Journalism in Transition: Fond Reflections on 21 Years Advising The Setonian

Photo of Dennis Jerz, Professor of New Media Journalism and English at Seton Hill University.


Written by: Dennis Jerz

The professionalism of the staff and the huge impact of computers are two things that impressed my predecessor, Wilda Kaylor, who wrote for The Setonian as an undergraduate and advised the student paper for 17 years over a 20-year span starting in the 1980s.

Owing to the varied outlooks from editors with majors like political science, history, music and math, “there was always something new,” she said during a visit to campus on April 17th. “It was creative.”

She recalled a labor-intensive eight-day production cycle that included typing up hand-written drafts, punching codes into a typesetting machine, and a marathon weekend of cutting and pasting strips of formatted text onto blue-lined boards—which then had to be driven to the printer.

Student journalists collaborated with the communications faculty on a proposal that brought the two first Macs to campus in the early 1990s, according to Kaylor.

At the start of my own watch as adviser in 2003, some students who had enrolled at a cozy women’s college with the team nickname “Spirits” were still processing what it meant to graduate from a coeducational university with a hulking “Griffin” mascot.

In those days, mainstream journalists still regularly spread dubious online hoaxes (blond genes disappearing! bananas going extinct! men booking hunting trips to fire paintballs at half-naked women!) that my students learned to fact-check with a simple Google search.

Seton Hill made the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005 with a story on my students doing a cutting-edge thing called “blogging.”

The profession changed so quickly that I had to throw out my syllabus almost every semester.

Photo taken from Dennis Jerz’s blog “The First Issue of the Student Paper”  in August of 2012.

First published in 1919, The Setonian not only predates SHU’s journalism major, it also predates the majestic London planetrees that the Sisters of Charity planted along the driveway during the summer of 1924.

My student journalists covered the international attention that SHU received for embracing iPads in 2010 and President Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to the Flight 93 Memorial. They captured a stunning photo of the crimson-and-gold line of students linking hands as a funeral procession brought former president JoAnn Boyle up the hill for the final time, one bittersweet November day in 2013. (Boyle, who herself attended Seton Hill as an undergrad, at one point chaired the English department and even advised The Setonian.)

A few years after an editor asked to do a very successful glossy graduation magazine as an independent study, The Setonian shifted from a 12- or 16-page newsprint tabloid five times per semester, to a monthly 32-page magazine, in addition to the website.

More than one editor graduated on a Saturday and started working full-time as a journalist on the following Monday.

As I step aside, I am stunned and humbled to realize I have advised “the student voice of the hill” for about ⅕ of its history.

The general downturn in humanities enrollment along with shifts in cultural attitudes towards journalism have meant, in the past few years, smaller staffs, faster turnover, fewer issues, less camaraderie, and lower visibility for The Setonian on campus.

Nevertheless, I still get emails from alums who admit that they never much cared for the deadlines, or the interviews with strangers, or the rules of AP Style, but years later, now that they’ve gotten this job or that promotion or published their own book, or they want to hire an assistant, they appreciate what they learned from their time on The Setonian.

I look forward to teaching more journalism classes and advising future English majors who choose the journalism track, and I look forward to seeing the next stage in The Setonian’s evolution, as it continues to showcase the voice of the students of SHU.