Florida A&M student journalists and alumni outraged over university’s launch of a “real newspaper”

FLORIDA — Administrators at Florida A&M University have rebranded its online news site that the university president has deemed “a real newspaper,” which many students have considered to be a “slap in the face” to the student newspaper.

“It won’t be The Famuan,” university president Elmira Mangum said, according to a Famuan editorial. “It’ll be a real newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal.”

In an editorial, Famuan editor in chief Reggie Mizell criticized the characterization of the university-ran publication as the university’s “official newspaper.”

“The university’s student-run newspaper, the Famuan (apparently not the official newspaper), has been publishing for more than 50 years, and, for the most part is successful with its publication, attracting national attention as well as winning awards and providing training for students,” Mizzell wrote. Mizzell did not respond to a request for comment.

Students and alumni also criticized the president’s statement on Twitter.

But in an open letter to the Famuan, Mangum wrote that the university is “updating and upgrading” its famunews.com site. The site, tagged “your official source for FAMU news and events,” launched Sept. 8 and features articles about faculty news, student life and editorials from the university president — including the open letter to the Famuan.

“Mr. Mizell’s article, unfortunately, took my responses to questions about plans for the then-uncompleted site out of context,” she wrote.

Another sticking point in the editorial was the concern the university news site has sponsors, while university student media is in a “budget struggle.”

The paper’s budget has decreased dramatically in the past five years. The Student Government Association allocated $59,464 to the Famuan for 2011-2012. Funding dwindled to $33,993 by 2013-2014, according to budget documents from the SGA.

The Famuan was previously published three times a week, but Mizell wrote in his editorial that the current budget is $10,000, “maybe enough to support one publication each semester, maybe.”

“In our efforts to raise money for the publications, the president and administrators seem to have found support for their new publication,” he wrote. “They have managed to get money from organizations to support a publication that has not proven it can succeed.”

Driadonna Roland, an alumna of FAMU who worked for the Famuan and also interned for the university’s public relations, said in an email that it had been a point of pride to be “one of the only, if not the only, HBCU student newspaper that published a print edition three times a week.”

“How can she find ‘sponsors’ for her PR paper when the Famuan has slowly been defunded every year? The most obvious thing to do would be to procure sponsors to support the paper that is produced by the students, who are her constituents,” Roland said.

It isn’t unusual for a university’s public relations department to have a publication promoting the university.

But to call it a newspaper is misleading, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“They’re welcome to publish whatever press releases they want, but that shouldn’t be dressed up and presented as a newspaper, and it certainly shouldn’t come at the expense of the real newspaper,” he said.

Roland said calling it an official newspaper is a “slap in the face not only to the hard-working students, but to the faculty who show up and teach these students every day.”

Mangum said in her open letter that she does not believe that the renewed site imposes on the student’s ability to express themselves or their rights.

“It simply is a part of our efforts to modernize our brand, implement the best and current practices for online publishing, and further spread our message,” she wrote.

Clarece Polke, a Famuan alumna and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, said Mangum’s original comment “seemed to dismissively undermine the student newspaper and show the students are not taken seriously.”

Still, Mangum said she supports student media by giving interviews and noted that “the existing news site contains links to student media including the Famuan, FAMU TV-20, and WANM 90.5 FM, and the updated site will continue to promote these links.”

This isn’t the first time that the Famuan has had a conflict with the university administration. The paper was suspended in January 2013 and its adviser was removed after the paper was sued for defamation. All staff had to reapply for their positions, and the editor-in-chief was not re-hired. The re-hired staff then had to complete training.

The paper’s alumni said they hope the university will invest more in the Famuan.

“I’d like to see the Famuan get to a point where they are completely independent… When you operate independently you can do strong editorials,” Polke said. “Until that day comes, it is critical that the university fully support and invest in its students.”

Roland said working on the student paper helps prepare students for the real world, as news is constantly evolving.

“If she does not see the value in their paper, then perhaps Magnum should speak with the faculty and seek counsel from industry leaders to figure out how to move the Famuan and student journalists forward in innovative ways,” she said. “She should give them the financial support to be creative and embrace social media and other methods of storytelling.”

Roland now works as a copy editor for Buzzfeed and said her work at the Famuan was critical to landing a job after graduation.

“I and many of my colleagues were able to get jobs because we were able to show clips demonstrating our writing abilities. Because we were able to say and prove, ‘This is the leadership position I earned and excelled in through the Famuan,’” she said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Corey Conner by email or at 202-974-6318.