on campus were experiencing, and it made an impact in the way they viewed the situation.
A different story on a student’s lost service dog again piqued many readers’ interest. Whitlow, O’Connor and Vaughn all read the story and its subsequent updates. When presented with pieces that reflected real experiences on campus, students wanted to read the publication.
The problem is not that staffers at The Herald are unable to cover what students want to hear, but rather that they aren’t sure of how to do so. Lily Burris, current editor-in-chief for The Herald, isn’t blind to the issue.
“It’s hard to know what people want to read,” said Burris. Staffers must strike a balance between what their audience wants to read versus what must be covered. There are challenges that exist today that didn’t in 1985 that make finding that middle ground a struggle.
“We used to be a bigger staff when I was younger, and now we’re a little bit smaller so it’s a part of being realistic,” Burris said. “It’s about finding the balance and being realistic about what can be done at what time.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it not only harder, but more dangerous to connect with students on campus. And according to Burris, photography has become less of a priority because staffers are now more likely to post their best images online before they can be published.
Chuck Clark, head of student publications at Western Kentucky University, is also aware that The Herald needs to do a better job at engaging with students.
“They do need to be more engaged with the student body,” said Clark. Clark believes that Herald staffers can do so as it is an issue that he personally has “gently nudged them to think about”. At the end of the day, however, the real changes will be left up to the students who run The Herald.
At the beginning of the 2021 school year, Burris announced that The Herald would be dropping its print publication down to once a month. The change came as part of budget cuts and the pandemic, but also with the hope that the stories featured in the paper would be more nuanced and creative.
The change reflects a trend going on with many newspapers throughout the country. It has the potential to help The Herald adapt to a rapidly changing a world in a way that would reconnect it with its audience.
“I think once a month could be better because they could focus on the highlights and not so much the unimportant things. I feel like if it’s a weekly they’re just grabbing and searching for things to put in the newspaper,” O’Connor said.
The best thing that The Herald could do for its audience might be much simpler: just asking students what they want to read.
When asked, Whitlow said that she wished that The Herald would cover more stories on organizations on campus. Vaughn wanted to see the addition of a funnies page and topics catered towards student’s majors. O’Connor wanted to know more about things students could do off campus in Bowling Green.
They all said they were tired of seeing numbers on COVID-19 cases, and while they admitted that they understood their importance, they wished there were less stories on building developments.
Even in a world plagued by a pandemic and with a staff half the size it used to be Herald staffers have the ability to write the stories students want to hear, so long as they ask.