Committees, controversies and cuts: College media programs lose funds

At The College of San Mateo, a small community college in the suburbs of San Francisco, campus-wide budget problems are being blamed for an on-again, off-again threat to the survival of the student newspaper.

Student journalists who work at The San Matean are facing uncertainty about the future of their newspaper. Although the paper is scheduled to continue its bi-weekly production in the fall, the terms of its operation and structuring are unclear, leaving student editors to wonder if production will commence as usual.

Budget problems like San Mateo’s are hitting college newspapers hard, and the motives behind them are sometimes ambiguous, with money woes used as a smokescreen for penalizing editorial content, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

”Educators need to understand that journalism is a bargain in which you get a lot of educational benefit,” LoMonte said. ”It is short-sighted to make that the brunt of your [budget] cuts.”

At a time of statewide budget cuts, The San Matean is undergoing a restructuring as a part of recommendations given by a Program Improvement and Viability (PIV) committee.

Executive Editor of The San Matean, Margaret Baum, said college has tied the restructuring of the journalism program to low enrollment, which further hurts the college budget. If courses have less than 20 students enrolled, the university does not receive the money from the state that actually keeps the course running, she said.

Ed Remitz, adviser for The San Matean, said that in his 20 years as a professor he has never had 20 students in his news writing class. The committee, made up of faculty members, labeled the journalism program ”at risk” due to these low enrollment numbers.

In December 2008, the PIV committee determined that journalism programs like broadcasting, multimedia and graphics should be consolidated into one program called Digital Media. The committee produced a document that suggested the newspaper be reconstructed into a capstone class project that would create a newspaper ”similar to The San Matean.”

But in the months since, confusion has resulted in inactivity rather than movement on the committee’s recommendations.

”The problem is that the PIV document does exist, but it doesn’t really clearly define things,” Baum said. ”These last two years, the faculty [members] in different disciplines have been meeting and trying to follow the recommendations, which are really complicated.”

For Baum, the past year and half has been filled with questions often left unanswered, as she has attempted to probe the administration for a more concrete idea about the future of the newspaper.

”They haven’t necessarily been forthcoming with information when I try to get it,” she said. ”Whereas other schools might have budget problems and say ‘OK, we’re killing your paper,’ it’s not so cut and dried here. We really have no idea what’s going on.”

Baum said there is a very real possibility that in the fall students will get to school, find that there are fewer than 20 students enrolled, and the class will be canceled.

It is this uncertainty that prompted Baum to request all PIV documents and correspondence relating to the committee’s review process of the journalism program. A document she obtained contains anonymous comments from members of the committee, including complaints about the quality and content of The San Matean.

”There are all of these complaints compiled into this document, yet they are saying those events have nothing to do with [the restructuring], and it’s only about the budget,” she said.

LoMonte said that in facing such ambiguity, the students at San Mateo are doing precisely what they should be–staying involved in decision-making processes on campus instead of automatically turning to battle in a court.

”A school is never going to give a signed confession [of retaliation]; you have to consider the circumstantial evidence,” LoMonte said. ”If you don’t have clear proof of unlawful motive, it may be better working the political channels on campus than pursuing litigation.”

Retaliation can be subtle and hard to detect–but not always. Students believe they were sent a clear message at Los Angeles City College, when the student newspaper faced a 40 percent budget cut last year in what some say is retaliation to investigative work The Collegian had been pursuing.

”The environment for student journalists at LACC is hostile, and all they have done to deserve it is exercise their civil rights of freedom and press,” said Frank Elaridi, former editor-in-chief of The Collegian. ”In order to progress as journalists, the staff should be able to report freely, and under the current administration, that freedom is periodically threatened.”

Rhonda Guess, adviser for The Collegian, said there was a college-wide agreement to cut 15 percent of the budget from each department, but The Collegian’s printing budget was slashed from $25,000 to $15,000–a 40 percent cut.

Dr. Lawrence Bradford, vice president of student services at LACC, said he could not comment on why The Collegian was scheduled to receive a disproportionate budget cut compared to other departments.

”I can’t speak on why one program may have been scheduled to receive a larger cut,” Bradford said. ”A lot of times when you’re looking around within your budget, you have to pull from one area to balance out another. The bottom line is, on this campus we are hurting financially to stay afloat.”

When the student media is singled out for disproportionately large budget cuts compared to other departments, LoMonte said this is a ”red flag” for a clear sign of retaliatory motives.

”It may be necessary to educate the leaders of an institution that de-funding student media can be a First Amendment violation,” he said. ”Colleges seem to understand that they can’t censor directly, but what they need to know is that it is equally unlawful to censor indirectly by retaliation against the publication.”

Before its budget was slashed, tensions had been steadily rising between The Collegian and LACC administration after the newspaper published several articles about university athletic teams falsifying player information.

Following this, there were several First Amendment confrontations between student journalists and the administration, including when LACC President Jamillah Moore demanded a student journalist sign a ”waiver” in order to get permission to cover an open, public meeting in July 2009.

News of the budget cut came soon after student reporters demanded an apology from Moore for violating the student journalist’s rights at the meeting, Elaridi said.

”Your rights are never taken away overnight,” he said. ”They are chipped at slowly until there is nothing left, and we were determined to stop that from happening.”

Although the administration quickly claimed that the 40 percent cut was a ”misunderstanding,” The Collegian was given a copy of the document that showed the scheduled 40 percent budget cut to the newspaper and bore Moore’s signature.

”I believe this was the president retaliating against student journalists for complaining to Senator [Leland] Yee about the way they have been limiting student press rights at our college for more than 18 months now,” Guess said. ”This is not the obvious type of censorship like ‘you can’t print this,’ but things like mysterious budget cuts or moves to restructure the department and the way the newspaper is funded–these are the things that come up instead.”

Yee, who is the author of the California state law that protects student and employee speech rights, talked with the students, Guess, and the administration and ultimately determined that the students were being treated unfairly, said Yee’s Chief of Staff, Adam Keigwin.

”There was an unfortunate history at LA City College that precipitated what we thought was most egregious–slashing their budget in a disproportionate manner,” Keigwin said. ”If administrators can control the budgets and retaliate because they don’t like coverage, it’s going to inevitably squelch the speech. That’s precisely the type of behavior that our law seeks to prevent.”

Bradford said that regardless of the budget reductions, neither the content nor control of The Collegian would have changed. Instead, he suggested the newspaper staff focus more on taking proactive steps to preserve their work, possibly with more of a focus on building an online presence.

”The paper is not being compromised; the content is not being compromised,” he said. ”What is being compromised is the budget to distribute the paper. I believe in the press being able to get its product out, and I believe if they can’t get it out based on budget constraints in the volume they’d like, I think they need to come up with other means.”

The hostility between student journalists and the administration at LACC is still pervasive, Elaridi said, and will probably remain as long as the current administration does.

”It is the job of a journalist to be a watchdog of government, in this case, student government and the administration, and to report the truth to its readers,” he said. ”Unfortunately, this is something the LACC administration, including President Jamillah Moore, fail to understand or accept.”

Sally Renaud, president of College Media Advisers, said it is important for student newspapers to have control over their revenues and spending, independent of the administration or even student government.

”It’s always a strange relationship because you are covering the people who are giving you money,” Renaud said. ”To have student government dole out money on a year-to-year basis is not a good model.”

The Student Senate at the University of Kansas threatened to cut funding to the student newspaper in March 2009 because it felt there was an inappropriate relationship established when a media outlet that covers the government receives money allocated by that government.

”If you have a group of people and they set up a government and then they set up a single paper to keep that government accountable, the function of that paper is severely impaired if the paper is receiving thousands and thousands of dollars from the government that it’s supposed to be reporting on,” Matt Shaw, Student Senate Communications Director, told the Student Press Law Center in March.

Renaud said it is dangerous for student First Amendment rights when this sort of power comes into play.

”Where someone is holding finances over someone else’s head, that can certainly be seen as a threat and a power play,” she said. ”It certainly can be seen as a way to dictate content or dictate leadership.”

In some situations, however, student newspapers suffer from budget issues that are genuinely unconnected with attempts to exert control over the publication, and are tied to only a university’s shrinking bottom line.

Auburn University at Montgomery’s student newspaper, the AUMnibus, made the transition from print to online two years ago as a result of budget problems. Taylor Manning, AUMnibus editor-in-chief, said the change was a byproduct of university budget cuts only and was not retaliatory.

The move to online, what Manning calls a ”catch-22,” has produced a mixed reaction from the student body. Publishing online has given the AUMnibus the opportunity to broaden coverage to include more community and nationwide issues. But at the same time, Manning said it is hard to replace a print product with online coverage.

”On the one hand, we can offer them so much more online since space is not an issue like it would be in an actual paper,” Manning said. ”But a lot of students have said they really like the print more. The ideal would be to have both.”

LoMonte said the record is mixed in terms of student newspapers going online only. There have been successes, but it can be hard to create a standout publication on the Internet, where there is already a sense of crowding, and students may struggle with gaining a strong readership base.

”When you have those distribution racks on campus, they are hard not to notice,” LoMonte said. ”People get into their habits of picking it up every day, but online habits are not as consistent.”

Despite these challenges, building an online presence will cultivate useful skills for future journalists.

”The AUMnibus is a training tool, and really good for students who want to go into the online media form of writing,” Manning said. ”It’s this jumble of skills you need to know when you go into the field–graphics, and editing and uploading. The AUMnibus really encourages backpack journalism.”

Like the AUMnibus staff, students still maintain an obligation as journalists to continue producing a publication, even if the budget forces it to be solely online.

Even in the face of declining budgets and retaliatory administrations, advisers stand by the importance of a well-rounded, investigative student newspaper–whether print or online–and stress the necessity of students being able to keep their publications operating without the threat of retaliatory actions from the administration.

”This is a sort of engagement, working on a student newspaper,” Guess, the adviser from LACC, said. ”Learning to think critically and ask questions–hard questions sometimes–is so important; so valuable. I just hate that that experience is being compromised or limited.”

By Sommer Ingram, SPLC staff writer