Politics squeeze newspapers' funding


Across the country editors face government pressure, harassment





The Old Dominion University student senate cut the campus newspaper’s funding over 96 percent last April amid allegations the action was politically motivated.

The university refused to interfere with the senate’s decisions, but the Virginian-Pilot, a Norfolk professional newspaper, stepped in with a one-time grant to supplement the Mace and Crown’s budget. The gift allowed the student paper to put out its first paper of the school year.

Alleged harassment by student governments attempting to intimidate the student press through reduced funding may be increasing. Recently, similar problems in Pennsylvania and Minnesota have occurred.

The Old Dominion student senate, which has authority over all student activity allocations, defended its decision to cut the newspaper’s funding. Senate President Jeff Rowley has said many programs, including the scholarships of student leaders such as himself, were cut in an effort to create more diverse options for student involvement.

The Mace and Crown, though, was by far the hardest hit. Its funding fell from $2,500 in 1995-96 to $100 this year. “I was shocked,” said Mace and Crown editor Valerie Carino. “I couldn’t believe an organization like the student senate would use their purse strings to silence us.”

Last year, the newspaper had supported an impeachment effort against then-senate president Chris Pearson. When Pearson was elected, students voted to raise the minimum grade point average of student government officers from 2.0 to 2.5. Pearson’s GPA was 2.06.

The senate voted to exempt him.

At that time, Mace and Crown also covered supposed election violations concerning then-vice president Rowley. Rowley contends no actual complaints were filed with the election commission.

Both Pearson and Rowley were involved in drafting this year’s budget at the time of the allegations.

In this year’s budget, 26 new groups were funded and two-thirds of existing activities received budget increases. The budget supports previously unfunded organizations like the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. The money from the city paper was a one-time gift. As for next year’s budget, Carino said “We are trying now to negotiate on friendly terms.”

In Minnesota, Tammy Oseid, the editor of the student newspaper at St. John’s College has accused the student senate of similar budget-led intimidation. The senate there slashed the paper’s funding by about one third last year.

Last spring, the newspaper ran a story about a university investigation into $46,000 of senate spending. The senate was accused of misappropriating funds.

Also at issue, according to Oseid, is the fact that she is the first female editor of the paper. Oseid is a student at a nearby all-girls school, St. Benedict’s, which shares activity membership with St. John’s.

Robb Bass, who sits on the senate board that allocates activity funds, has said the cuts were not in retaliation. He claims the newspaper’s wasteful spending habits played a part in the senate’s decision to cut funding.

According to Oseid, in response to the controversy administrators have considered separating newspaper funding from the other club appropriations disbursed by the student government. But she said since the funding controversy has subsided, the initiative has lost momentum.

In another case, last spring the newspaper staff at Pennsylvania State University in Harrisburg experienced similar censorship problems. According to Jody Jacobs, the editor of the Capitol Times, the student government association seemed irked over coverage of their meetings, so they cut the newspaper’s budget. “They didn’t like being directly quoted,” Jacobs said.

According to Jacobs, although it has not been easy, the paper has made do with less money. But this year, there is a new government and things look brighter. “They are not treating us as just a club anymore,” Jacobs said. In the future, the newspaper’s budget will be funded directly from the student activity fee. Jacobs said she expects this will eliminate any content controversies with the student government.


reports, Winter 1996-97