With most student news organizations in financial jeopardy, can paying staff be a priority?

Tim Dodson / Cavalier Daily

Journalists joke that no one goes into the profession to make money. This is even more true for student journalists.

For many, working for a student news organization is a financial sacrifice. They devote 20 to 40 hours a week to the newsroom, instead of taking a paying (or better paying) job.

With national student loan debt over a trillion dollars and a decrease in available post-grad jobs, is a byline enough for student journalists?

Minimum wage doesn’t apply

The Fair Labor Standards Act set the U.S. federal minimum wage at $7.25 an hour, and many states and cities surpass that pay. But legally, most student journalists don’t have to be paid, let alone meet minimum wage, because they technically serve the community, not an employer.

Jeremy Cole, an attorney who specializes in litigation, labor and employment for Flaster Greenberg, PC in Cherry Hill, N.J., said student journalists can easily be categorized in ways that allow the school to not pay them. Examples include classifying a student-run publication as a club, or giving student journalists primary beneficiary status.

Courts have upheld that student journalists aren’t employees of the school they attend, according to Student Press Law Center Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean. This is not to cheat journalists out of money, but rather to protect their First Amendment rights and prevent a financial power dynamic between administrators and student journalists.

Having student journalists on the university payroll could create a conflict of interest that puts independent journalism at risk, Dean said. So, if student journalists at public schools do get paid, it is done through a “nontraditional employee/employer” relationship, which protects the university from being sued for libel, and students from being censored.

At private schools, which do not automatically fall under First Amendment protections, student journalists can be considered employees. This leaves private school papers with the difficult decision of risking editorial independence by being essentially controlled by the college, or risking financial ruin without the university’s backing.

(Student) journalism’s financial crisis

Student papers across the nation are fighting to stay financially afloat. In the last several years:

Commercial dailies have undergone financial consolidations and convulsions since the turn of the century. In July, the Pew Research Center reported almost a third of large newspapers in the United States experienced layoffs in 2017 and overall, newsroom employment has dropped almost a quarter since 2008.

The United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the median pay for journalists, correspondents and broadcast news analysts to be $40,910 per year. Between 2016 and 2026 they predict a nine percent decrease in jobs, resulting in the loss of more than 4,000 positions.

No Pay

Tim Dodson is editor in chief of the University of Virginia’s The Cavalier Daily. He oversees about 350 contributors. None, including Dodson, get paid a cent.

“It’s a labor of love,” Dodson said.

Editor in Chief of The Cavalier Daily Tim Dodson / Photo provided by Tim Dodson

The Cavalier Daily stays afloat through ads and donations from alumni. The paper is a non-profit and the staff are volunteers. The paper barely makes enough money to function.

The paper is not connected to any academic department, and UVA doesn’t have a journalism school. Most of the staff works on assignments between classes. “If people were paid it would be a more serious commitment,” Dodson said.

In dealing with this reality, Dodson worries about the diversity of his newsroom and financially strapped students who cannot volunteer. “Are we able to really reach out to students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds?”

Then there are small “start-up” papers like the Marist Circle at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Until last year, the Marist Circle did not have a print product, a website, or any real staff. Instead there was a one-credit course so students could sporadically write content. Editor-in-Chief Alyssa Hurlbut said that starting the fall 2018 semester, the Marist Circle has been printing once a week.

Editor in Chief of The Marist Circle Alyssa Hurlbut / Photo provided by Alyssa Hurlbut

The Marist Circle’s staff get “priority points” that go toward housing. Students collect priority points through the number of clubs and student organizations they are active in, varsity sports they play, how good their grades are, etc. Working for the Marist Circle earns two priority points.

The Marist Circle gets funding via the student government. The only way it could pay staff would be to break away from club status, a move Hurlbut says they can’t afford. She would like to see a three-credit course that could draw in more students.

Editors get paid

University of Oregon’s The Daily Emerald and Colorado State’s Rocky Mountain Collegian follow nearly identical payment strategies.

Both schools have independent media groups that manage the finances of all campus student media. These groups are comprised of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members. They oversee finances and set semester budgets.

I’m hearing from my editors that ‘I can’t work here if I don’t get more hours.’

Haley Candelario, The Rocky Mountain Collegian

Both papers receive the majority of their funding through advertisement sales and student fees. Both pay their editors and designers hourly, but most contributors are volunteers.

“Whether we get paid or not is just a reality of journalism,” said The Daily Emerald’s Editor-in-Chief Zach Price. “We all really enjoy the work that we do here.”

Editor in Chief of The Daily Emerald Zach Price / Photo provided by Zach Price

Editor-in-Chief of the Rocky Mountain Collegian Haley Candelario said she has cut staff hours to stay within budget. There is a price to be paid for this decision.

“I’m hearing from my editors that ‘I can’t work here if I don’t get more hours,’” Candelario said. Many students work second or third jobs and some have stopped working for the paper.

Candelario has a second job herself. “And even when I am at my other job or in class, I’m still working on the paper.”

Editor in Chief of The Rocky Mountain Collegian Haley Candelario / Photo provided by Haley Candelario

Some private schools like Brigham Young University and Westminster College, both in Utah, place student media in the curriculum.

“Our newsroom is an academic lab,” said Steve Fidel, faculty director for The Daily Universe, the student paper at BYU. Fidel, a former reporter, said the paper is run like a professional newsroom. Fidel said in his years working at BYU, the university, which owns that paper’s logo and name, has never intervened with content.

Students at Westminster have to take two prerequisite courses before they can take “College Media — The Forum” and work in the student newsroom.

Editor positions at both The Forum and The Daily Universe are paid, and have set hours.

Editor in Chief of The Daily Universe Camille Baker / Photo provided by Camille Baker

Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Universe, Camille Baker, works an average of 20-25 hours weekly. She feels she’s paid equal to her work.

Stephanie Held is editor in chief of The Forum and said all six of her editors are paid $8.50 an hour. Utah minimum wage is $7.25. The amount of hours depends on the position — editor in chief receives the most.

At both private schools, students are paid through the human resources department and are considered university employees.

Everyone gets paid

Gage Miskimen, editor in chief of The Daily Iowan at the University of Iowa, said he is fortunate enough to pay every member on staff, including freelance reporters and photographers.

Editor in Chief of The Daily Iowan Gagge Miskimen / Photo provided by Gage Miskimen

The daily paper, with a circulation of more than 8,000, is funded through advertisements, donations, and student fees. The Daily Iowan is an institution within Iowa City, and serves the campus, city and county, Miskimen said. The paper celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2018.

“Personally, The Daily Iowan takes up most of my time,” said Miskimen, who oversees a staff of 120-plus. “If I’m not in class, I’m in the newsroom.”

Miskimen dedicates at least 40 hours a week to the paper, sometimes 50 or 60. Editors are salaried and others paid by the piece.

Despite the payment guarantee, Miskimen said many staffers have jobs outside of the paper.

I can almost pay my rent on my pay. Almost. 

Matt Neuman, Montana Kaimin

“Sometimes I’m not going to pay myself as much because I want to be able to pay my other editors and reporters more,” Miskimen said, “the fact that we can pay everybody something is really great.”

Matt Neuman, editor in chief of the Montana Kaimin at the University of Montana, said that while his entire staff is paid, he is still stressed.

“I’m overwhelmed, just generally, all the time,” said Neuman. He is a senior who has dreams of being an investigative journalist at a well known publication; for now, he has his hands full as the steward of a 115-year-old publication.

Montana Kaimin is funded through a $7 student fee collected at the start of the academic year by student government — it takes $100,000 to fund the paper for a year. The University of Montana has has an enrollment decline of 30 percent in recent years and ad sales are abysmal, he said.

Neuman is technically paid $9 an hour, but since he ends up working well beyond his allotted hours, he earns less than half the minimum wage.

“I can almost pay my rent on my pay,” Neuman said. ”Almost.”  

What now?

“If you want quality news, you have to pay for it,” said Bernard Lunzer, president of the NewsGuild since 2008. The NewsGuild is a labor union connected to the Communication Workers of America that represents over 25,000 reporters in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada, and organizations such as the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.

President of the NewsGuild Bernard Lunzer / Photo provided by Bernard Lunzer

“Students should be paid at a fair weight to the work they do,” Lunzer said. “Students should be making a set amount of $15 an hour.”

Lunzer compared the student reporter fight for pay to that of interns and college athletes. In January 2018, the Department of Labor released new internship guidelines that make it easier for employers to have unpaid interns.

Lunzer said it’s not appropriate to ask student journalists to make such a big time commitment and not pay them, because for many it’s not financially sustainable. “You can’t ask people to make that kind of sacrifice,” Lunzer said.

But at the end of the day, it isn’t necessarily about what’s fair, it’s about what students are willing to put up with.

If you want quality news, you have to pay for it.

Bernard Lunzer, The NewsGuild

Almost all of the students interviewed for this article said they don’t see a way to improve their paper’s pay system, and either said they’re lucky to be paid at all, or don’t see paying staff as a viable option.

Lunzer said both collegiate and professional journalism have shown a general apathy toward change and unwillingness to push for better pay. In order to improve pay, there would need to be large-scale mobilization from students, with support and funding from advocacy groups and professional journalists, he said.

“There’s a lot of sympathy for students from those already in the trenches,” Luzner said, but stressed the difficulties of motivating people. He said journalists are particularly hard to convince to become their own activists.

“Journalists need to fight for themselves,” Lunzer said. He noted that younger journalists are more willing than past generations to take political action and stand up for press rights.

Lunzer said the best scenario is for campuses with a strong community of journalists to unionize, but he recognizes that is not possible for most schools because of lack of resources and funding.

“Journalism is a community good. It’s the base for democracy,” Lunzer said. “Universities cry out for quality news.”


SPLC reporter Madison Dudley can be reached at mdudley@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @MadisonDudley18

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