CMS Cuts Ties with The Observer: The State of Student Journalism




When the CMS department decided to cut ties with The Observer, we were foremost concerned with how we could report on the story, given our direct involvement in the events. We ultimately came to the decision to move ahead with our coverage, after continuous conversations involving our editorial board, our adviser and a number of journalism professionals, as the Fordham community deserves to know the full account. The following pieces reflect our efforts to do so in a comprehensive, accurate and impartial manner.




Content Editors: Ben Moore; Matthew McCarthy

Content Advisers: Andrew Seamen, Society for Professional Journalists; Frank LoMonte, Student Press Law Center

The Communication and Media Studies (CMS) department announced that it would sever ties with Fordham Lincoln Center’s student newspaper, The Observer, on April 21.

With the change came the cancellation of the four journalism workshops in reporting, multimedia, layout design and photojournalism that provided advising from professionals, educated student journalists and ensured a steady stream of content for The Observer.

CMS’s decision followed discussions about how the structure of the department and its courses would change in light of their newly approved majors, including one in journalism

“The department felt they needed to revise the major and to revise their program to meet a changing world of journalism,” Rev. Robert R. Grimes, S.J., Ph.D., dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC), said. “And from what I understand the department was in agreement that this was the better way to move in the future.”

“I also know there was significant opposition to change from some sources,” he added.

“Our goal with the new curriculum is to combine theory and practice to create socially responsible journalists prepared to serve the public interest in the digital age,” Jacqueline Reich, Ph.D., chair of CMS, said in an email statement to The Observer. “We believe this curriculum will make journalism, and The Observer, stronger at Fordham.”

The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), which evaluates journalism and mass communications programs at colleges and universities, does not take a position on whether student media should be curricularly supported by the university, according to Paul Parsons, dean of Elon University’s School of Communications and vice president of the ACEJMC.

“[The ACEJMC] recognizes that universities have different relationships between student media and the academic unit, and it doesn’t say that it needs to be a particular way,” Parsons said. “[The ACEJMC] does want to see students at any accredited program have the opportunity to be involved in student media, but it would not say that student media necessarily has to have this relationship with the department. It could be an independent student newspaper.”

“I personally believe in a close relationship of the academic unit and student media…”

–Paul Parsons

He noted, however, that opinions on this issue differ among department chairs or deans of other universities. Parsons explained that they might say “‘Well no, we’re the academic unit. We’re teaching classes, we’re giving credit hours for classroom instruction and student media should really be separate from the academic unit,’” Parsons said. “And so there are a number of universities that have that philosophy too.”“As Elon’s dean, I personally believe in a close relationship of the academic unit and student media,” he continued. “There’s nothing that helps a journalist more than getting feedback from professionals or from professors about the work they do, whether it’s really, really good, or whether it had problems with it. So I’m a believer in a close relationship.”

“What I think was not fair to Lincoln Center students was the department’s sudden decision to sever ties with The Observer—not providing any transition, any support, any faculty, any structure and any instruction—literally overnight,” Elizabeth Stone, Ph.D., said. Stone is a professor of English and communication and media studies who was the faculty adviser of The Observer from its inception until the end of the fall 2015 semester. “To separate theory and practice and to deny curricular support to the campus publication at Lincoln Center seems to be quite at odds with the very spirit of what’s at the heart of the new journalism major.”

The Reaction to CMS’s Decision

Spurred by CMS’s decision, alumni of The Observer have made coordinated efforts to voice their concerns about the future of the student newspaper and the elimination of the journalism workshop courses.

Among the alumni efforts has been the creation of the Facebook page, “Save The Fordham Observer.” Through this page, they expressed their support for the publication and organized a letter to CMS signed by over 100 alumni.

Additionally, nine Observer alumni formed the Fordham Observer Alumni Steering Committee in response to CMS’s decision. The committee corresponded with CMS following the initial letter and led the efforts of the alumni following CMS’s decision.

“The journalism workshop and the paper are a foundation for journalists. It’s the foundation of how people get jobs. ”

–Marissa Flores

One of the concerns shared by the alumni is the elimination of the journalism workshop courses, which many say were instrumental in their development as student journalists and in their post-graduate success.

“[The workshops] were extraordinarily beneficial and I think vital to my learning as a journalist,” Joseph DeLessio, FCLC ’06, a former editor of The Observer and member of the Steering Committee who currently works for New York Magazine, said.

“A lot of the writers who wrote for The Observer came through the workshops and I’m not sure where they’re going to get that level of staff without something like that to get writers,” he continued. “I think that’s something that really has to be considered.”

“The journalism workshop and the paper are a foundation for internships,” Marisa Flores, FCLC ’03, who was also an editor for The Observer and has worked for Time Inc. and Columbia Magazine, said. “It’s the foundation of how people get jobs. I got my first job at Time Inc. for magazines with no experience because I was able to say I was in the journalism workshop, this is how we come up with topics and things like that, and they saw that I understood how to work with a team. That’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for people who are collaborators.”

“It’s pretty safe to say I wouldn’t have a job in journalism right now if not for The Observer,” DeLessio said.

Current students are also concerned about CMS’s decision to terminate the journalism workshop courses.

“The workshops were the only real hands-on journalism courses that I took during my time at Fordham, so I think it was really detrimental to students to cancel them,” former Editor-in-Chief of The Observer, Adriana Gallina, FCLC ’17, said. “Especially for some students who can’t afford to take an unpaid internship or a low-paying internship, the workshops were a really nice way to get industry-standard experience for credit.”

“Being in the workshop didn’t mean that I necessarily had to have an interest in journalism,” Emily Jones, FCLC ’17, said. She majors in communication and media studies with a concentration in television and radio and took the multimedia workshop course in the spring 2016 semester. “Being interested in capturing and producing content and using editing software that people at major networks use, that was very useful.”

Jones took the multimedia workshop because it gave her the opportunity to learn video editing and production skills that would be helpful in her career.

“I think that the workshops were really useful,” Jones said. “It was helpful to have the hands-on experience of shooting and editing the content. It offered more than just reading from a textbook; we were actually doing it.”

The Previous Structure of CMS and The Observer

In past years, CMS offered a major in communication and media studies with five different concentrations: journalism, television and radio, film, new media and media, culture and society.The department is giving students of the classes of 2017, 2018 and 2019 the option to continue with the old major and concentrations. Students are encouraged to select one of the new specialized majors, according to the CMS website.

The four new majors that CMS will offer are communication and culture, digital technology and emerging media, film and television, and journalism.

Prior to the restructuring of the majors, the journalism workshop courses were led by faculty who specialized in the workshops’ respective disciplines. They also guided students in preparing and publishing content for The Observer.

As a result of the decision, these two-credit workshops will no longer be offered to students.

Stone said that a paper “can be successful without curricular support,” citing The Harvard Crimson as an example. “But, The Observer has worked with a production structure tied to the workshops and to remove that structure suddenly without providing some kind of transition does the students a disservice academically.”

“I think that the department was entirely within its right in redesigning its curriculum,” Stone continued. “Initially I was opposed to eliminating the journalism workshops in the ‘if it ain’t broke and you’ve won 57 awards, don’t fix it,’ approach. However, my concern was that thejournalism workshops needed to be guided into a shape that would articulate with the new journalism major and I arrived at the position in extended conversation with Professor Aronson.” Amy Aronson, Ph.D., is the program director of Fordham University’s New Media and Digital Design program and succeeded Stone as the faculty and reporting adviser of The Observer. “I wasn’t, and I’m not, opposed to the evolution of the journalism workshops, but I am opposed to not providing any transition or guidance for Observer reporters and editors,” Stone said.

In lieu of the journalism workshops, CMS will offer a Campus Journalism Practicum at the Rose Hill campus only, according to the registration portal. Gwenyth Jackaway, associate undergraduate chair of CMS, explained in an Aug 10 email sent to communication students that “This class will meet as an independent study with a member of the faculty who teaches journalism. Students need to be working on The Ram, the paper, WFUV, The Observer or other campus media outlet.” The email notes that a pre-requisite of Intro to Journalism is needed, but can be waived if the student has some experience in journalism.

“The way CMS has provided ancillary curricular support for The Observer is changing,” Reich said in an email statement to The Observer, continuing that “ideally students interested in journalism would take JOUR 1701, Introduction to Multimedia Journalism, in their Freshman Spring or Sophomore Fall.” This six-hour course is open to all students, “in which students learn the fundamentals of multimedia journalism and have time in the laboratory to apply those skills,” according to Reich.

“This is a brand new way of teaching journalism at Fordham, and in the long run, we think it will be a positive change not just for students, but for The Observer as well.”

–Jacqueline Reich

Reich said in the email statement that students can get credit for their work on The Observer through the Campus Media Practicum after completing JOUR 1701, or on a case-by-case basis in Fall 2016.  “Hopefully in Spring 2017 there will be sufficient interest to offer an on-campus media practicum course, and we can fully enroll our upper-division journalism courses,” she said in the email statement.

She continued that CMS is relying on its current teaching faculty, with hopes of a new tenure-track hire beginning fall 2017 in addition to new professional adjunct faculty. Current faculty include Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist Luisita Torregrosa, Alex Silverman of CBS Radio and Frank Dilella of NY1, according to Reich.

The Decision to Cut Ties

When Reich said in an email on April 21 that CMS would sever all ties with The Observer effective May 21, she stated, “At this point it is clear that certain parties are not abiding by the parameters of our compromise, outlined in my April 14 email to the group, specifically related to the staffing of the Journalism workshops courses.”

“Concerns were expressed to me by Communication and Media Studies about the level of students’ involvement in the discussions around hiring faculty for the journalism workshops,” Dean of Students Keith Eldredge noted.

None of the interviewed sources specified which students had violated the agreement.

A few days before this decision, then-Editor-in-Chief Adriana Gallina had met Ryan Knutson, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, at a layout workshop on April 18.

“He was guest speaking and we ended up talking until a few minutes after the class ended with a bunch of other students and [editorial] board members in the room, and it was common knowledge that we were seeking an adviser and he expressed interest,” Gallina said. “Everything else we talked about was just about his time in school as Editor-in-Chief and his career trajectory and his advice as a professional journalist. It was very informal, very casual and very unplanned.”

Gallina said that she sought approval from Aronson, then-adviser of The Observer, to pass along info about Knutson to CMS as a possible candidate for one of the journalism workshop instructors. According to Gallina, Aronson approved of passing along information about Knutson to CMS. Gallina then emailed Knutson asking him for his resume, copying Aronson, which Aronson then forwarded to Reich and Jackaway. Gallina also said that Aronson later told her at an editorial board meeting that Gallina “was out of line and that [she] can’t hire as a student,” which Gallina said was “an absurd accusation.”

What Comes Next for Journalism and The Observer

“This is a brand new way of teaching journalism at Fordham, and in the long run, we think it will be a positive change not just for students, but for The Observer as well,” Reich said in her statement, which was sent to The Observer in response to requests for comments from Aronson, Jackaway and Reich. “We ask for time and patience to give an alternative structure for journalism at Fordham a chance.”

“The Communication and Media Studies Department exercised their autonomy to determine what courses are offered,” Eldredge explained. “And so they determined they are no longer going to offer the journalism workshops.”

In regards to blending the theoretical and practical learning of journalism, CMS “feels that the journalism curriculum with the courses that are in the course of study, fulfill the need to support students in learning journalism in a practical way that will enable them to write for The Observer as well as participate in other types of journalism,” Eldredge said.

Eldredge continued that he’s “confident that there will be a connection between the department and The Observer newspaper in the future.”

“In a sense, to me, The Observer was doing its educational job…And so we certainly want that to continue. But change is inevitable.”

–Robert Grimes

“What that looks like, I don’t know,” he said. “I’m fairly confident that it won’t be what it looked like last year and the year before that. But I do think that there will be some curricular connection supporting The Observer and the students that are taking the journalism major courses will get the skills and the training they need for The Observer, but also for beyond Fordham.”

Grimes said that “My concern is for the welfare of The Observer, and its students who work on it. And I have been endeavoring, with the Dean of Students Keith Eldredge, to ensure that there are structures in place for the proper advisement of The Observer, and that it will continue its really impressive history.”

“In a sense, to me, The Observer was doing its educational job,” Grimes continued. “And so we certainly want that to continue. But change is inevitable. Especially in our world today, and in the communications industry, change is happening so rapidly. Perhaps one of the best educational experiences one can have at this point is to have to deal with change.”

Sept. 1, 2016: The online version of this article has been updated to clarify that the statements from Communication & Media Studies Chair Jacqueline Reich were sent to The Observer as a response to request for comments from Reich as well as professors Amy Aronson and Gwenyth Jackaway. 

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Landry, Asst. News Editor