Students v. Professionals
Conflicts between a college paper and a commercial daily have led to the courthouse in a battle over access to records
IOWA — Conflicts between a college student newspaper and a professional newspaper in Ames have made their way to court in a suit over access to the student newspaper’s records.
Partnership Press, the parent company of the Ames city newspaper, The Daily Tribune, filed suit in November against the publications board at Iowa State University. The board oversees the operations of the Iowa State Daily, the student newspaper at the school.
Partnership Press claims that the board is a government body and therefore should be subject to the Iowa’s Open Records Law. The records requested include information about the by-laws of the board, minutes and agendas from the board’s meetings since January 1993, correspondence and contracts with the university, university benefits to employees, use of university equipment and facilities, financial records, employment records and contracts, and advertising and marketing of the Iowa State Daily.
The Iowa State Daily has turned over some records, about 230 pages of documents, to an attorney for Partnership Press.
The board said it turned over its records voluntarily, since it believes the records are not subject to the open records law as an entity incorporated separately from the university. It re fused to turn over documents relating to the newspaper’s marketing and advertising budget, strategy and plans because they claim those records are exempt from the open records law.
Gary Gerlach, the president of Partnership Press and co-owner of The Daily Tribune, said that the Tribune often challenges public bodies that do not comply with the open records laws. He said the paper has made it an editorial and corporate stand to make sure public bodies are abiding by the laws. The publications board, he said, is an arm of the university and therefore is a public body.
Jeff Stein, a member of the publications board and a lecturer at Iowa State, said that The Daily Tribune asked for documents that are not public under the open records law and that the publications board is not a public body subject to these laws. He said the lawsuit was filed prematurely and contains inaccuracies.
“We hope this lawsuit will be thrown out,” said Tom Beell, a journalism professor at Iowa State and a member of the publications board. Beell said the Iowa State Daily has a great potential to be hurt by this suit.
The trial is scheduled for late September.
There are many other disputes raging between the two newspapers aside from the records suit. Beell and others have said that this case is not about records, but the suit is simply the current weapon being used in the battle.
Both sides have started new papers that compete with each other on and off campus. Partnership Press is currently distributing two newspapers, one aimed at faculty and staff and one aimed at students, on the Iowa State campus.
Partnership Press has filed unfair competition claims against the university about the Daily’s competing publications. They claim the school paper has certain advantages in being at the university including free rent and a student subscriptions fee.
Beell said that Partnership Press has the advantage of free legal counsel, a much greater expense than what the Iowa State Daily gets from the university. Gerlach and Michael Gartner, owners of The Daily Tribune, are both lawyers. Beell said several members of the Tribune’s board are also attorneys.
The university has also instituted a new policy to deal with the distribution of three types of publications university-sponsored, free non-university-sponsored and subscription non-university-sponsored publications.
University-sponsored publications, like the Daily, can distribute at 41 locations around campus. The Tribune’s paper aimed at students, The Campus Reader, is a free non-university sponsored paper and can be distributed at seven locations and student dormitories.
The disputes between the two sides seem to boil down to competition, according to Dick Haws, the editorial adviser to the Daily. He said in the past few years, the managers of his paper have become more aggressive about increasing circulation and advertising outside of the campus. Lately, the paper has retreated from some of the areas to try and calm the disputes.
Gerlach said he believes the student paper’s professional managers have taken many opportunities away from the students.
He said his goals are to get the student newspaper back into the hands of the students and to protect his business from unfair competition.
The number of professional managers have not increased in the past few years, according to Janette Antisdel, the publisher of the Iowa State Daily. In fact, she said, several positions for students have been created on the business side of the newspaper to give the students hands-on experience.
Antisdel said her role, and that of the other professionals working at the paper, is to perform her responsibilities and to teach the students working at the paper about the business side of running a newspaper.
Beell said Gartner and Gerlach have been able to hide their true motive maximizing profit under the First Amendment. He said, “They are not the noble protectors of press freedom they pretend to be.”
Beell said professional managers have been doing the same jobs at the student newspaper for decades. He said many other large college newspapers have similar professional staffs. Beell said professionals run the business side of the newspaper and stay completely out of the editorial and news side.
The Daily Tribune is losing money, Stein said, so they are trying to survive. “Competition is fine, but a frivolous lawsuit is not,” he said.
After the lawsuit and unfair competition claims are decided, the hostility will probably continue, Beell said. He said the two sides will probably still have a strained relationship.
In the end, the future of both newspapers may be at risk.
Iowa, reports, Spring 1996, The Iowa State Daily