What’s in a name?

I came across a news story that made me wonder: What makes a newspaper a newspaper? When does it become something else? And does it even really matter?

The story appeared in the Daily Camera, a paper covering Boulder County and the city of Boulder, CO. Well, I assume it appeared in the print version of the paper. I happened to read the story on the Camera‘s website. It seems that the local high school, Boulder High, once upon a time had a printed monthly student newspaper, The Owl. Recently, the decision was made to publish The Owl in virtual form only. It seems budget concerns and changing technology were factors in this decision. The decision to go strictly virtual, along with certain restrictions imposed by school authorities on the official paper, was enough to disillusion a group of students and cause them to strike out on their own. The result: An independent student “newspaper” dubbed The Fowl.

Boulder High School

Boulder High School

The paper is funded by a grant for student projects, which is in turn funded by a voter-approved sales tax. According to the Camera, the independent Fowl includes poetry and humor alongside serious articles and original artwork. It’s pasted up by hand, copied at Kinko’s, then sent to a Denver printer, before being distributed on street corners and at student hangouts. In other words … they’ve produced a zine, albeit a tax-payer-funded one. Merriam-Webster’s definition: Zine (noun): Magazine; especially: a noncommercial often homemade or online publication usually devoted to specialized and often unconventional subject matter.


January cover of The Fowl of Boulder High School. Photo from http://www.dailycamera.com

Zines can be fascinating compilations of home-brewed art, typography, thoughts, opinions. As with anything, some zines are of higher quality than others. Some are more “underground” than others, and some cover more … shall we say … edgy topics than others. It used to be that most zines were relatively covert operations, perhaps because they served as expressive outlets for subject material on the fringes of society’s norms. But as zines have grown in popularity as vehicles of self-expression and free speech, in some communities they’ve also become more mainstream. For example, the library system in Multnomah County, Oregon (aka Portland) collects zines for the library’s collection.

Multnomah Zines

Multnomah County Libraries has added zines to its collection. From http://www.diyalert.com

In the case of The Fowl, we have a zine-as-independent-newspaper. Meanwhile, the original student newspaper at Boulder High School, The Owl, exists only in digital form, via a WordPress blog, just like this one you’re reading now. Which brings me back to my original questions: What makes a newspaper a newspaper, and when do you have to start calling it something else? Web 2.0 and the like make it easier than ever to blur the distinction between entities. I’m quite familiar with websites that support and enhance printed newspapers. But if it’s a stand-alone website without the printed version, can you still simply call it a newspaper? And when a newspaper strongly resembles and is produced in the same manner as a zine, why call it a newspaper? Why not just say it’s an independent student zine? And what’s in a name, anyway?

I say, there’s a lot of importance in a name. Names can be powerful. When you know the name for something, you have context, meaning, a way to express yourself. When you don’t know the name for something, or hear an unfamiliar word, it’s like a blank spot in your mind. Think about it. Try it. You know what I mean. There are plenty of stories in folklore about gaining power over someone by learning their true name. Rumpelstiltskin, anyone?

Call me old-fashioned, but I think a newspaper requires physical, printed material. To me, the term newspaper implies a certain level of objectivity and newsworthiness in its content, and yes, by extension even a certain amount of credibility. Now more than ever, young people need to be taught to be discerning consumers of media. To do so, they must learn how to identify who or what created a message, what purpose the message was created for, and who or what is behind that purpose. What is the source? In other words, it is important for media consumers to be able to ask: How credible is this content or message? If kids don’t have the proper words to identify the source of a message, how can they determine its credibility? This is not to imply that a zine or website is inherently less credible than a newspaper. They’re just not newspapers.

So, I think it’s great that these students care enough to take matters into their own hands, find funding, and express themselves through The Fowl. I’m sure a lot of hard work goes in to making it, and I applaud that. When I see stories like this, and stories about the students in New York who have turned to YouTube to help save funding for their school, I think to myself, “the kids are going to be all right.” I also think it’s great that schools allow budding journalists to learn and practice their skills by reporting on events at their school, whether that reporting takes place in print or digital ink.

But let’s teach them the proper names for what it is they’re creating.


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