CU Independent student news website launches “Speak Out Campaign,” organizes beats to cover racism, other “isms”

CU Independent faculty advisor Amy Herdy has guided her students from its darkest days to a new campaign against racism and prejudice. The bus sign above her is part of the students

Three years ago this week, a student news website at the University of Colorado sparked a firestorm of protest. The website posted a column by a student, Max Karson, which ineptly tried to address racism on the CU campus by poking fun at Asian stereotypes. The column, “If It’s War the Asians Want, It’s War They’ll Get,” stirred the Denver area’s Asian and Asian American communities to organize and demand changes at the University. The timing was unfortunate, because it ran on Feb. 18, just a day before the 2008 Day of Remembrance, when Japanese Americans mark the signing of Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese descent in American concentration camps during World War II. The column joked about “locking up” all Asians.

The area’s Asian communities weren’t amused, and rallied quickly to protest. So did student organizations not just at CU, but at the states other universities. National Asian American and civil rights organizations sent letters of protest to the Campus Press, but to the CU administration.

In the two years since, there haven’t been a lot of concrete changes at CU in general over racial issues as far as many students can see, but there have been lots of changes at the Campus Press. Its faculty advisor, Amy Herdy, a former colleague of mine at The Denver Post, was an early target of protesters but it turned out the rules for the website prevented her from having editorial control. It’s a student-run website. But since then, Herdy and the students who run the website have been busy rebuilding the class’s reputation, upgrading its commitment to quality journalism, and have worked hard to avoid ever allowing something like the “War Against Asians” column from bubbling up again.

She has held diversity training sessions for her students each semester (full disclosure: Erin and I have been asked to do this several times). A Student Diversity Advisory Board was formed to help guide the Independent staff’s efforts to be more inclusive and diverse in their coverage. And the student journalists who were rookies when the “War Against Asians” debacle exploded, who are now in charge of the CU Independent website, have, with Herdy’s guidance and encouragement, designed an all-new structure for the Independent’s newsroom.

The Independent’s new plan breaks the tradition of mainstream media’s reliance on reporters covering specific beats. That is, a reporter might be assigned to the cop beat and report on crime; city hall beat for legislation; sports; business, entertainment, lifestyles and so on — the usual sections that newspapers have been divided into for decades.

Instead of only assigning reporters to cover the Student Council beat, or the Greek beat, athletics beat or dorm life beat, the CU Independent will also have staff covering vertical areas that cut through all of university life: The racism beat will follow racist incidents whether they occur in classes, dorms, off-campus or on the sports field. The sexism beat reporters will follows those stories wherever they may arise, and the heterosexism beat will focus on anti-gay stories.

You get the idea — instead of reacting to stories like “War Against Asians,” the CU Independent will now root them out and be vigilant throughout the campus, on behalf of all students. It’s an innovative structure, and perhaps one that can only be rolled out in a student publication and not in a mainstream newspaper, but the concept is worth following. There may be some valuable lessons about connecting to audiences and being more relevant to a community that can be learned from the Independent.

It should also be noted that the class has become incredibly popular: When the controversy happened two years ago, there were fewer than 20 students. Today there are almost 100 contributing stories 24/7 to the website.

The CU Independent launched this new newsroom structure today with an event at the steps of the school’s University Memorial Center, with speakers including Congressman Jared Polis, who gave a pretty smart speech about the importance of diverse perspectives in journalism, and gave his wholehearted endorsement to the CU Independent and to the Speak Out campaign. Herdy (captured above in a bus on the way to the UMC), typical of her innate modesty and the tremendous support she offersher students, sat at a table behind the crowd watching the speakers, giving the limelight entirely to her students.

The announcement also included a new campaign called “Speak Out,” which encourages readers to check out the new website but also to be involved with the Independent, comment on the coverage provided by the student journos, and submit “ism” stories they see.

One of the new t-shirts created by a Boulder ad agency to promote the CU Independent

Another t-shirt created by a Boulder ad agency to promote the CU IndependentThe Speak Out campaign was created out of a partnership with a Boulder ad agency, TDA Advertising & Design, which came up with some catchy and edgy slogans to put on ads and t-shirts. The shirts went on sale today at the CU bookstore, and include messages such as “I don’t believe in segregation of color unless it pertains to my laundry,” and a series of brains that grow larger with labels under them reading “homo habilis,” “homo erectus” and “homo sapien,” followed by a shriveled brain that’s labeled, “homo phobic.” There are also bus ads, on the side of the campus buses and inside on Boulder municipal buses, that point to the front seats and proclaim, “Rosa Parks sat here. We’ve come a long way, yet racism still thrives on campus. Speak out against campus racism at cuindependent.com.”

The ad campaign is clever, and I hope it catches the imagination of the students. It’s the most visible sign yet that there’s hope for the University of Colorado, which has long had a reputation as racially charged and unfriendly to students of color.

Kudos to the CU Independent staff and to faculty advisor Amy Herdy — they’ve all worked triple-hard to overcome the stigma of that stupid column two years ago, and they’ve more than made up for the harm that may have been caused then. The area’s Asian community thanks them for their efforts and their determination to fundamentally change how they conduct their journalism. Best of luck to them.

Here’s a photo and caption from today’s event provided the CU administration, shot by my brother Glenn, who works for CU and was one of the people working with the administration in the weeks following the publication of the “War Against Asians” article. Yes, that’s Erin mentioned in the caption; she was also on community groups meeting with school administration after the column ran.

Congressman Jared Polis congratulated the CU Independent on the launch of its new "Speak Out" campaign against prejudice.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis provides the keynote speech launching a new campaign of inclusivity and diversity, called “Speak Out”, by the CU Independent, CU Boulder’s student-run online news publication at the University Memorial Center on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2010. “I want to applaud this conscientious group of young journalists for generating this campaign,” said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.). “By creating awareness among their fellow students, and at the same, creating a forum for that awareness to be expressed, they are profoundly elevating the values of inclusivity and equality at CU-Boulder. They are a credit to the campus, to our state, and to the values of American college students everywhere.”

In addition to Polis, speakers at the event included Erin Yoshimura, a cultural intelligence trainer and owner of Empowerful Changes of Arvada, and Nadia Gedeon, a 9News assignment editor and president of the Colorado Association of Black Journalists. The Speak Out campaign is an endeavor the students have been working on for nearly a year with the CU Independent Student Diversity Advisory Board and TDA Advertising & Design, a Boulder company that donated its time to help with the effort. The campaign is funded entirely by donations and CU Independent advertising revenue. No public funds are involved. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

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