Back to the drawing board

Changing times have led to changing student media polices, with differing receptions

As the business model for journalism changes with the advent of new technology and more expansive schools of thought, college journalism programs change along with it. Policies implemented to shift, alter or otherwise change the way collegiate student media operates present a path across a legal and ethical minefield for both the students and administrators. Whereas some new policies may border on censorship, others have successfully kept student media afloat in difficult times.

At the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the school's newspaper, the Daily Utah Chronicle, has been on the receiving end of controversial policy changes.In 2006, university President Michael Young created a task force to reorganize student media. Interest in reform came about in part as the university's student media faced financial difficulties.

After two years of deliberation and meetings with student media leaders, the task force presented a solution including the creation of an oversight body. The proposed Student Media Council would place all student media outlets under the watch of one umbrella entity. Along with the formation of a new body, the recommendations from the task force included the creation of various administrative positions, including the Student Media Advocate, who would act as a mediator between the administration and the students.

Currently the Chronicle operates under a publications council, separating it from the radio station and other student media organizations. Under the proposed changes that line of distinction would disappear.

Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Rachel Hanson said the move to an all-inclusive unit would threaten the newspaper's editorial independence and force once-separate student media groups to co-exist closer together.

"On the surface sure, it would make them all work together," said Hanson. "I think if we were under that umbrella as just one of the student media members, it would lessen our importance on campus."

The Chronicle's staff published an editorial criticizing the proposed advocate position as an "unnecessary go-between who could hinder independent student media."

The advocate role would be overseeing the operations of all student media. According to Hanson, the job is not feasible because she does not believe one person could have the knowledge and training to help all forms of student media.

"I don't think it's realistic to have someone everyone has to go to for the same type of mentoring," said Hanson.

According to Ann Darling, communications department chair and one of the drafters of the new policy, similar positions exist at universities of similar size and with comparable student media operations. She said the person hired to the position will be chosen by a council consisting in part of professional media.

Hanson said she believes those who drafted the policies included language that could allow the university to maneuver into a position leading to censorship.

"I think they definitely created it knowing they would have a hand in [editorial content]," Hanson said.

Darling said those allegations are not true and no substantial changes exist between the old and new models. Specifically, she said the language preserves the editorial freedoms that existed in the publications council language.

"It is a different version of the same council (with) the exact same language," Darling said.

According to the draft of the student media board policy, the board will abide by the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students of the American Association of University Professors. The statement, included in the former publications council language as well, states that "the student press should be free of censorship and advance approval of copy, and its editors and managers should be free to develop their own editorial policies and news coverage."

According to Darling, the task force integrated language from both the broadcast and publication councils to make up the wording for the new policies and also had media professionals "comb" through the language for approval. She said there is no threat to editorial independence and it was only logical to have a single council instead of one for each branch of student media.

The newspaper's staff also took issue with the process the task force used to make its decisions. In the same editorial, the staff wrote that the process was "very secretive," and called a statement made by the task force claiming all concerns and feedback were reflected in the drafted policies an "incredible stretch of the truth."

The university's board of trustees approved a raise in student fees to pay for the new council; however, the policy changes including the hiring of the advocate position have been tabled until the fall and are contingent upon the university's budget.

Hanson said for now the newspaper staff is waiting to see what happens when school resumes in the fall. She said some aspects of the policy, including the financial distribution from student fees, may be beneficial to the newspaper, but she still remains wary of potential for administrative control.

While the creation of new policies and positions directly affect students, it is not always a negative adjustment. However, student editors say the process should be transparent and open.

In March, the staff at the Oregon Daily Emerald, the student newspaper at the University of Oregon in Eugene, went on strike after the newspaper's board of directors abruptly hired an interim publisher with an $80,000 salary.

The board is made up of five students, one faculty member, one staff member and several at-large people in the community. Other than the faculty and staff board positions, the board remains, like the newspaper itself, entirely independent from the university.

The publisher position was created partly in hopes of alleviating the newspaper's financial woes and to push the newsroom to adopt newer business models. While the newsroom staff was aware the board was creating a new layer of management between the board and the editors, the students did not expect a decision to be made without a transparent and open interview process.

Emerald staff members said at a board meeting they felt the actions taken by the board in regard to the hiring of a publisher were reckless, irresponsible and embarrassing.

The staff announced it was going to cease publication until the board met a series of demands. The staff asked the board to rescind the offer to Steven Smith, former editor of the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash. Before the job offer, Smith was hired as a consultant to the Emerald and was asked to draft a plan to help the newspaper cope with changing media. He presented his plan in January, with part of that plan including the publisher position. Smith declined to comment for this story.

Among their complaints, the staffers believed the newspaper's independence would be threatened by the relationship between the new publisher and editor. The Emerald argued the language in the job description of the publisher allowed for too much editorial control.

Emerald Editor-in-ChiefAllie Grasgreen defended the decision to go on strike, saying it helped get the board to listen to the students' concerns when it may not have otherwise."We felt like with the more serious issues, it was the only way to make our voice heard," said Grasgreen. "If we hadn't taken those steps, the course of events would have definitely changed."

Board Chair Jeanne Long said the newsroom "surprised" the board with its actions. She said the board may have underestimated how strongly the news staff would oppose the new management structure.

Long said although she does not agree with everything the newsroom did, the editors showed "passion" and "commitment" for their First Amendment rights."They made a very lasting statement to the board," said Long. "In the end, it turned out really well."

Grasgreen said after negotiations and discussions, the concerns raised over the publisher's scope of authority have been squelched and since production has resumed, the board is working side-by-side with the newsroom now that the board has hired Kellee Weinhold, former publications director at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as publisher.

According to Grasgreen, one of the primary points of contest was whether the publisher should be able to control how the newspaper's budget was expended.

The two parties compromised that the publisher can set the budget, but only the editor-in-chief can choose how funds are spent, according to Long.

Students who have gone through a dispute over publication policies say one way to avoid administrative red tape involved with changing the face of student media is for students to take the lead on forming new policies, or at the very least, make sure they are involved.At Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., the students working for the university's weekly student newspaper, the Observer, are operating under a new department-created student media board. The board was created in part by Lois Breedlove, chair of the communications department.

Breedlove said the charter for the board was written not long after she arrived at the university in 1995, but no action was taken until a year ago when it was approved by the provost. The university's board of trustees has yet to formally adopt the policy, but is expected to soon, according to Breedlove.

Breedlove, who served as adviser to the Observer between 1995 and 2003, said the key to a successful board lies in the wording of the policy. She said because she wrote it, she knew the terms and conditions of the board's charter would work in favor of the students and protect them if necessary.

"If we drafted it, we could make sure it was the language that got used," said Breedlove. "Ours is pretty standard, but it was done by us with specific goals in mind."According to Breedlove, having the support of the administration contributed to being able to create such a policy.

Central Washington President James Guadino said it is critical administrators do not get involved any more than they have to.

"The importance is to not interfere. Understand that they are an independent news operation," said Gaudino, who was the founding dean of the College of Communication and Information at Kent State University in Ohio. "It is important so we don't think we can control the editorial policies."

Observer adviserTony Staab said the board was created to foster a healthy relationship between the students and the administration as well as to be mutually beneficial."It protects the academic side from libel of student work and supports the students' First Amendment freedoms," said Staab. "In a sense, it codifies the university's commitment to free speech and their commitment to not intrude."If an administrator attempts to introduce any kind of board formation, Breedlove suggests editors and advisers "co-opt the process immediately" to ensure their interests are considered.

According to Hanson, students should be reading between the lines when administrators are in charge of creating new policies.

"Look out for language that's really vague," said Hanson. "It might not specifically spell out power but leave it open for someone to have a lot of sway."

Breedlove, who came from other northwest schools Portland State University and Washington State University -- both of which had similar media boards -- said having the boards can provide the basis for a strong program.

"I don't think there is any situation where it can't help," said Breedlove. "It takes the burden off the adviser, it stabilizes the department, and the student media have a forum where they're held accountable but protected."

Grasgreen said although change can be intimidating for an established newspaper like the Emerald, it is necessary to keep up with changing media.

"Some of the changes that we're going through with are scary because they are new to us," said Grasgreen. "(However) in this time of newspapers you can't sit down and do nothing."

Fall 2009, reports