Back to the drawing board

As the business model for journalism changes with the advent of newtechnology and more expansive schools of thought, college journalism programschange along with it. Policies implemented to shift, alter or otherwisechange the way collegiate student media operates present a path across a legaland ethical minefield for both the students and administrators. Whereas some newpolicies may border on censorship, others have successfully kept student mediaafloat 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 controversialpolicy changes.In 2006, university President Michael Young created a taskforce to reorganize student media. Interest in reform came about in part as theuniversity’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 underthe watch of one umbrella entity. Along with the formation of a new body, therecommendations from the task force included the creation of variousadministrative positions, including the Student Media Advocate, who would act asa 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 anall-inclusive unit would threaten the newspaper’s editorial independenceand 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 thestudent media members, it would lessen our importance on campus.”

The Chronicle‘s staff published an editorial criticizing theproposed advocate position as an “unnecessary go-between who could hinderindependent 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 oneperson could have the knowledge and training to help all forms of studentmedia.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to have someone everyonehas to go to for the same type of mentoring,” said Hanson.

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

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

“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 changesexist between the old and new models. Specifically, she said the languagepreserves the editorial freedoms that existed in the publications councillanguage.

“It is a different version of the same council (with) the exact samelanguage,” Darling said.

According to the draft of the student media board policy, the board willabide by the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students of the AmericanAssociation of University Professors. The statement, included in the formerpublications council language as well, states that “the student pressshould be free of censorship and advance approval of copy, and its editors andmanagers should be free to develop their own editorial policies and newscoverage.”

According to Darling, the task force integrated language from both thebroadcast and publication councils to make up the wording for the new policiesand also had media professionals “comb” through the language forapproval. She said there is no threat to editorial independence and it was onlylogical to have a single council instead of one for each branch of studentmedia.

The newspaper’s staff also took issue with the process the task forceused to make its decisions. In the same editorial, the staff wrote that theprocess was “very secretive,” and called a statement made by thetask force claiming all concerns and feedback were reflected in the draftedpolicies an “incredible stretch of the truth.”

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

Hanson said for now the newspaper staff is waiting to see what happens whenschool resumes in the fall. She said some aspects of the policy, including thefinancial 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 processshould be transparent and open.

In March, the staff at the Oregon Daily Emerald, the studentnewspaper at the University of Oregon in Eugene, went on strike after thenewspaper’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 memberand several at-large people in the community. Other than the faculty and staffboard positions, the board remains, like the newspaper itself, entirelyindependent from the university.

The publisher position was created partly in hopes of alleviating thenewspaper’s financial woes and to push the newsroom to adopt newerbusiness models. While the newsroom staff was aware the board was creating a newlayer of management between the board and the editors, the students did notexpect a decision to be made without a transparent and open interviewprocess.

Emerald staff members said at a board meeting they felt the actionstaken 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 aseries of demands. The staff asked the board to rescind the offer to StevenSmith, former editor of the Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash.Before the job offer, Smith was hired as a consultant to the Emerald andwas asked to draft a plan to help the newspaper cope with changing media. Hepresented his plan in January, with part of that plan including the publisherposition. Smith declined to comment for this story.

Among their complaints, the staffers believed the newspaper’sindependence would be threatened by the relationship between the new publisherand editor. The Emerald argued the language in the job description of thepublisher allowed for too much editorial control.

Emerald Editor-in-ChiefAllie Grasgreen defended the decisionto 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 moreserious issues, it was the only way to make our voice heard,” saidGrasgreen. “If we hadn’t taken those steps, the course of eventswould have definitely changed.”

Board Chair Jeanne Long said the newsroom “surprised” the boardwith its actions. She said the board may have underestimated how strongly thenews staff would oppose the new management structure.

Long said although she does not agree with everything the newsroom did, theeditors showed “passion” and “commitment” for theirFirst Amendment rights.”They made a very lasting statement to theboard,” said Long. “In the end, it turned out reallywell.”

Grasgreen said after negotiations and discussions, the concerns raised overthe publisher’s scope of authority have been squelched and sinceproduction has resumed, the board is working side-by-side with the newsroom nowthat the board has hired Kellee Weinhold, former publications director at theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as publisher.

According to Grasgreen, one of the primary points of contest was whetherthe publisher should be able to control how the newspaper’s budget wasexpended.

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

Students who have gone through a dispute over publication policies say oneway to avoid administrative red tape involved with changing the face of studentmedia is for students to take the lead on forming new policies, or at the veryleast, make sure they are involved.At Central Washington University inEllensburg, Wash., the students working for the university’s weeklystudent newspaper, the Observer, are operating under a newdepartment-created student media board. The board was created in part by LoisBreedlove, chair of the communications department.

Breedlove said the charter for the board was written not long after shearrived at the university in 1995, but no action was taken until a year ago whenit was approved by the provost. The university’s board of trustees has yetto formally adopt the policy, but is expected to soon, according toBreedlove.

Breedlove, who served as adviser to the Observer between 1995 and2003, said the key to a successful board lies in the wording of the policy. Shesaid because she wrote it, she knew the terms and conditions of theboard’s charter would work in favor of the students and protect them ifnecessary.

“If we drafted it, we could make sure it was the language that gotused,” said Breedlove. “Ours is pretty standard, but it was done byus with specific goals in mind.”According to Breedlove, having thesupport of the administration contributed to being able to create such apolicy.

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

“The importance is to not interfere. Understand that they are anindependent news operation,” said Gaudino, who was the founding dean ofthe College of Communication and Information at Kent State University in Ohio.”It is important so we don’t think we can control the editorialpolicies.”

Observer adviserTony Staab said the board was created tofoster a healthy relationship between the students and the administration aswell as to be mutually beneficial.”It protects the academic side fromlibel of student work and supports the students’ First Amendmentfreedoms,” said Staab. “In a sense, it codifies theuniversity’s commitment to free speech and their commitment to notintrude.”If an administrator attempts to introduce any kind of boardformation, Breedlove suggests editors and advisers “co-opt the processimmediately” to ensure their interests are considered.

According to Hanson, students should be reading between the lines whenadministrators 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 someoneto have a lot of sway.”

Breedlove, who came from other northwest schools Portland State Universityand 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’thelp,” said Breedlove. “It takes the burden off the adviser, itstabilizes the department, and the student media have a forum wherethey’re held accountable but protected.”

Grasgreen said although change can be intimidating for an establishednewspaper like the Emerald, it is necessary to keep up with changingmedia.

“Some of the changes that we’re going through with are scarybecause they are new to us,” said Grasgreen. “(However) in this timeof newspapers you can’t sit down and do nothing.”