Texas student newspaper rekindles debate over editor selection process

TEXAS — Following a wave of debate, the Texas Student Publications Board decided to postpone an April 29 vote on whether the Daily Texan’s editor should be an elected or an appointed position. Now it may be months before a decision is made about the fate of the University of Texas’ student newspaper editorship.

For most of the paper’s hundred-year history, the editor in chief of the Daily Texan has been popularly elected by the student body when student government elections are held each spring. Typically one or two editor candidates campaign on campus with fliers, meetings and debates, according to TSP Director Kathy Lawrence.

The editor is “the public face” of the newspaper, while the managing editor–who is appointed by the TSP board–oversees the daily operations and manages the budget, Lawrence said.

Debate over whether the Daily Texan editor should be student elected or appointed by the TSP board was rehashed at a March 4 TSP Board meeting, when board president Cale McDowell proposed changing the current student-election process due to a small level of student participation in the campus election and potential conflicts of interest observed in previous elections.

McDowell said the board felt that it “didn’t have enough information to decide whether it prefers an elected or an appointed editor.” Instead, he said, they are waiting for legal advice and will pursue a student referendum to determine what the student body prefers.

The student and faculty-run TSP Board, which was established in 1916 to oversee all student publications at the University of Texas, voted in favor of changing the selection process at their March 4 meeting. The board is comprised of six UT students, three faculty members and two professionals from the local community.

Lawrence said part of the reasoning behind the proposed change is the lack of student interest in editor elections and low voter turnout. Lawrence said a typical year brings about 5 percent — or 4,000 votes — of the school’s 50,000 eligible voters to the online polls. In recent years, the turnout has increased to about 8 to 10 percent, she said.

“Now, that’s not a good reason by itself to make a change, but it would tend to indicate not a lot of interest on the part of the student body in this process,” she said.

In light of campuswide criticism, the TSP Board called an April 22 public hearing to discuss the issues and scheduled another vote for April 29.

The April 22 hearing drew six former Texan editors from around the country to argue for maintaining the Texan‘s student-elected editorship, primarily on that basis that the system “ensures autonomy from University influence and ensures that the editor represents the students,” wrote Texanreporter Kathy Adams.

Mike Godwin, 1988-1989 >Texan editor, said he and the five other former editors present at the meeting argued that “there are lots of reasons that this [student-elected] process has worked, and there isn’t much of an argument to change it.”

Student-elected editorship is a 100-year-old tradition, and is the “last retained right of the original publishers of the newspaper,” he said. Godwin, who published a 16-page history of the newspaper in 1987, said people who speak out on the issue are often not aware of its history–a history in which the student newspaper has struggled to retain its independence from the university administration.

But “a lot of that is ancient history,” current Texan editor Ben Heath said. Now,”it boils down to an issue of independence.”

“The editor needs to be independent from the interests that tend to sway campus elections,” Heath said. Student government elections are “massive political machines” that involve conflicts of interest, he said, and elections in general have “potential for abuse.” Daily Texan editors should not be involved in an election process, he said, because the responsibility of journalists to seek and report the truth “is one of those duties that needs to trump any kind of special interest or anything like that.”

Heath’s successor, editor-elect A.J. Bauer, said while he sees the merits of Heath’s argument, he thinks two ethical journalists running for the position would be able to “free themselves” from such conflicts of interests in an election.

As long as the TSP Board certifies “qualified and ethical journalists to run–which believe it or not is not a big assumption–I see no reason to take the choice away from the student body,” he said.

Rusty Todd, chair of the TSP Executive Committee, is in favor of maintaining an elected editor, but he said there are potential conflicts with both options.

“An elected editor may represent a radical viewpoint or an elected editor may represent a mainstream viewpoint. It depends on what the voters decide,” he said. “The same can be said for the board [because] the board has a majority of elected people on it.”

“So in that sense, whether the editor’s appointed or elected, it can swing a lot of different ways,” Todd added.

Lawrence said a student referendum will not be held until sometime in the 2005-2006 school year.

–By Diane Krauthamer