By MIKE FOSTER
Desmond Hilson had found his niche.
After dropping out of Georgia Southern University in 2011, 22-year-old Hilson enrolled at Southern Polytechnic State University in the spring of 2013 looking for a fresh start. He still wasn’t satisfied as he found the rigors of his civil engineering degree to be outside of his comfort zone.
Hilson liked to take photos, create video and had manual skills with technology. He finally put those skills to work when he walked into a closet next to the bathrooms inside SPSU’s Joe Mack Wilson Student Center.
He walked into that closet with a plan.
“I saw in February of that semester that we had a newspaper. I looked at it and didn’t like the way it looked, the photos or anything, really,” he said. “So I made it my goal to get involved and bring my own skills into it.”
In that humble closet space lies The Sting, the school’s student newspaper. It is also SPSU’s oldest student organization with a launch during the school’s inaugural year of 1948. Even after 60 years, it was still a humble publication. SPSU is a school well known for its engineering, architecture and technology programs.
Because of the academic environment at the 6,202-student campus, circulating a prolific newspaper was a challenge, with the biggest obstacle being finding students with journalistic practice and experience—something expected at a traditional, liberal arts college.
Since the social media world brought more technology into the field of journalism, students like Hilson found themselves valuable assets as media producers for their student body.
Hilson took over as the editor-in-chief of The Sting in the spring of 2014, following directly in the shadow of Randy Brown Jr. Brown was so successful as the EIC that he was chosen to speak at the SPSU commencement ceremony on May 10, 2014.
That was the same year The Sting won the award of the Georgia College Press Association’s Most Improved Student Newspaper.
“He made this thing what it is,” Hilson said. “He got the ball really rolling. A couple of years ago The Sting was crumbling. Our readership was very low. But he pushed us into this modern era and we became this important entity that we are today.”
On Nov. 1, 2013, the University System of Georgia announced a planned merger between Kennesaw State University and SPSU. The two schools, just ten minutes of interstate away from each other in Cobb County, are drastically different.
The Sting, and KSU’s school newspaper, The Sentinel, reflected that difference. The Sentinel has operated as a weekly newspaper with a digital platform, but has been primarily a print publication. The Sting, now operating as a monthly magazine-style publication, had to find its way into the fold.
“Understandably, I think their initial concern was that their publication might have to stop,” Ed Bonza, KSU’s Student Media Advisor, said. “No matter what we could have offered, I think at that point we just needed to listen, because it would have been patronizing any other way.”
Bonza sympathizes with SPSU, reflecting on the challenge a small publication faces with growing into something much larger.
“Once upon a time, we were a tiny campus, and The Sentinel has gone from a publication much like theirs to a big-institution organization, which has its obstacles,” said Bonza. “Southern Poly, if they come under our umbrella, will have to go from a small school feel to a big one overnight.”
Hilson echoed the concern of becoming part of something bigger. At a smaller school with less oversight, Hilson felt like his staff of 40 members were “rebels” on SPSU’s campus.
“One thing is that we don’t like people telling us what to do,” he said. “We decide on our own features and stories and we just go for it.”
Bonza and Hilson met three times, along with the organization members for The Sting, The Sentinel, and KSU’s magazine publication, Talon, to discuss a game plan for merging institutions.
Logistical concerns, such as advertising revenue and access to the south campus, became primary concerns.
“Advertising drives the train,” Bonza said.
Bonza also admitted that The Sting had more in common with Talon, and that the staffs will most likely either merge or produce two separate publications. This proposed the thought of keeping The Sting intact as a niche magazine that would reflect primarily the south campus.
However, this could potentially hinder revenue.
“Why would you cut the revenue in half?” Bonza said.
Bonza also said the plan would be for The Sentinel to expand in order to cover both campuses. This would require an office location at the south campus. To its benefit, the merge could increase advertising opportunities.
“The marketing team is going to be amped up. Distribution will be amped up,” Bonza said. “We are doubling our advertising potential. I do think we’ll need a bureau, or just a permanent editor [at the south campus] to make sure the news content balances itself out.”
One adaptation The Sentinel could make would be a new content section on the sciences and technology, which would help cater the paper to the south campus audience.
On Nov. 1, 2013, Hilson was sitting in The Sting office when he heard the abrupt news that the two schools would merge. He knew right away that, for his organization, it wasn’t going to be pretty.
“Hypothetically, if consolidation happens that means The Sting goes away. That’s a lot of hard work wiped away,” Hilson said, “At first we were all shocked, but then we realized wait, we have a job to do.”
Hilson and his staff did what they knew best: they brought the news to SPSU students.
“We heard the president was going to speak on campus just a few minutes after the news broke, so we stopped complaining and realized we had to cover the situation,” he said. “We grabbed our cameras, laptops, everything, and ran out there. We live-Tweeted the whole thing and made sure we got accurate information out to the students.”
Hilson said that moment—major breaking news at his small campus—just helped legitimize The Sting.
“I’m hoping at this point, the reigns are in the hands of the students,” Bonza said regarding how the organizations have worked together over the past few months.
Bonza thinks The Sentinel will become an integrated, campus-wide newspaper, and that students who want to produce news will have access to all publications.
“I think with what The Sentinel is, the reality is anyone who wants a career in journalism will want to come to The Sentinel first,” he said.
Hilson sees it that way as well.
“Heck, if news breaks and you want to write breaking news—if I want to write breaking news—I’m going to put it together and send it to The Sentinel, but that doesn’t mean we have to completely change what we do here,” Hilson said.
Emily Jacobson, KSU Owl Radio’s general manager, has also worked with integrating content on a fair platform. While SPSU’s radio station has been a work in progress, it will integrate with Owl Radio starting next year.
“They have their own station down at the south campus, but they even admitted to us they have new technology and are still learning like we are,” Jacobson said.
Owl Radio, which is a live-stream station on a digital platform, will become an avenue for south-campus content as well.
“They can package pre-recorded shows and send them to us and we will air it,” Jacobson said. “We’ve talked with them about things as specific as changing our music to be more similar to what they’ve produced in the past. We’re going to add new shows and bring in those who want to make it an integrated experience.”
Despite the obstacles, Hilson looks forward to not just keeping his staff involved in media production by bringing their technical skills to the picture, but also has warmed up to the idea of the merger.
“This school will be the go-to university in Georgia, I think, for a fraction of the cost to go to bigger schools,” Hilson said. “I think this consolidation is going to be end up being a good thing, but students need to make sure to take active participation in this process to make sure the consolidation works for them.”