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Under the Radar: An interview with Simon Isham, editor of The Louisville Cardinal

by Joe Dunman

Simon Isham

Simon Isham

In Louisville, real estate moguls, corporate executives, and career politicians dominate the discussion of city issues. This is the second in a recurring series of interviews with young leaders and activists whose fresh perspectives deserve to be part of the conversation.

Simon Isham is editor-in-chief of the Louisville Cardinal, the independent student newspaper of the University of Louisville. He’s also a bit of a wunderkind. He started college when he was 17 (he skipped second grade) and will graduate this December at the age of 20. He is one of – if not the – youngest chief editors in the history of the Cardinal. 

Isham’s road to the Cardinal began at Manual High School, under the guidance of teacher and WFPL media critic James Miller, whose classes piqued Isham’s interest in debate, writing, and journalism. Isham later transferred to Walden School before graduation, where he began writing for LEO Weekly.

He now majors in liberal studies at the University of Louisville (which does not offer a degree in journalism), specializing in sociolinguistics — the study of the effects of society on language, and vice versa. 

In just two years, Isham has enjoyed a meteoric rise at the Cardinal. Three weeks after joining, he was promoted to assistant features editor, and by the next semester, he was news editor. He now manages all aspects of the paper’s operation, and oversaw both a recent redesign of its print edition and a major boost in funding for the website. And his work at the Cardinal was recently nominated for three Society of Professional Journalist awards.

As both the manager of a news outlet and a student journalist, he has dual concerns: the proper role of student media such as the Cardinal, and the challenges facing student journalists entering the full-time workforce.

The Role and Challenges of Student Media

In Isham’s view, the Cardinal doesn’t need to position itself as a competitor to larger local news outlets. Isham thinks the focus should be on campus, providing news to students and catering to their specific interests. College journalism awards tend to go to student reporters who focus on high-profile, non-campus stories, but Isham believes the Cardinal must stay focused on the community it serves.

According to Isham, the persistent question behind the Cardinal’s coverage is, “Can [students] get this news first or better from us or from TV or from The Courier-Journal?” In his experience, “There’s a lot of stuff we look at that the TV stations and the C-J will never look at unless we bring it up, and then they might cover it. But there’s a lot of stuff they just won’t pay attention to because we’re the only ones who care enough or know enough to look into it.”

For example, in early 2013, racist online comments by a U of L student sparked a campus controversy. The university held a public forum, moderated by WFPL news editor and former Cardinal staffer Phillip Bailey, but the student journalist assigned to cover it by the Cardinal was turned away. Press coverage was prohibited, the journalist was told. What was already a controversial event suddenly became even more so, and the Cardinal ran an in-depth look at how the community is impacted when the press is excluded from a public forum. The story was not covered by other local media outlets.

Access was a problem more recently, as well, when limited space at the carnival “debate” between Bill Nye and Ken Hamm resulted in college journalists getting cut from the guest list. This was just another symptom of the mixed bag of student journalism, Isham said. For example, some sources may be more indulgent or elect to take questions “because they don’t think you will play hardball,” but, they may also “ignore you or put you off, because they don’t think they have anything to gain from your audience.” 

A similar challenge is maintaining a productive relationship with the university administration. Isham doesn’t want to only run “soft” reporting on whatever the university wants to promote, but he also sees no value in being openly hostile. “We want to have, at minimum, an open relationship” with the university in which student journalists can freely contact sources in the administration and not have to rely solely on spokespeople.

The primary hurdle to such a relationship is turnover. The revolving door of undergraduate education means the Cardinal’s staff is constantly changing. “It’s a different paper every year,” Isham said. “That can be a blessing and a curse, but you can’t really build a reputation that way.”

That turnover also creates difficulty in managing reporters. The Cardinal may seem like an easy résumé builder to some student journalists, but little more. “The kind of journalism I want them to do isn’t [necessarily] the kind of journalism they want to do, meaning they’re more interested in, ‘Oh, I just want to be on TV, I just want a show.’ Well, that’s not really what we’re here for,” Isham said.

An Uncertain Future

A certain amount of selfishness among student journalists is warranted, though. Just like his staff members, Isham is concerned for his own career in an industry punctuated by waves of layoffs. Or, while some outlets like the C-J are cutting staff, others, such as WDRB, are headhunting experienced talent rather than nurturing recent graduates. And as is the trend nationally, many “entry level” jobs now require multiple years of experience. 

“How do you get that experience?” Isham asked. “Working for free?” While low- or no-paying internships and freelance work may be possible for some, it excludes graduates with limited resources. Isham worries he’s made “a huge gamble” on a field he feels drawn to and suited for, but which may not be able to provide opportunities. 

The traditional path to a career in journalism is not only a position with a college newspaper, but also, “in the summer, you take breaks and go to some exotic locale” to report, Isham said. That model isn’t viable for students who don’t already have the financial means to relocate.

“And what if I want to get a job as a local reporter? Why would I go off somewhere else?” Isham asked. He believes the best journalists have a deep understanding of the subjects upon which they report, and though spending time away from the market in which you want to work may improve your writing style or your worldview, it doesn’t expand your list of local contacts. 

Worse, many local media employers either don’t hire young journalists or they have internship programs which recruit students from outside Louisville, so local graduates have limited options.  

That’s a shame, since demand for information is as great as it has ever been.

In the end, though, Isham remains undaunted. He has published with multiple local outlets, including LEO and Insider Louisville, and is building an impressive résumé at the Cardinal. With continued hard work and a little luck, he certainly has the potential to go far in Louisville media.

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