UPDATE: The full printing budget for The Blue and Gray Press at the University of Mary Washington has been restored as of Friday, May 25.
Editor-in-Chief Lauren Closs said she met with the students on the finance committee Monday, May 21 in an emergency meeting and was told a few days later that the paper’s original request for $13,666 to fund the print edition had been approved.
When meeting with the finance committee, Closs said she presented a plan to address the committee’s concerns about distribution of the paper. She said the committee also suggested that the number of papers left at distribution sites be counted at the end of each week.
“I am glad that we were able to have a discussion and reach a reasonable distribution-related solution,” Closs said in an email. “It is my hope that continued open discussion will see the quick resolution of issues in the future without threats to funding.”
After the initial cuts, Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, said if the student government defunded The Press for content reasons, they broke the law.
VIRGINIA — Funding for the University of Mary Washington’s The Blue and Gray Press’ print edition was slashed on April 27, cutting their budget from $13,765 to just $100.
The paper was given multiple reasons for the cut. Student Finance Committee Chairwoman Alyssa Ruhlen, who broke the news to Editor-in-Chief Lauren Closs, cited poor distribution methods and budgetary reasons.
Ruhlen’s adviser, Melissa Jones, reiterated the SFC’s concerns, but added that a designated task force would address the “quality” of the paper. Student Government Association President Matthew Good told Closs in a private meeting on May 2 that certain articles by The Press had angered the student government.
And yet another reason later surfaced. A May 11 Facebook post by UMW blamed environmental concerns about using too much paper.
Closs says these mixed messages have left her unsure of the main reason for the budget cut. The paper is funded primarily through an annual student activities fee, so although they sell some ads, the print edition can’t survive without SFC support.
Accounts from current and former editors-in-chief of The Press show a consistently troubled relationship between the paper and UMW’s student government and sometimes other students as well.
“There has definitely been a lot of pushback about a lot of articles in my time,” Closs said. Since Closs is engaged in negotiations with Ruhlen, she chose to not provide specifics.
In October 2010, Lindley Estes, then editor-in-chief of The Bullet (The Press’ former name), published an article about fifteen UMW students charged in a drug investigation, which included mugshots.
“When we published that story, the student body had this huge backlash,” Estes said. “They were really upset we would write about the student body like that.”
“Why do you have to post this on the internet for everyone to see?” one commenter said. “This is extremely messed up on the Bullet’s part,” said another. While some commenters defended the article, Estes said her paper was “really baffled” by the pushback.
Criticism of the article got so bad that Estes was anonymously threatened shortly after publication of the article. Someone taped a note on her off-campus apartment door that read, “Karma’s a bitch, And SO ARE YOU.”
“Mary Washington is such a small school. Everyone knows everyone,” Estes said. “This story was really perceived as attacking our fellow students.” The campus, located in Fredericksburg, Va., has approximately 4,000 undergraduate students Closs said the size of UMW’s student body may contribute to antagonism about the paper, since the small community may want to protect reputations of students.
The Bullet later wrote an editorial explaining why they chose to cover the arrests.
Ryan Marr, editor-in-chief during spring 2011, said that finances were never directly threatened under his tenure, but “it was always a string that was dangled.” In January 2011, The Bullet had to retract an article about a falsely-reported plan by UMW to demolish a historic on-campus building. Marr said that administrators told him that if his paper didn’t improve their journalism practices funding would be pulled. Marr said that his relationship with the student body, on the other hand, was generally positive.
Chris Markham, editor-in-chief from 2015 to 2017, described a hostile environment for the paper. “Almost everyone on campus has an opinion on the newspaper, mostly not good,” Markham said.
Markham noted that in addition to resentment of The Press among students, UMW’s administration was unwilling to provide resources for the paper.
“We were often left to fend for ourselves and when I did have chances to voice concerns, I was listened to but nothing came of it,” Markham said. “I was never taught how to deal with the money side of being a club and when I asked about it, I felt as if I was an inconvenience to [the administration].”
The Student Press Law Center’s Senior Legal Counsel, Mike Hiestand, said the choice to defund The Press for content-related reasons would be breaking the law. “Courts have been clear that just isn’t what student government associations or administrations can take action on against these newspapers,” Hiestand said.
However, Hiestand did say the 2005 Illinois Hosty v. Carter ruling in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that college media were subject to strict, Hazelwood-level control, could pose a challenge to any legal action taken by The Press.
The SPLC has worked with The Press in the past when the paper has run into press freedom issues, Hiestand said. Hiestand is drafting an opinion letter for Closs that explains the legal boundaries and past court rulings. Closs will then distribute this letter to students and administrators.
Closs is trying to reach a compromise with the Student Finance Committee. She emailed Ruhlen saying The Press promised to distribute the paper more efficiently and cause less waste. Ruhlen replied to Closs, and the two are working to set up a meeting. For The Press’ print version to be restored, Ruhlen’s committee would have to call an emergency meeting, since UMW’s school year is over.
Ruhlen, SGA President Matt Good and adviser Melissa Jones all declined to comment, instead referring to UMW President Troy Paino’s statement: “The questions arising about the future of the printed version of The Blue and Gray Press point to the dedication and commitment of students on both sides of the issue. Student members of the newspaper and finance committee have been vested with vital duties, and both groups are attempting to uphold their roles responsibly. The administration will be available to facilitate their dialogue as they work through their differences and seek the best solution. Ideally this experience will provide students with an opportunity to exercise civil discourse and to problem solve in a way that prepares them for their professional life after UMW.”
Other student newspapers this year have faced similar financial hurdles. Wichita State University’s student government voted to cut The Sunflower’s budget by $25,000. The cut will be voted on by the Kansas Board of Regents in June. And University of Florida, Gainsville’s The Independent Florida Alligator launched the #SaveStudentNewsrooms movement to highlight financial struggles newsrooms face.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated The Blue and Gray Press‘ budget amount as well as the date of Matthew Good and Lauren Closs’ meeting.
SPLC staff writer Gabriel Greschler can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318. He is on Twitter @ggreschler.