“You can’t satisfy everyone.” Karina said to me. “Your main concern is the magazine and its content.”
Karina Verigina was the editor-in-chief of Lennon Wall (LW) before she graduated a year ago and I replaced her until now. Before she left Prague, I asked her for a piece of advice regarding the position, and she said that. I was excited and proud, with a big dream to revamp the student magazine into a vibrant media house, knowing that it would not be easy but worth devoting my time to.
The wrong question
During my time at LW, many people have raised their concerns that the publication is turning into a tabloid and no longer covers “real issues”. When I disagree and start explaining the change in recent years, they say: “Fine. It’s your magazine. You do whatever you wish.” To them, I say, it is precisely that negative attitude of yours that gets us nowhere.
The question shouldn’t be “has LW become a tabloid?” but “how has LW changed?” and “how can we improve its quality?” We must find common ground before discussing the approach.
Nearly 20 years ago, the campus of Anglo-American College (AAU now) was situated in Malá Strana, next to the famous John Lennon Wall in Prague. The wall symbolizes democracy and free speech which coincided with the mission of AAU. Our student publication, thus, was inspired by the story behind the wall and named itself At the Lennon Wall (now Lennon Wall) with a view to promote the same values. That was the year 2000.
Since 2000, the media have changed a lot. 2018 is witnessing the one of the greatest digital revolution ever. And that means Lennon Wall has to adapt, too. In the information age, businesses, media houses and politicians alike compete for attention. That’s the real world. If we don’t follow the rules, we are out of the game. Simple as that. If AAU wants its students to succeed in their future career in journalism, it has to prepare them to adapt.
That does not mean selling out our values. That means adapting our tools and platforms to appeal to the target audience and make an impact.
“Free press, fresh package”
Stephani Shelton who has been a teacher at AAU for a decade told me that when Lennon Wall started printing its issues in the glossy paper and changed from a newspaper to a magazine, she thought it was going the wrong direction.
Shelton was referring to the year 2015, when the university said goodbye to the John Lennon Wall and moved its campus to where it is now: the Thurn-Taxis palace. The student publication, under Kristina Zakurdaeva who now works for RFE/RL, experienced a dramatic change from appearance, content, organizational structure to communication channels.
“Our university’s location has changed, but our values have not.”
wrote Kristina in the editorial in the LW’s print issue of fall 2015. “Our new team of writers, editors and photographers is committed to produce outstanding journalism, upholding the finest tradition of a free press, in a fresh package.”
Since 2015, LW has created new sections such as Photography, Videography, Creative Writing, Opinion, constantly diversifying our content to serve a broader audience. We now not only cover stories in Prague, but in the States, in Russia, the UK, Ireland, and so on. Besides printing issues “in glossy paper”, we still publish articles on the website and social media. But our values remain the same: free press and democracy.
Why Lennon Wall doesn’t cover real news
“When the newspaper was first started, the university itself was fairly new and still had a lot of problems,” said Karel Cup, an AAU alumnus who managed the lennonwall.net website from 2003 to 2011. “The students were very critical and unafraid to voice their concerns. Back then, it makes sense for the student publication to focus on the problems on campus. AAU now is doing relatively well.”
During Karel’s time at AAU, the students saw LW as the only safe place where they could speak up their minds against the problems they witnessed and experienced. In 2018, students can raise these concerns directly to the staff and faculty and work together to find solutions. The protest against AAU’s logo change, the petition against the high “internship” course fee, campaign against sexual misconducts on campus — all took place on social media, reaching thousands of people without the help of LW.
Another question we might ask ourselves is, what is real news? I didn’t know when I started out, so I asked my audience. They all disagreed on their definition of real news. Students want travel tips, teachers want corruption investigation, administrator wants university promotion, and when LW try to accommodate all their needs, we are called “tabloid”. Maybe the magazine needs a focus. What it is – the future editors decide.
Before I leave
I can still remember the tremendous anxiety I felt after our first board meeting. I burst into tears because I felt unequipped for the position, because even though I was a straight-A student, I was a failing leader. I was!
Since the beginning of LW, the university and the Journalism School have expanded significantly. We have more students, more teachers, more courses, but provide zero training for the editors. There’s no clear job descriptions for any positions in LW, including the editor-in-chief. For months, I constantly asked myself: What are the boundaries? Can I copy-edit someone’s article without his/her permission? Can I force someone to cover a topic even if he/she is not interested in or familiar with? What about fact-checking? I was taught to be a journalist, not an editor.
In addition to my disorientation, my editorial board was not enthusiastic with the magazine. I was the only one receiving the journalism scholarship which paid for my tuition; everyone else works for the Wall for free.
So before I leave this position, I urge the Journalism School to develop a training program for the future editors of Lennon Wall, teaching them journalism ethics and standards, leadership, management, and teamwork in a newsroom. Never undermine the importance of marketing and PR in journalism. Your article in a product. Your readers is your customers. If you want to influence them, you need to advertise your product smartly. It doesn’t mean compromising your values and turning into a business. It just means following common sense. We cannot have quality journalism if we neglect our editors.
To future editors, I quote Karina again: “You will let people down and might be hated by some of them. But it is your job to make sure that the content is ethically appropriate and fits our magazine.” Good luck.