Who controls the purse strings at your newspaper?

When an alumnus of Middle Tennessee State University heard the university was contemplating a proposal to switch the publishing control of the campus newspaper from student affairs to the journalism department, his initial concern was the potential threat to editorial content.

Unsure of the motivation behind the proposed change, Jeffrey Syracuse’s inclination was that the journalism department was attempting to have financial and thus editorial control over Sidelines. He viewed the move as a threat to the students’ press rights.

‘I don’t see how the paper could be completely editorial independent if it is under the journalism department, where there is a possibility of [professors] having some editorial control,’ he said.

In the end the university decided to leave the newspaper under the supervision of student affairs. ‘There is going to be no transfer, said Jenny Crouch, director of student publications. ‘The overall management of the paper will remain the same, where there will be an independent student editor making final decisions on content.’

Statements from a newly acquired journalism professor, Wendell Rawls, also helped to alleviate Syracuse’s suspicions. Rawls, who will be the new adviser to Sidelines, has said he would like to see Sidelines become financially and editorially independent.

Even though Syracuse’s concerns were eased, his fear that financial and administrative control could affect the editorial content of the newspaper is warranted. While Crouch said the situation with Sidelines was never about the financial control, experiences of student media around the country suggest that the entity that controls a student newspaper’s finances often presumes it has some control over content as well.

Concerns about financial control possibly leading to content control or censorship are present at publications despite numerous court rulings that have found financial control, at least at public schools, does not allow content control.

The financial dependency of student newspapers can generally be divided into three categories: publications that report to student affairs, those that report to a journalism department, or those that are financially independent from their school.


Answering to Students

The majority of student newspapers receive financial support from some aspect of student affairs. College Media Advisers reported in a March 2001 study that 45 percent of publications at four-year public colleges and 33 percent at four-year private colleges are under the control of student affairs.

College Media Advisers also reported in its study that 57 percent of newspapers are funded from student fees. Student governments are often responsible for distributing these fees to campus organizations, including student media. Not all publications receiving student fees, however, fall under the supervision of student affairs or student government.

‘Hands down it’s been student government who has been the predominate culprit [in using financial control to dictate content],’ said Ron Spielberger, executive director of College Media Advisers. While there are exceptions, he said, student governments tend to want control over the organizations they fund.

‘The worst situation is where the student government or some sort of student fee budgetary committee determines the budget every year,’ said James Tidwell, professor of journalism at Eastern Illinois University. ‘You are just asking for trouble.’

Tidwell, also a former College Media Advisers media law committee chairman, said student governments tend to pose the greatest threat given the nature of the interaction between the student press and student politicians. Since student media are most likely going to cover the student government, the relationship creates a potential for censorship, he said.

The student government at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln is aware that it must grant funding to the newspaper in a content-neutral fashion, but even with this awareness the paper’s adviser has concerns about bias playing an unspoken role.

Dan Shattil, Daily Nebraskan general manager, said the student government uses funding as a vehicle to express disapproval of the paper.

‘We’ve purposely kept our dependency on funding from student government low,’ he said. ‘I’ve made it a policy to place minimal reliance on student fees, so they can’t drastically cripple us.’

Financial audits conducted by Wheaton College‘s student government of the campus newspaper were implemented in a way that editors perceived as a covert effort to exercise control.

The student government at the Norton, Mass., college conducted an analysis of the newspaper’s spending shortly after the editors filed a formal complaint with the dean of students. In the complaint, the paper accused the student government of stealing copies of the newspaper throughout the semester.

Student senators admitted to stealing hundreds of copies of the Wheaton Wire, but told the newspaper staff they had the right to the papers since they provide funding, adviser Jayne Iafrate said. Neither Iafrate nor editor Caroline Magwood would speculate as to whether the audit is connected to the complaint.


Jurisdiction of a Journalism Department

When student publications are a product of a journalism department, the financial backing is tied to the department’s budget, giving financial control to the school, and possibly professors.

With academic departments responsible for publications, prior review, instead of the loss of finances, is a concern.

‘Even though journalism professors are defenders of free speech, transferring the financial control to the journalism department could hurt the best interest of the student [journalists] because the paper would be under the supervision of faculty,’ Syracuse said.

Crouch, who is president of College Media Advisers, said the concerns of Syracuse and other students about prior review were due to a previous proposal that Sidelines be switched to the journalism department for the purposes of becoming ‘laboratory publication,’ where the paper would be produced by a class in which students received academic credit. Crouch praised the students for successfully fighting the proposal.

Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, associate dean at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University, said professors, advisers and anyone else involved must assume a ‘hands-off’ policy for content when supervising a paper.

When the journalism department at the University of Maryland suggested it wanted more involvement with The Diamondback, the independent daily quickly reacted, claiming the motivation behind the idea was content related.

Even though editor Jonathan Schuler said the journalism department would not sway him from making his own content decisions, he was concerned with the control professors and the dean might have on the newspaper staff.

‘I’m worried over influence,’ Schuler said. ‘Journalism students can easily be influenced by the college journalism administrators. They can come to one of my editors who is a journalism student and say, ‘Hey, you should think about doing this,’ and end up influencing the content of The Diamondback.’

The journalism department wanted The Diamondback to make changes, including hiring an editorial adviser to improve the quality of the newspaper. The suggestion came after the school learned Maryland Media Board, the paper’s nonprofit publisher, had a surplus of $4 million. The department thought more money should be spent to benefit students. The newspaper viewed the move as an attempt to control the paper’s content.

‘We welcome suggestions from the journalism department,’ said Ivan Penn, president of Maryland Media Board. ‘But don’t tell me you have to be involved. ‘ It is critical to me that the publications [of the Maryland Media Board] not fall into the hands of the university.’


Importance of Independence

Papers that are financially independent believe they are in the best position to defend a free press, but as with The Diamondback, even they are subject to scrutiny and criticism.

Both Schuler and Penn repeatedly mentioned the importance of The Diamondback‘s independence, and believed if it was not independent, the journalism department’s comments would have had an even greater impact on the paper. ‘Our independence is our secret pal,’ Schuler said.

Independent papers are more the exception than the rule, and experts suggest there may not be any truly independent student papers because of receipt of free space, access to a school’s payroll system and other less obvious financial benefits. Even so, many insist a financially independent paper, or one that is self-supporting through advertising revenue, secures a position for the student editors and journalists to operate with the greatest freedom.

‘Independent is wonderful,’ Spielberger said. ‘But it is not within the scope of the vast majority of student news operations. They just can’t do it.’

Mark Witherspoon, journalism professor at Iowa State University and adviser to the Iowa State Daily, said, ‘The best is to be as independent as you can. The closer you can get to a real world situation the better.’


Creating a ‘Buffer’

No matter what the funding situation is like, advisers say it is important to keep a paper’s finances separate from content.

Some schools, foreseeing the potential for indirect censorship by controlling the purse strings, opt to form a board responsible for all issues regarding a publication or media entity. Media or publications boards work on behalf of student media that fall under student affairs, journalism departments or are independent organizations. They usually consist of representatives from the student body, student media and faculty. Sometimes they also include professionals not connected to the school.

Kopenhaver described student media boards as being able to provide a ‘buffer’ or ‘protection’ for student newspapers. But as with any situation, a publications board can also impact editorial content through financial control.

Despite the pros and cons of each governing system, Kopenhaver said, there is no single model that is the best for preventing censorship.

‘Developing a model that you could say, ‘This would be the best possible model,’ doesn’t necessarily work,’ Kopenhaver said. ‘It’s so different from place to place. Develop the best possible model that you can for your own particular institution. But mainly, no matter who you report to, assert that the student press be able to express themselves freely and without any kind of censorship. That is the model that needs to be set up.’

Tidwell suggests that it ultimately comes down to one thing ‘ the personnel.

‘It really depends on who’s in charge and whether they will interfere with a publication,’ he said. ‘The system doesn’t create that interference, it’s the personnel involved who create the interference.’