Embattled student editors skeptical of Playwickian newspaper budget cuts

PENNSYLVANIA — The Playwickian, the student newspaper at Neshaminy High School in Langhorne, Pa., is turning to crowdfunding to fill the gap left by budget cuts this year. But student editors say the cuts could be an attempt to muffle the newspaper’s impact by reducing the number of issues that can be produced.

After clashing with administrators and school board members starting in 2013 over editors’ decision to ban the name of the school’s mascot, the Redskins, the Playwickian is now operating on a slim budget of $2,000 for the 2015-16 school year, an amount that editors are seeking to double through the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. They have raised $1,150 as of Wednesday.

Neshaminy Principal Rob McGee said in an email that the budget cuts are not intended as a punitive blow to the paper, but are instead the logical result of declining enrollment — and, therefore, declining funds — at NHS.

“The reduction isn’t an intentional act of the board to reduce the issues of the school newspaper,” McGee said. He noted that the budgets for extracurricular activities and sports have thinned across the board, particularly as several new clubs have been added and participation has boomed. He has also suggested cheaper alternative methods of distributing the newspaper, such as a PDF version.

But some student editors believe the cuts are meant to punish the publication. The newspaper’s relationship with administrators has been wracked by tension, especially after the battle that ensued when editors refused in 2014 to publish a letter to the editor containing the banned mascot name, which can be used as a racial slur against American Indians. McGee had told editors to print the June 2014 issue with the letter included — or not at all.

After the issue was published without the letter, administrators then cut $1,200 from the newspaper’s activities fund, suspended its adviser, Tara Huber, without pay for two days and revoked the title of then-editor-in-chief Gillian McGoldrick for one month. The suspensions sparked an outpouring of support for the newspaper from media outlets and journalism associations nationwide. Huber did not respond to the Student Press Law Center’s requests for comment as of Wednesday.

The Playwickian’s budget has slipped since the beginning of its battle over the mascot name ban. The newspaper’s printing budget shrank from $3,600 in 2013 to $2,600 the following year, not including publication costs for the June 2014 issue in which editors refused to publish the letter containing the mascot’s name. The paper also launched anIndiegogo campaign then to make up the $1,200 — and ultimately raised more than $6,800 with support from across the country. That extra money went to legal fees, recouping Huber’s pay after her suspension and attendance at the Columbia Scholastic Press Association journalism conference to receive an award.

Since that time, tensions with school administrators have cooled, but editors contend that the cuts could be meant to silence the newspaper.

“It’s almost been a stalemate with the administration and the school board,” said Timothy Cho, editor-in-chief of the Playwickian. Although budget cuts have hit every activity hard, Cho said, he believes the Playwickian may have been hit harder than others. Editors will meet with school board members about the issue at a hearing in December, he said.

“I think they [cut the budget] on purpose because of the trouble we’re giving them,” said Grace Marion, arts and entertainment and social media editor. She added that some of the newspaper’s coverage has drawn public backlash on social media.

The editors requested records of the budgets for Neshaminy’s athletic teams and extracurricular activities, but school officials only supplied information about the sports teams. Marion said the information confirmed that budget cuts had affected various student activities, but it raised concerns for editors that the other cuts weren’t as deep as those to the newspaper.

Both Cho and Marion said they understand the need for scaling back funds generally, but they worry that the tension surrounding the mascot issue has made the newspaper a target for censorship.

However, in an interview transcript provided to the Student Press Law Center, school board member Mark Shubin told Marion that the idea of sports receiving more funding was unsubstantiated.

He noted that some activities, including sports, require more equipment and travel expenses than others, making it difficult to spread funds evenly among activities with differing needs. He also declined to comment on the mascot name ban and added that school administrators — not district officials — are tasked with allocating funds.

Editors are focusing on replenishing the budget for this year’s unfunded issues, a goal Marion said she thinks they can meet through crowdfunding and selling more ads. In the meantime, the paper’s editors have collected several national journalism awards, such as the Student Press Law Center’s 2014 Courage in Student Journalism Award and the 2015 Native American Journalists Association Elias Boudinot Free Press Award.

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at 202-974-6317 or by email.