When student newspapers get tough with student governments, student leaders pull out an important bargaining chip

Student journalists in Florida and New Jersey are the latest to come to terms with student governments after their funding was pulled — saying student governments objected to the content of their papers.

Courts have been consistent in ruling that at public colleges and universities, school officials — including student government officers — may not exercise the power of a private publisher over student publications simply because they provide financial support.

Student government and newspaper leaders at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, Fla., recently came to an agreement over a dispute that occurred when the student government cut the Eagle News’ funding by almost half last year — from $35,750 to $18,700.

Then-Editor in Chief Rich Ritterbusch had alleged that the student government’s actions were in retaliation for information the paper had printed regarding the student government’s operating budget. Student government leaders claimed otherwise.

“Some of the business practices, how [the Eagle News] spent their money and just a few other ethical concerns we had, we wanted to be cleaned up before we appropriated any more funding,” Student Government Association Vice President Jameson Yingling said.

Student Affairs Vice President James Rollo stepped in and organized a task force to compare the Eagle News with similar newspapers at peer universities and to review the relationship between the paper and student government.

The two sides came to an agreement in February. A non-binding resolution passed by the student government Feb. 6 will provide more than $40,000 per year for the next three years to fund the newspaper, said Eagle News Editor in Chief Will Cochran.

Student government leaders promised a three-year funding model based on the total number of credit hours the student body takes. In exchange, the newspaper agreed to have a new adviser as well as an oversight board composed of students, faculty and community members that will hire the editor in chief.

Yingling acknowledged the non-binding resolution that promised the new funding model can be amended, but he said he is committed to making sure it is not changed in any way that harms the Eagle News.

“I know that as long as I’m around, I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Yingling said.

Cochran said the Eagle News is planning to become independent from student government funding in the next three to five years, when he says the newspaper might be better able to “stand on its own two feet.”

“I believe there are always issues when you have a student government that is giving funds to the student newspaper, and then the paper is required to criticize the student government,” Cochran said.

At the same time elsewhere in the state, students at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton also were fighting budget cuts of student media outlets.

A year earlier, student leaders had voted to cut $63,000 from the student newspaper and television station budget — an action some saw as retribution for content critical of the student government.

This is not the first time students have had concerns about their student government. In addition to the funding cuts in 2006, the student government was accused of trying to shut down the student newspaper and student radio station for political reasons in 2004. Also, the student government was without a president for more than three months in 2006 following a bungled election.

The school’s board of trustees approved a new student government constitution in January 2007 that reduced student government power and provided an administrator veto of student government actions. University and student leaders hoped the new constitution would prevent disputes over student media funding.

Former University Press Editor in Chief Jason Parsley also suggested the creation of a media board, which has not been approved. He says the proposal would help protect student media funding by giving financial control of the newspaper, radio and television stations to an independent board.

Parsley said another problem his newspaper faced was student government leaders’ lack of knowledge about press freedoms for college newspapers.

“I felt they had a very limited knowledge as to that,” Parsley said. “We tried to give them as much information as we could, but since it was coming from us, they didn’t always believe what we were saying.”

Parsley said he can understand how the inherent nature of checks and balances in student government would create situations where student government leaders would want to control how their funds are spent.

“They fund us … and they want to be able to control it, and they want to be able to make editorial decisions or try to tell the newspaper what to write about, or not write about, and those are some of the issues we did face.”

Educating student government leaders about their roles and responsibilities with regard to the press is a school administrator’s responsibility, Parsley said.

“The burden should really fall on the administration to teach the future leaders how to deal with the press and the rights of the press, and that’s where I think there’s a lack of that happening,” Parsley said.

Funding for student newspapers often comes from some combination of student government, the university itself and advertising revenue.

Parsley said the University Press “did not really look into” becoming financially independent because of stiff competition from other local media outlets.

“South Florida is a huge media market,” Parsley said. “There’s an abundance of local, community, newspapers and magazines … so there’s a lot of competition going on in this neighborhood.”

At New Jersey’s Montclair State University, Karl de Vries got a wake-up call when a member of student government tried to cut funding for his school’s weekly newspaper.

De Vries, editor in chief of the student-run Montclarion, said he began to seek financial independence from student government when Treasurer Maria Soares attempted to freeze the paper’s $107,000 budget in February. De Vries claimed Soares was motivated by a personal vendetta, while Soares said the decision to cut funding was a response to the newspaper’s overspending.

“For years, such a worst-case scenario has been the paranoid talk of Montclarion editors, a bad dream never to be wished [to] fruition,” de Vries said in a Feb. 8 editorial. “Trouble is, we now live in a world where the worst-case scenario has happened.”

Less than two days after he was informed the paper’s budget had been frozen, de Vries was notified by the student body president that the treasurer could not freeze the budget without the president’s prior approval — and that the president had not given his permission.

But being under the protection of the student body president did not necessarily equate to total financial independence. De Vries said the attempt to freeze his newspaper’s budget emphasized how much control the student government had over his newspaper’s operation.

“It was the first instance in which I realized some of the broader liabilities of being under the student government,” de Vries said.

The newspaper’s finances traditionally have been tied to student government. In the past, the newspaper has gotten about $107,000 from the student government, while three-quarters of the paper’s approximately $70,000 in advertising revenue has been given to the student government.

For this year, a new funding deal has the newspaper receiving less funding from student government — down to $67,000 from $107,000 — but receiving a larger share of the advertising revenue it brings in.

“We’re receiving approximately $40,000 [from student government] less than we received in the past,” de Vries said. “It’s based on the assumption that the median we’ve set for advertising revenue over the past 15 years or so is $50,000. If we go below $40,000, we’re up a creek.”

De Vries has said he would like to see the newspaper become financially independent of the government and potentially even the university but called doing so a “long and complicated” process. Even a gradual change — such as making the newspaper independent from the student government and then attempting to establish complete independence from the university in the long-term — would be extremely difficult, de Vries said.

And as long as someone else has control of the money, student media organizations have to consider who is most trustworthy with that control.

“In some ways, it’s a toss-up under who you think you’d be more protected by,” de Vries said. “To become independent of the student government, then we’d have to work out a deal with the board of trustees.”

When asked how long it would take the newspaper to become financially independent, de Vries said, it is “certainly nowhere in the conceivable future,” and added that within the next 15 years would be a “very, very optimistic” estimate.