Delta State U. journalism program, student newspaper print funding axed

MISSISSIPPI — Despite cries to save student journalism in the Mississippi Delta, the state’s higher education commission voted unanimously to cut Delta State University’s journalism program Thursday.

The vote will eliminate the salary for the program’s sole professor and cease university funding to print the 83-year-old student newspaper, The Delta Statement.

The decision came during a Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees meeting, where the board approved the discontinuation of five academic programs, including journalism, communications/theater studies and modern foreign languages.

In November, Delta State President Bill LaForge announced the university would eliminate the programs and cut funding for the print production of The Statement as part of a $1 million university-wide budget cut. The Statement will continue print production next fall, moving to an online-only format in 2016.

Patricia Roberts, the university’s only journalism professor and The Statement’s adviser, said the announcement followed an article News Editor Conor Bell wrote in November 2014 about a lawsuit a former Division of Languages and Literature chairman filed against LaForge.

Since LaForge announced the cuts, the journalism program, which had 22 students enrolled in the fall, has already started to wane as students transfer to other institutions or switch majors, Roberts said.

Although the university is free to determine its newspaper’s budget, the board is required to approve the elimination of academic programs. Delta State and board of trustees representatives could not be reached for comment about Thursday’s vote.

Leading up to Thursday’s meeting, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Mississippi Press Association and the Southeast Journalism Conference released statements in support of the university’s journalism program and The Statement. In its statement, the press association offered to pay for The Statement’s print production costs next year as the university looks for funding alternatives.

Robert Buckman, a former Southeast Journalism Conference president, attended Thursday’s board meeting to argue on behalf of the SEJC and the SPJ. However he said the board told him it doesn’t allow for public comment and they didn’t let him speak.

After President LaForge presented facts and numbers, the board “took less than 10 minutes to eliminate a journalism program without any discussion of the merits,” Buckman said.

Buckman also brought to the meeting a letter the journalism commission sent the trustees earlier in the week, urging the board to continue Delta State’s journalism program.

“You have an award-winning journalism program at DSU of which you should be proud, which is preparing future journalists and archiving the history of Delta State,” according to the letter. “We implore you to cherish it, not scuttle it.”

But as The Statement prepares to phase out its print edition next year, Bell said he doesn’t believe students will be interested in reading The Statement online, and without the print product, “the voice of the students is gone.”

Elisabetta Zengaro, The Delta Statement’s editor-in-chief, said she isn’t sure where the university got the idea students will read an online-only Statement, since they didn’t survey any students.

This spring, the Mississippi Press Association and the Southeast Journalism Conference recognized The Statement for its reporting and its graphic, print and website design with 18 state and regional awards.

But without a journalism major, Zengaro said she doesn’t think The Statement will be as successful “without staff trained to write and run a newspaper.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6317.