Breaking away: Going independent brings financial freedom, but may also cause growing pains

Some see financial independence as the holy grail of student media, freeing editors from control or pressure from college administrators. But as appealing as the prospect sounds, getting there is not always easy.

For some, the process of becoming an independent publication can be long and drawn-out. For others, it can be quick.

In recent years, several college student publications have become independent or attempted to go independent, for varying reasons and taking varying paths. Sometimes, the push can be spawned out of controversy, where the college acts to distance itself from the publication. Other times, the publication may seek to divorce itself from its governing board to gain more editorial freedom. Still other times, it may just be time to move apart.

Student media at Colorado State University used to be its own department at the university. That changed after a controversial editorial was published in the student newspaper The Rocky Mountain Collegian. Soon after the editorial ran in September 2007, the university moved to divorce the paper from Colorado State.

University administration originally had a meeting with Gannett to sell the paper, which was done in a closed-door meeting, causing backlash. The university eventually changed course. In the spring of 2008, all student media at the university became the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation.

Larry Steward, president of Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation, has been in that position since its inception in 2008. Steward came out of retirement to run the company, having worked 17 years in the student media department until 2004.

Sean Reed was The Collegian’s editorials editor when student media went independent. He also represented the paper on the Collegian Advisory Committee, which would eventually recommend becoming a non-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code.

The official charge of the committee was to examine how student media operated at the university and propose models for improvement. However, some thought the committee was created specifically to sever ties with the university.

“There were really two steps to the process, and it actually happened a lot faster, at least, than I had thought,” Reed said.

The first step was the committee. Reed compared it to a congressional committee that could make recommendations but not enact anything.

The board was made up of Reed, two student media heads from the television and radio stations, as well as professionals, representatives from the administration and several professors. The CSU general counsel also was a non-voting member.

“It was all very democratic,” he said.

The university president approved the plan and Steward became the interim president of RMSMC at the board’s recommendation.

“He basically did all of the legwork after that,” Reed said.

Reed said the first part of the process was very inclusive where student voices were heard and considered.

“I think the shortcoming of our process was that, once we made the decision to go 501(c)(3), all student input stopped,” he said.

Reed said Steward made several gestures to try to gather student input, but they were limited and non-binding. He added students were not involved in writing the articles of incorporation or the bylaws.

“In retrospect…we probably should have made more effort to be involved in that,” he said.

Reed also said he and several other students did not feel comfortable giving input because their expertise was limited.

Reed said if he could do it over again, he would want students to be involved in every step of the process, especially when spelling out the power structure. During the time student media was a department, if the university would try to lean on or influence editorial content, it was easy for staff to “cry foul.” This reflected poorly on the university because a government entity was trying to control the student press.

“Once the company became in charge, it was a little harder to make those arguments,” he said. (The First Amendment protects student media at the college level against intervention in newsroom decisions by state officials, but not by officials of a non-governmental corporation.)

Board members were also “handpicked” by Steward, and Reed said they had very little knowledge about journalism, making it difficult to discuss possible changes to policies and how the paper worked.

Day-to-day operations didn’t see much of a change, Reed said. However, there was pressure put on the advisers to “lean more” on editorial judgment. He said higher-ups, even the adviser, became fearful of litigation from content printed in the paper. Reed said he perceived that support for investigative journalism dropped because of pressure from the top.

“I think more of the struggle that I had personally, and I know a lot of other members had, was just a feeling we didn’t own our own paper anymore….I know that I resented that personally and a lot of other people did,” he said.

He said he didn’t feel the staff had as much editorial control as it did when it was under the school.

“In terms of just the change in tone of our advisers and the like, I would almost say I prefer it the way it was when we were still part of the school,” Reed said.

David McSwane was the editor-in-chief of the paper when it became independent. He agreed there are challenges to student media becoming independent.

The biggest challenge, McSwane said, is finding a mechanism to govern those publications.

“It’s an independent organization but there’s sort of a de facto leadership now that’s not really run by students, it’s run by the general manager,” he said.

But McSwane still prefers being independent rather than being a part of the university.

“I think all newspapers should try to be independent at their universities. There’s just too much pressure coming down from administration on the advisers and the students themselves,” he said.

McSwane said the paper ran relatively the same as an independent paper.

“There was a sense among students that this was our product, this was something we need to fight for, and there was nothing the administration could do about it,” he said. Contrary to Reed’s perception, McSwane said he sensed less pressure from the advisers after the paper went independent, because the university wasn’t leaning on those advisers.

If a paper wants to go independent, McSwane said he recommends taking a lot of time figuring out how it will be run.

Steward said there are several benefits to now being an organization independent of the university. For one, he said student media is no longer involved so heavily in the bureaucracy of CSU. He said the bylaws include protection of free-speech rights and prohibit prior restraint by corporate management.

The challenges the corporation had, Steward said, were on the business side, including creating a business model, being in charge of payroll, hiring legal counsel and leasing equipment.

“And we pay rent,” he said.

But the relationship between the university and student media remains close, Steward said. The professional staff still teaches as adjunct faculty and the publications still offer academic credit for working there.

“We have a very, very close working relationship,” he said.

Steward said going independent was best for the organization, but stopped short of saying it would be best for any organization. Many factors should be considered, but he said it is important to do the needed planning.

“Organizations should always try to avoid doing this in the heat of the moment,” he said.

Starting from scratch

The Montclarion, the student newspaper at Montclair State University, became semi-independent in 2008 after the student government froze its funding after a dispute.

Karl de Vries was the editor in chief of The Montclarion during the paper’s transition to independence. He was editor from late 2006 to May 2008.

He said papers should always be looking for independence, regardless of whether the relationship with the college is harmonious or not.

“First of all, I don’t believe it’s advantageous or desirable for any newspaper to be funded by a parent organization, let alone a student organization as The Montclarion was,” he said.

Shortly before de Vries became editor, he said his predecessor had struck an agreement with the student government to set aside $5,000 for legal fees. The paper’s staff felt using the student government’s own legal representation was a conflict of interest.

After the paper hired an attorney to advise whether the student government was subject to open meetings laws, the student government fired the attorney.

“Which we didn’t protest, because they were paying for the attorney,” de Vries said.

However, when the student government asked for the correspondence between newspaper staff and the attorney, the paper protested.

When the student government froze the paper’s funding, it contacted the local chapter of the ACLU and threatened a lawsuit. Soon after, the university made the decision to allow the paper to separate from the student government.

The university decided the paper would still be a student organization but also would incorporate as a non-profit. The paper still receives its funding from the university, but no longer has to go through the student government to receive it.

De Vries said the paper had talked about going independent several times before, but was ultimately forced to after the student government’s actions.

“I would say that’s been a holy grail of my predecessors for years, decades,” he said.

De Vries didn’t think the actual process of going independent was a difficult one. Conflicts with the student government had dated back several years, but from the time the ACLU threatened a lawsuit, it took fewer than 24 hours for the university to decide to separate them from the student government. At that point, it had been a month since the paper’s funding had been frozen. He said that, because the student government’s actions raised such clear First Amendment concerns, separating was a short and straightforward process.

“The act of separating was relatively clear cut and simple,” he said.

What was challenging was the added responsibility put on the staff, as well as starting from scratch.

Bobby Melok worked at The Montclarion from spring of 2006 to July of 2009. He was on staff when the paper broke away from the student government. He was editor-in-chief from June 2008 to July 2009, during the first year of independence.

Overall, Melok didn’t think the independence process was difficult. What was difficult was starting a new model.

“We… had to start pretty much from scratch in an empty office,” he said.

Melok said not much changed in terms of editorial content after the break away from student government. He said the staff never shied away from criticizing student leaders, which he said may have led to the sour relationship in the first place.

What did change was the way the way the paper operated. After it became free from the student government, the staff was responsible for the direction and well-being of their own newspaper.

“That was a big responsibility in trying to figure what money goes where and how to save up for the future and all that sort of thing,” he said.

A long road

Other attempts to become independent can be much longer and drawn-out than the situations at Montclair State and Colorado State. The Hoya, the student newspaper at Georgetown University, has been trying to go independent for several years.

Eamon O’Connor, editor-in-chief of The Hoya, said talks of going independent go back 20 years. O’Connor said a lengthy review in 2004 spelled out the goals for independence and the reasons behind the desire to become independent. There was also a campus-wide movement called “Save The Hoya” during 2008-09 supporting the paper’s quest for independence.

Although the university is rarely uncooperative with what The Hoya reports on and prints, O’Connor said not being an independent publication raises journalistic concerns.

“Journalistically it brings in some questions of conflict of interest, because we are under the university we’re reporting on,” he said.

With the goal of becoming independent, O’Connor said the staff is continually striving to professionalize the business operations of the newspaper.

O’Connor said The Hoya was set to become independent last year, but suffered a setback after controversy erupted over material in the paper’s annual April Fools’ edition. The Georgetown University Media Board sanctioned the paper, delaying independence for a year.

“That being said, at this point in time, there are still many things left for us to do, professionalizing our coverage, professionalizing our business side of things, that will help us move toward independent eventually,” he said. “There’s no timeline on that at the moment, though.”

Not the magic bullet

Sally Renaud, president of College Media Advisers and associate professor of journalism at Eastern Illinois University, said the role of the adviser — regardless of whether a paper is fully independent, sponsored by the school, or somewhere in between — should stay the same, leaving editorial decisions up to the students.

“The role of the adviser, per se, would still be the same,” she said.

Sometimes, she said, an adviser’s role may expand with independence, with some having to handle the business side of the operation once the college’s finance and accounting staff is no longer involved.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate at the Student Press Law Center, said as a matter of First Amendment law, students at public colleges have essentially the same First Amendment rights whether they work for independent or college-sponsored media. (A possible exception is Indiana and Wisconsin, which are governed by the legal standards of a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case suggesting reduced First Amendment rights at “curricular” college publications).

Outside of Indiana and Wisconsin, public colleges are governed by the Supreme Court’s Tinker standard, which means colleges can censor only when content is illegal or disrupts the physical operations of campus.

As a practical matter, independent publications can’t safely print unlawful or substantially disruptive material either, Goldstein said. “It’s hard to disrupt a campus without violating some other law,” he said.

However, independent organizations are not bound by the First Amendment in the same way that public university officials are.

“When you’re separately incorporated, the directors of the corporation are bound only by the IRS requirements of their incorporation, which says nothing about your free speech,” he said.

But Goldstein said independence still probably means a net reduction in censorship, because the board members of a nonprofit corporation will have much less motive to censor than college administrators will.

By James Heggen, SPLC staff writer