UTAH — The newspaper at Dixie State University in Utah just lost a quarter of its student fee funding; editors say they’re being targeted, but the student government and administration say it’s to curb paper waste.
The university’s board of trustees made the cut on March 22 at the recommendation of a student government committee that decides how the Dixie State student fee will be allocated.
The fee is more than $400 per student. For the past 15 years, the student newspaper had received $1 per student from that fee, translating to about $12,000 per year for the paper. That allocation is now about $9,000.
The newspaper, The Dixie Sun, which is based in St. George, made news recently with its reporting on the oustings of two tenured professors. They also pressed the DSU Faculty Senate to open their meetings to student reporters under the state open meetings law.
Jeff Hunt, a Utah First Amendment attorney, sent a letter to the school and to the state attorney general on behalf of the Sun asking for clarification on state open meeting law.
Student government and university officials say the cuts to the newspaper budget had nothing to do with the paper’s coverage.
“It’s completely about waste,” said Jyl Hall, a university spokesperson.
Every year a student government committee, called the Student Fee Allocation Committee, meets to determine the new student fee. During the 2018 cycle, the committee nearly recommended a cut because they believed the newspaper was printing copies that weren’t being picked up.
Instead, they let the Sun take the next year to figure out their paper pick-up rate and report back in 2019. The Sun had cut its run from 2,500 copies per week to 1,000 during 2018, but of the 1,000, nearly 600 or so were left behind. Those numbers led the committee to recommend the 25 percent cut, which was eventually enacted by the trustees.
The Sun uses advertising revenue to print the weekly paper, said Ryann Heinlan, editor-in-chief of the Sun. The cuts would affect newspaper scholarships and replacing aging computers.
Newspaper staffers have received negative feedback on social media and through email due to coverage, and Heinlan said they feel boxed in on campus. After it became clear the cuts were likely inevitable, the newsroom felt defeated, she said.
“It’s us against the world,” Heinlan said. “We’re trying to be ethical and honest and we’re just trying to report what we feel is important, and what feel the student body needs to know and wants to know.”
The timing of the 2018 discussion to cut the Sun fees raised eyebrows, it was just days after the paper had published the story on tenured faculty dismissals.
Cajun Syrett, the DSU student body president, said the fee allocation committee was thinking about dollars and cents, not newspaper content. A committee member was particularly tuned in to the ills of the newspaper industry, Syrett said, and gave the paper’s finances a harder look than in years past.
The fee will collect $408 dollars per student in the coming academic year. The money goes toward athletics, student government, intramurals and a litany of other activities.
As for the open meeting issue, the attorney general told the university that faculty senate meetings don’t fall under the open meetings statute, Hall said, because although Dixie State is a public school, the faculty senate is not a decision making body.
Chris Evans, president of the College Media Association, said the paper is hard-pressed in this situation.
“The university is allowed to review the budget and if there’s no connection to First Amendment issues, the student newspaper doesn’t have a lot they can do,” Evans said. “They’ve tried, clearly, in this case.”
Evans compared the situation at Dixie State to another recent budget cut at the University of Kansas, where a student committee based their cut decision on the student newspaper’s coverage. In that case, the newspaper had a clear First Amendment argument to get their fee reinstated.
Cutting the print run of a newspaper can have further financial implications, Evans said. Advertisers still prefer to run a print ad over an online ad, and they would rightfully pay less for fewer copies.
“The journalists at the newspaper are saying this will impact the technology they have in the newsroom, and also scholarships and stipends. That’s significant,” Evans said.
Evans encouraged student journalists to keep pushing, and to keep reporting on the issue.
“I hope that in this case they don’t stop fighting, they don’t stop asking questions,” he said.
Dixie State trustees said were generally supportive of the paper and its mission, but decided to move forward with the cut to respect the process set by the students on the fee allocation committee.
Rhiannon Bent, the newspaper’s adviser, spoke in support of the paper and against the cut at the meeting. The newsroom is in dire need of new computers and software, Bent said.
“The computers were so old that they wouldn’t update the software past 2017,” she said.
Trustees said Bent should take advantage of a fund within the College of Business and Communication to get the paper new equipment. The Sun had never used an academic fund to supplement their budget, Bent said, but trustees and the college’s dean made clear that the fund was available to the paper.
Bent is already in discussions with her department to access the funds, she said. The paper also has about a $14,000 budget surplus this year it can use to fill up some budget gaps. Trustees said they would be open to revisiting the reduced allocation “within a matter of months,” they said.
The mood among newspaper staff is still low, Bent said, and they are doing their best to plan ahead.
“Certainly it makes me uneasy, worried about the future, and already thinking ahead to next year,” Bent said.
SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co.
Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free occasional News Roundup.