On their payroll

Many student journalists across the country are in a unique, and sometimes contentious, position of being an employee of the very entity on which they are supposed to report.

Few college student publications are 100 percent financially independent from their schools. As a result, compensation flowing to student staffers comes in whole or in part from institutional funds — which may lead the institution to classify those journalists as “employees.”

A typical arrangement is in place at the University Press, the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University.

The publication receives its funding from the university by way of student fees, which are distributed by the student government. Not all of the staff is paid, Editor-in-Chief Karla Bowsher said, but the editing staff is, as well as some staff writers and photographers.

As of three years ago, she said, FAU began categorizing the paid students as university employees.

One of the issues with being classified as a university employee at a media outlet is who owns copyright to the work published. This issue has flared up at FAU before.

In 2008, a former student died on the campus, and a photographer took a picture of the body being taken in a stretcher by paramedics, according to Michael Koretzky, volunteer editorial adviser to FAU’s University Press. A photographer for the University Press lived in the apartment building where the death took place and obtained exclusive photos of the scene. The Press posted a photo on its website, but a university official asked editors to pull it down. The editors refused, and then gave some unused photos to the South Florida Sun Sentinel. This sparked a debate about who actually owns the copyright to the paper, the University Press or the university.

Bowsher said another incident arose when student government officials wanted to distribute a poster using a photo that the University Press had taken. According to Koretzky, the poster used the photo without giving credit to the paper. When staff complained, the administration sided with student government, saying that content generated by the paper’s staff belongs to the university because the staffers are employees.

Bowsher said she was first told that FAU itself owns the rights to student-generated content. That interpretation was then modified to say that the Press owns the copyright.

“But either way, they’re saying that the individual does not — which is, you know, not the case,” she said.

The university’s ability to control the acts of student journalists also became an issue when Koretzky was fired from his paid adviser position in May 2010. Bowsher said FAU administrators threatened to discipline her for meeting with Koretzky on off-hours in his volunteer role.  FAU officials claimed that, as a university employee, Bowsher was violating university policies by meeting with the now ex-employee. The university later backed down and imposed no discipline.

In addition to the power to control students, the question of whether student journalists can and should be classified as employees also raises a number of tricky business-side questions.

One college that has arrived at a type of compromise structure is North Carolina State University.

At N.C. State, about 55 percent of funding for student media comes from student fees, while the other 45 percent is earned income, according to Martha Collins, administrative assistant at N.C. State Student Media.

About 260 students – including about 100 unpaid DJs — work in student media. The paid employees are classified as temporary university employees, but are also classified as exempt from the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal employment law that governs the amount of leave employers must offer.

Collins said in an e-mail interview that student employees receive a flat salary, as opposed to an hourly wage. She said this setup had been in place for many years.

“A year or so after I came here, that became an issue with [the Human Resources office] because they got some new information and were trying to say that we were subject to FMLA,” she said.

After doing some research, Collins said she convinced the university that in fact students were FMLA-exempt, because their work was similar to an internship, offering students experience in their field of study.

“They’re not here just to make money, they’re here to gain experience so it is similar to an internship,” she said. “We exist for the students to have the opportunity to explore, so it parallels an internship.”

Collins said added there simply is not enough money in the budget to pay students an hourly wage.

As for copyright, Collins said the publication maintains exclusive rights to the material for 18 months. The rationale is to ensure works do not show up in other places before the yearbook comes out. During this period, students are still allowed to use the content for contest and resume purposes.

Paid student journalists also are classified as college employees at Louisiana State University, according to Pat Parish, associate director of student media and adviser to the student magazine Legacy and the yearbook Gumbo.

Parish said there are five different outlets of student media at LSU: a newspaper, magazine, radio station, television station and yearbook. Most students who work at these media are paid, except for hosts of specialty radio shows.

All outlets are funded the same way, with about half of the funding coming from student fees.

Parish said students who work at the paper have to sign at least some similar paperwork that other university employees have to sign. For example, all permanent staff must sign a state “loyalty oath.”

“Every employee in the state of Louisiana has to sign a loyalty oath, that they will not do anything that’s disloyal to the state of Louisiana,” she said.

Although it may seem this could cause friction when giving negative coverage to the university, Parish said it hasn’t been an issue. She said she’s never heard of the loyalty oath being a problem with printing critical coverage about the university.

She said the university does not infringe on content, but does enforce standards for whom the news operations can and cannot hire. For example, students must be full-time and have a minimum 2.0 grade point average. Students are also not allowed to work for more than 20 hours a week.

Parish said disputes among student staff members are usually handled internally. However, if a problem persists, it can be resolved by going up the ladder to LSU’s human resources office or the dean’s office, just as would be the case for a non-student employee’s complaint.

The copyright issue is currently in transition at LSU. The university used to insist on retaining copyright of student work done in the publication.

Parish said the newspaper’s adviser, who had been in the professional journalism industry, did not like the ownership arrangement and pushed to change the policy. The administration appears to have agreed to disclaim any assertion of ownership, though contracts to carry out the change are not yet final.

“That is in flux, but so far, they seem to have backed down,” she said.

Gayle Brown, director of student media at Northern Kentucky University, said her publication recently made the switch from paying students through stipends or scholarships. Students are classified as university employees, and their funding comes from student fees.

Brown said the paper used to operate as a volunteer staff, but if a student advanced into an editor or managerial position, they would receive a scholarship. However, it wasn’t enough to cover tuition. Much of the staff is still volunteer.

“There’s a big push on our campus to have hourly positions for our students,” she said.

Brown said one of the perks of having hourly employees at the paper is that several staffers at the Northerner newspaper qualify for federal work-study funds. These funds don’t come out of the paper’s budget, but rather from the pool of federal work-study money available to the university.

Brown said copyright issues have not come up yet, but it is something she thinks about.

“None of that has come up, but I think that’s because this is all so new,” she said. “I’m worried about it, because we have arguments about content all the time.”

She added she is “pretty vocal” about how paper should be run and what belongs to students and how it should be protected.

Brown said there are some restrictions on how much and when students can work, since they are classified as university employees. Generally, they can’t work more than 20 hours a week. Students also can’t be forced to work during an exam or finals.

Some publications have written safeguards in place to keep university officials from attempting to use their supervisory rank over student “employees” to interfere in news judgments.

Max McCoy, adviser to the ESU Bulletin, the student newspaper at Emporia State University, said the staff members are classified as university employees. However, a constitution that governs student media makes clear that the paper is able to operate free of administration control.

“The biggest safeguard that we have is in the constitution,” McCoy said.

But this document came under fire last year, McCoy said, when the university tried to rescind the constitution.

McCoy said the university became unhappy with the content of the paper at this time, including a sharply worded editorial critical of the bidding process for campus banking services.

“My dean called me in…I had a lengthy conversation with him in which he voiced his displeasure…the administration wanted the student media board constitution rewritten,” he said.

McCoy said the university wanted the paper to be more answerable to the student media board and student government. After a lot of pushback from the newspaper staff and their supporters, the university backed down, and McCoy said the situation has died down.

McCoy said in his experience as adviser, the university has not attempted to use students’ employee status to direct their editorial judgments. Rather, he said, any pressure is indirect, exerted through the adviser or through resistance to public-records requests.

“The main thing that they cope with is attempting to make the administration and some of the readership to understand that their job is not PR, that their job is not to make the university look good to prospective students,” he said.

By James Heggen, SPLC staff writer