Going it alone
Freedom from school control can come in many forms
A student paper in New Jersey is unable to print its first issue of the semester because the student government that funds the paper freezes its entire budget. Three editors of the student paper at a private university in Illinois resign when officials tell them they cannot publish controversial content without prior approval. A student paper in Colorado is kept in the dark about a media giant’s attempt to buy it. All these events happened this year at colleges where the student papers are still under the watchful eye of the university administration.
Even at public universities, where administrators legally cannot control a student paper’s content, attempts to censor student journalists are frequent. Legal experts agree the best way for a student paper to guarantee its own editorial and financial freedom is to separate itself from the school as much as possible.
“The more that a newspaper can rely on itself and fund itself, the better they will be ultimately,” said Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, dean of Florida International University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
In spring 2007, Kopenhaver and Ronald E. Spielberger, associate professor of journalism at the University of Memphis, sent out surveys to hundreds of student newspapers for a study on the status of student papers’ revenues and staff salaries. The survey replicated a similar one from spring 1999, which was reported on in the spring 2000 issue of College Media Review.
The survey found that student papers’ operating budgets showed little growth in eight years. All funding sources for papers, except general college funds, decreased since 1999.
The results indicate student papers are increasingly reliant on funding from their colleges, and there is less progress toward financial independence. The number of newspapers who receive their funding through advertising decreased from 85.2 percent in 1999 to 81.5 percent in 2007.
Even though most student papers are still attached to their universities to some degree, Kopenhaver said the trend seems to be toward papers trying to distance themselves more from their universities.
And in some cases, it is the schools that are considering distancing themselves from their student papers.
A Colorado State University advisory committee, for example, is considering a proposal to cut the school’s ties with its student paper by converting its entire student media department into an independent non-profit corporation. The Rocky Mountain Collegian garnered national attention and criticism for publishing a September editorial that simply read: “Taser this … F*** Bush.”
The proposal, developed by Student Media Director Jeff Browne, argued that one benefit for the university would be that, if the paper were independent, the university would be freed of any liability for its content. Courts, however, have said public universities generally are not legally liable for their student media in the first place, as long as administrators do not control content. The proposal has not received final approval.
In the Spring 2001 College Media Review, a study by Wanda Brandon categorized student newspapers into three basic structures: “under the control of the university administration, published by a publication board or a student governing body and financed in part with university and student fees, and independent of university influences.” Even though many student papers say they are independent, they still receive some support from the university, such as having a rent-free office on campus, Kopenhaver said.
Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said probably fewer than 40 college papers in the country are set up as independent companies that function completely separate from the university. To gain true independence, a student paper must “go both financially and practically independent of the school,” including moving the paper’s office off campus, he said.
“You are establishing yourself as a completely separate entity from the school,” Hiestand said.
Still, there are several ways a student paper can guarantee its editorial independence without completely separating from the university. At a public university, any student media policy the university adopts “has to be consistent with the First Amendment,” Hiestand said. Even with student papers published as part of a for-credit class, students can argue the paper becomes a public forum — and thus entitled to full First Amendment protection — as soon as the paper is distributed outside of the classroom, he said.
It is possible for a paper to be truly editorially independent while still receiving school funding, but it is important for the university to formally agree to recognize the paper as a public forum for student expression, Kopenhaver said. Entering into business arrangements with the university, such as selling the university a subscription in return for the paper agreeing to distribute copies on campus for free, can also give student papers an “extra degree of independence” and create a cleaner separation of the two, she said.
A student media board can also help ensure a paper’s editorial independence by serving as the middleman between the paper and the administration.
“A good student media board will protect the student newspaper,” Kopenhaver said. “It will be kind of the buffer if the administration tries to do something in regards to the paper.”
Possibly the most restrictive structure for a student paper is when it is directly funded by a student government, Kopenhaver said. The arrangement can become problematic because of the lack of separation between a governmental entity and the medium that is supposed to cover it objectively.
The Montclarion, the student paper at Montclair State University in New Jersey, can attest to such a problematic relationship. The student government froze the paper’s budget in January, preventing the paper from printing its first issue of the semester. The university administration had to step in and announce it would separate the paper from the student government.
At a public university, if the university does try to censor the student paper, at least the law is on the paper’s side, Hiestand said. But papers at private universities have less legal ammunition when battling censorship by their administrations because the papers are not part of a public body, and the First Amendment protects against censorship only at the hands of government.
The editor in chief and two other editors at Lewis University’s student paper resigned in February after an administrator attempted to censor the paper’s content. The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences decided the Flyer could not publish the names of students or community members involved in alleged criminal activity, could not publish the word “nigger” in a news story about the word appearing on a flier on campus, and could not run a story about a university trustee being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission without the dean’s approval. Unfortunately for the editors, Lewis University is a private college, and there were no student media policies in place to stop the administration from censoring. The students said they resigned because they could not do their duty of informing the public with such prior review in place.
The actual process of separating a student paper from the university can take a good deal of time, energy and money. Elaine English, the attorney who represented George Washington University’s student paper, the GW Hatchet, throughout its push for independence in 1993, said the process can be difficult when students are dealing with large and slow bureaucracies.
“You need to have the commitment of a steady group of students who will see it through,” English said.
English is now serving as legal counsel for Georgetown’s student paper, The Hoya, in its quest for independence. A 2006 push for independence by leaders of the paper failed when administrators decided the paper could not keep the Hoya name if it became independent. Student Alex Schank, former chairman of the Hoya’s Board of Directors, insists this year’s attempt is different.
“I think this time around, we at least all have a clear idea of the concerns on each side,” he said.
Schank said there has been more dialogue between the paper and the university than in the past. Hoya leaders, administrators and legal counsel for both parties met in January to discuss the future of the paper, including the issue of the Hoya name, and discussions on the issue are continuing, Schank said.
The working assumption is that the university could give an independent paper a series of short-term leases for the Hoya name and set conditions for use of the name, Schank said. With or without the Hoya name, former Editor in Chief John Swan said independence remains a priority.
“I think it’s pretty much agreed that an independent paper is the ultimate goal,” Swan said. Swan’s and Schank’s terms both ended in April.
Staffers will have to decide down the road whether independence should happen even without the Hoya name, Swan said.
Schank said the university grants the paper “quite a bit of editorial freedom,” but the Hoya is expected to be consistent with Georgetown’s Catholic and Jesuit identity. For example, there is an informal policy that prevents the paper from running condom advertisements. And although the university has not directly tried to censor student media, there have been past incidents where administrators have “put pressure on editors,” Schank said. If the paper were independent, it would not have to fear retribution from the university, he said.
Another big reason for seeking independence is to have financial autonomy. The Hoya staff would be able to decide how to reinvest its profits into the paper, Swan said.
Currently, Georgetown maintains control of most of the paper’s profits. This year the Hoya staff received one-third of last year’s profits, Schank said.
English said negotiations with the George Washington administration were much easier than the current negotiations with the Georgetown administration because GW fully supported an independent Hatchet. The university even hired English to represent the students in negotiations and paid for her legal fees.
“They both at least shared that common goal,” she said. “It’s not clear that [Georgetown] itself is fully supportive of the notion of an independent newspaper.”
What it takes
If the Hoya were to become independent, there would be many logistical and financial issues to deal with. One of the most critical factors in being an independent paper is its ability to financially support itself in the short and long term.
“If they want to consider independence, the financial backing from some source is going to be critical,” English said. “A student newspaper that wants to go independent can’t overlook their financial security when they become independent.”
Schank said the Hoya is confident it will be able to stay afloat financially — the paper made about $110,000 in revenue in 2007, which covered all the paper’s expenses and generated a profit. Georgetown has also mentioned in the past that the paper could stay at its on-campus office for the first semester or year of independence, he said.
The paper also has run projections for the future and expects to turn a yearly profit, Swan said.
“We would never go independent without knowing for certain that our newspaper would survive,” he said.
One of the first major steps toward becoming independent is establishing as a separate legal entity from the school. The Hatchet and many other newly independent student papers are set up as non-profit corporations, English said. The process of incorporating includes filing incorporation papers with the state, setting up a corporate structure with bylaws and officers, filing with the IRS to be recognized as a non-profit and buying libel insurance. Incorporating also can involve setting up a board to oversee the corporation and deciding whether it will be composed solely of students or a combination of students and media professionals, she said.
A paper should also negotiate some type of contract with the university to ensure the paper will have access to the university in terms of newsgathering and distribution, English said. In the Hatchet’s case, the paper entered into a formal agreement with the university. The agreement is reexamined every couple of years and requires the Hatchet to produce a minimum number of copies for distribution and the university to allow distribution on campus and pay for newspaper racks, she said.
Hoya leaders believe it’s in the university’s and students’ interests to have an independent paper, and they remain optimistic about their prospects of gaining independence this year.
“It’s a multi-dimensional kind of issue, there’s a lot at stake,” Swan said. “Hopefully there’ll be some fruits for our efforts.”
Inside independent papers
The Heights at Boston College is one of the few student papers that consider themselves truly independent from their universities. Since the 1970s, the paper has functioned as Heights Inc., a non-profit corporation in which the editor in chief serves as president and the general manager as treasurer, Heights Editor in Chief Pilar Landon said.
The corporate bylaws require a board of directors, made up of four rotating Heights alumni, to review the paper’s financial records and examine its finances.
The paper, which publishes twice a week, is funded entirely by advertisement revenue and operates on a budget of about $250,000 per year. Although the paper does not struggle financially, it currently does not have the financial means to pay its student staff, Landon said.
The Heights office is located on campus, but the paper pays rent to the university on an annual basis, she said. But despite its formal independence, the paper has had to make compromises with the school so it can continue to remain on the private campus.
“The only thing that we’re required not to do to maintain the lease is to not run advertisements dealing with birth control or excessive alcohol,” Landon said.
Boston College, a Catholic university, allows the paper to distribute on campus because there is a general understanding that the paper will not print anything against church teaching, she said. Conflict did arise several years ago when the paper wanted to run a very sexually explicit column, and the university said it would not renew the paper’s lease if it continued running the column. Staffers decided to stay on campus rather than run the column, Landon said.
“It’s always kind of a balance of what’s more worth it to us,” she said.
But the paper maintains an open relationship with the university while still fulfilling its watchdog functions.
“Being completely independent, they really respect you on a different level,” she said. “They know you have power … to call them out on things.”
The Red and Black at the University of Georgia, which has been independent since 1980, also counts the freedom to investigate the school’s administration as a major benefit to independence. For example, the daily paper currently is working on a series of articles about professors who have violated the school’s sexual harassment policy, Red and Black Editor in Chief Juanita Cousins said.
“If we were part of the university, they would say, ?you can’t even write this story,’” she said.
Like the Heights, the Red and Black operates as a non-profit corporation under a board of directors, which is composed of university alumni who work in media. The board approves the paper’s annual budget and selects the editor in chief, managing editor and advertising manager, Cousins said. The paper also has an adviser, who is a former professional journalist.
Unlike the Heights, the Red and Black’s office is located off-campus, and the paper makes enough advertising revenue to pay its editors, reporters and photographers. Both Landon and Cousins agree there are almost no negative aspects of being independent from their universities.
The FSView & Florida Flambeau at Florida State University and the Central Florida Future at the University of Central Florida are unique in that they are student papers independent from their universities but owned by Gannett, a media corporation that also owns USA Today.
The Gannett-owned Tallahassee Democrat bought the FSView in 2006, and Gannett bought the publishing company that owned the Future in 2007. The FSView and the Future operate as for-profit entities, but editorial control has stayed in students’ hands.
“I’ve never had trouble with Gannett,” said Liz Cox, news editor at the FSView. “They don’t try to interfere, they’re basically there to help if we need it.”
Cox said although she does not necessarily like Gannett ownership because there is a bigger focus on profits, a major perk is having the opportunity to work with professional journalists.
She has attended training sessions at the Tallahassee Democrat, and some staff members have shadowed reporters and attended weekly meetings at the paper. The experiences have been valuable since the university does not have a journalism school, she said. Gannett also pays the FSView editors per issue.
But not all students see corporate ownership as a good thing. Staffers at the Rocky Mountain Collegian were outraged when they were not allowed into a closed meeting in January between the Gannett-owned newspaper the Coloradoan and university officials. Coloradoan representatives maintained the meeting was to discuss a strategic partnership with the student paper, but Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell told the Student Press Law Center in March that Gannett had been seeking to buy the Collegian.
The university created an “advisory committee” in February to review the structure of the Collegian and review any proposals made by Gannett and other parties. Aaron Hedge, Collegian news editor, said the staff was confused by Connell’s comments and questioned the purpose of the committee.
Connell said Gannett ceased communication with the university after officials told the company the paper was not for sale. However, rumors continued to swirl after the initial meeting that Gannett was still seeking some role with the Collegian. The student paper remained adamant about resisting a corporate buyout.
Students arguably should be concerned about how their free speech rights will be affected when a big corporation wants to buy their paper.
“They’re a private company and can pretty much do whatever they want,” SPLC legal consultant Hiestand said.
Private companies like Gannett are not subject to First Amendment restrictions, he said. To ensure editorial freedom, a student paper would have to enter into an agreement with its corporate owner that students should have control over the paper’s editorial content.
Similarly, a student paper and its university should have a formal agreement that the student medium is editorially autonomous. It is more difficult for university officials to justify attempts at censorship when the student paper has long been granted editorial independence.
Student journalists should also be knowledgeable about their free speech rights and the level of independence they really have from the university. Not all student papers have the resources to go fully independent from their universities, but it benefits the entire college community for a university to protect the editorial freedoms of its student publications.
reports, Spring 2008