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Celebrating April 1 with fake news: Do or don't?

Jenna Johnson

CampusMedia.jpgOn Thursday, it's likely that some college newspaper headlines will catch your eye...

U. to replace professors with nuns. (link!) Let's shot-gun some beers and then pass an ultra-non-binding GUSA Resolution. (link!) Campus Escorts apparently not a booty call service. (link!)

The punchline on all of these stories: April Fools!

For generations, college newspapers have celebrated April 1 with joke issues. And for just as long, satirical stories have offended readers, enraged administrators, made jokes that really aren't funny and, occasionally, landed college papers in court.

So as March rolls to an end, college newspaper editors are faced with a decision: To do a joke issue or not to do a joke issue.

(Want to read some of this year's prank stories? Check out, "Wait, is this an Onion story??")

"We most certainly are doing an April Fools issue," said Annie Ropeik, editor in chief of The Daily Free Press at Boston University. "It's a nice day off from hard news, barring giant stories (which we would put online), and is a fun chance to have the core staff all sit down together and write/layout the paper ourselves from scratch."

This year the newspaper is doing a Harry Potter-themed joke issue that will be called, "The Daily Free Prophet." It will be available only in print, not on the paper's Web site. Ropeik said that while you can get away with almost anything in a gag issue, it's important to "go all-out or people won't recognize what's going on."

The Heights at Boston College prints an annual April Fool's Day edition called The Depths, but doesn't put the stories online.

The joke stories are "in the good spirit of news traditions such as press roasts and the White House Press Corps dinner," said Editor Matt DeLuca. "This sort of satirical practice does not mean that the paper loses any of its sense of professionalism. Satire, like anything else, can be well or poorly written. In fact, the best publications will realize that they can find ways to produce a April Fool's Day edition that everyone can enjoy."

The Daily Collegian at Penn State University is skipping an April Fool's Day issue, especially because student government elections are a day earlier and the April 1 paper will feature the results.

"For newspapers, credibility is key," said Editor in Chief Rossilynne Skena. "Readers come to the Collegian because they know what they're seeing is accurate and credible. We want our readers to feel assurance that they can trust our front page every day, and straying from that even for a one-day April Fool's joke is counter to our mission as journalists."

Columbia Daily Spectator has not published a joke issue in many years, said Editor in Chief Ben Cotton, because it "sets up a whole slew of ethical issues -- trying to toe the line between what's funny and what's an inappropriate comment about a person or subject we purport to cover objectively is asking a lot."

But Cotton said it is still important for college newspapers not to take themselves seriously all the time. So the Spectator tries to have fun on its new blog, Spectrum, which is prominently featured on the Web site.

The Brown Daily Herald usually prints an April Fool's Day issue, but is not doing so this year because the holiday falls over spring break, and editors worried that no one would get the joke by April 5. As the staff decides what to write about, they are often reminded that in 1965 three Daily Herald editors had to resign because they published a hoax story on the front page that people took seriously, said current Editor in Chief George Miller.

"My one piece of advice would be to keep the subject matter light and not to write stories people could take seriously," Miller said. (One of his favorite joke stories, "Simmons: Men are dumb.")

I e-mailed the Student Press Law Center's executive director, Frank D. LoMonte, and asked for his take on joke issues.

LoMonte has personal experience with joke issues: When he was a student at the University of Florida, his student paper spoofed the university's full-page ad of campus announcements on April Fool's Day. "My favorite part, which I still remember to this day, is that the original page always carried the disclaimer, 'The University of Florida is an Equal Opportunity Employer.' We changed that to: 'The University of Florida Will Hire Just About Anybody,'" he said. "Yep, still funny."

But in all seriousness, LoMonte has some solid tips for college newspapers if they decide to publish a fake edition of the paper on Thursday:

My number one piece of advice to anyone considering any type of "humor" newspaper is this: You've got to lie big. If you're going to say the football coach got his secretary pregnant - and you shouldn't - at least make sure it's his 82-year-old secretary. The humor has to leap off the page and smack you in the face, or else someone's going to take it seriously, and that's when reader complaints - and threats of lawsuits - happen.
The most effective and least risky humor is humor that exaggerates a characteristic of the school and not of a named individual. If the food in the cafeteria is terrible, your headline can be, 'CDC: Tests reveal traces of meat in cafeteria sandwiches,' and that's fine because you're spoofing the food and not a specific person. You just don't want to go a step further and accuse the cafeteria vending company by name of putting poison in the food, or something comparable that would damage the company's business if taken out of context or misinterpreted.
This is especially true now that so many student newspapers are online. Once or twice a year, there's a story about some news agency in Mongolia that doesn't realize "The Onion" isn't a real newspaper and quotes one of their farcical stories as if it's real. So you want to make sure that, even if the story is taken literally, it doesn't make a believable accusation of wrongdoing against a real person or a real company.
I think my final piece of advice would be, don't throw the issue together after $2 pitcher night on Friday. Things that looked hilarious at 1 a.m. on deadline day have a way of looking less hilarious in the calm light of day. You really need to re-read the humor issue - or have some humorless person read it - so you anticipate the risk of misunderstanding.

Is your college paper doing a joke issue? What are your ground rules for doing so? Let me know in the comments section.

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By Jenna Johnson  |  March 30, 2010; 1:50 PM ET
Categories:  Campus Media  | Tags: Boston College, Boston University, Brown, Columbia, Penn State, University of Florida  
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If the question is "Do or don't?" the answer is "Don't." 99% of the kids who make up the staff of college newspapers are so grimly determined to be the next Bill Keller (or are just resume-padding for their law school applications) that their attempts at humor are largely unreadable. Exhibit A? The Penn State editor, who has apparently confused the campus rag with The Times of London.

Posted by: Hagar7 | March 31, 2010 5:36 PM | Report abuse

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