With financial problems looming, Southern Methodist University’s student newspaper is in danger of losing its editorial independence.
The Dallas-based SMU student media operation is currently run through a nonprofit separate from the university called Student Media Company. The entity operates the online student newspaper, , as well as the weekly print edition and the yearbook.
But in January, the company decided it would dissolve at the end of the school year due to financial problems. If the entity dissolves, The Daily Campus will re-affiliate with the university, which has raised concerns about whether the university will exercise control over the content.
After seeing the news with The Daily Campus, editors with , the student newspaper at the University of Florida, Gainesville, began working on an initiative to bring attention to the challenges student newspapers face nationwide.
A movement for newsroom independence
Their campaign, called Save Student Newsrooms, calls on student-run publications to run editorials that highlight the need for student media on April 25 — the unofficial Support Student Journalism Day. They also ask alumni of student newsrooms to share their experiences with student media and to consider donating to their student paper.
The has a , where current and former student media employees can share testimonials about the benefits of student-run publications. Caitlin Ostroff, a managing editor with The Alligator and one of the event’s organizers, said there is also a private Facebook group of student editors where they can share experiences.
More than 90 college newsrooms nationwide signed up to participate in the event as of April 23.
Western Kentucky University’s wrote an editorial supporting the event. The paper is in a particularly sticky financial situation at the moment. WKU the paper in February. 2017 after reporters requested public records pertaining to staff and faculty sexual misconduct.
“At the very least, we need to get people talking about this,” Ostroff said. “We can’t just let publication by publication face issues of financial woes or loss of independence and let everything kind of crumble without at least making some noise and letting people know that this is happening and this is important.”
She said some of the journalism professors would likely fight for the paper to remain independent, but she’s skeptical it will amount to anything.
“At the end of the day, they’re still university employees,” Madry said. “And at the end of the day, they’re still subject to the control of their bosses, or they lose their jobs.”
A group of the papers alumni formed a group called that is spearheading a crowdfunding effort to fund the Student Media Company through next year. That would give the company time to restructure to be both independent and financially stable in the long run. As of April 23, 11 days into the campaign, the group’s had raised $16,160 of its $125,000 goal.
“If this can exist independently, I am all in favor of that,” Madry said. “I would argue that this is the time to act, or else.”
“I have a feeling we are going to see a number of independent media organizations go through this type of experience in the future,” said Charlie Weaver, who is general manager of University of Minnesota’s The Minnesota Daily.
Weaver believes student newsrooms need to embrace a more entrepreneurial spirit to prevent SMU-like situations. “I know there are a lot of student media companies across the nation right now that are experimenting with models where they’re offering not just products but services to the university communities. There have been some schools that have seen a lot of success with that.”
Problems in Maine
Up the coast at University of Southern Maine, Portland, editor-in-chief Julie Pike of The Free Press, who is also an organizer for Save Student Newsrooms, is concerned about her paper’s financial status.
The USM student senate passed a on March 23 to dissolve its status as a 501(c)(3). Financial accounts of all student entities at USM—including The Free Press—will now be under the umbrella of the university’s business office.
How The Free Press receives its funding will not change, and Pike said she hasn’t faced any threats of censorship by USM in the past. But Pike and Dennis Gilbert, the paper’s adviser, see a slippery slope.
“What I fear is if the university has access or control to our funding, that there could be retaliation if we publish something that reflects the university in a negative way, even if it is one that is true,” . “If the university were to suddenly be able to have control over what we publish, it will be a direct violation of our First Amendment right.”
Pike also thinks the new financial setup could bring up conflicts of interest. For example, USM if they are sued. But if The Free Press was to ever be sued by the university—which to two student papers in Kentucky in recent years—the lawyers defending them would be funded by the university.
“That doesn’t make much sense to me. I feel like they wouldn’t really be working for us,” Pike said.
Pike is closely involved with Save Student Newsrooms. Her paper’s design team is creating creating graphics for the movement. She also plans on writing another letter to the editor or an editorial for the movement.
Worries extend across the country
Financial woes have been one of the primary worries for college publications, and one of the reasons many may be at risk of losing their independence.
Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for The Poynter Institute, said college newspapers tend to have a version of the same problems as commercial newspapers.
“Especially given the demographics, there are going to be a lot of students who prefer to get their news online, digitally,” Edmonds said.
Over recent years, a number of student publications have had some uncertainty regarding the future of their editorial independence. At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., there were concerns that the administration may put more pressure on after it decided to .
In September 2017, editors of at Amherst (Mass.) College, describing the paper’s financial problems and the decision to accept money from the Association of Amherst Students to create a more stable financial situation. The letter’s headline read, “Our Dependent Student Newspaper.”
at Toledo (Ohio) University recently wrote an editorial titled where the staff described the paper’s dire financial situation and asked the community to share its . The paper became independent in 2000 after the university “threatened [its] journalistic freedom.”
“I think it’s something that, even if we’re not facing it now, it could be a threat down the line,” Ostroff said. “It’s something that other legacy and independent papers are facing, and it needs to be talked about.”
Editor’s note: Melissa Gomez, the Editor-in-Chief of The Independent Florida Alligator, is a Student Press Law Center Active Voice Fellow during the 2017-18 academic year.