What to do when your student news outlet’s budget gets cut

Piggy bank tipped over with coins spilling out
Pixabay / kschneider2991

If your student publication is funded fully or in part by student fees, you should have a plan in place in case of a budget cut. If the cuts come after critical coverage of the university or your student government, you may be able to claim the university or student government violated your First Amendment rights.

“We always tell students to start some sort of file, detailing anything administration or student government says or any comments they make about the content. You’ll want to be able to draw a pretty explicit connection between their dissatisfaction with the coverage and their decision to defund your publication,” Student Press Law Center Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said.

If your student media budget gets cut, you can always contact SPLC’s legal hotline for specific advice. Here are general guidelines Dean says student journalists should follow in this situation:

1. Meet with the person or group that cut your budget

Oftentimes, student government bodies and administrators forget there’s a person behind the stories they see their names in. Show them your publication is full of students they’re meant to be serving. The editor-in-chief should set up a meeting with the person in charge — and bring some top editors if you value strength in numbers. Don’t include your adviser in this meeting. This should be a student-led effort from a student-run paper.

Argue the importance of student media for training upcoming journalists and stress the value your news outlet provides to students. 

If you have a feeling they cut your budget because of your coverage, that’s your strongest argument — make sure to bring the file you’ve collected of every bad thing student government or university officials have said about your publication. Explain to them that courts have ruled public schools cutting a student newspaper’s budget for content-based reasons violates the students’ First Amendment rights.

This might scare them enough to put the money back in your pocket. Student government and universities don’t typically want the bad press or lawsuit that comes after a First Amendment claim.

Use these talking points to make your case:

  • Explain why your publication is important.
  • Detail what this budget cut will do to your ability to cover the news.
  • Inform them retaliatory budget cuts are a First Amendment violation.
  • If those don’t work, tell them you’re going to write a story about the cuts and about the meeting you had with them.
  • Then, tell them that if the cut isn’t reversed after the story, you’ll get a lawyer involved. Contact SPLC’s legal hotline to get help if you decide to start a legal fight.

2. Call your publication’s alumni

If your paper doesn’t have an alumni network — make one. Alumni can be a powerful group that are loyal to your cause because they know what you’re going through.

Ask them to write a letter to the university explaining why your publication is important, and why cutting the news outlet’s budget is harmful to the whole school. If any of them got professional journalism jobs after working in student media, make sure the letter acknowledges that and explains how working at your publication helped prepare them for those jobs. 

Dean also said you should ask alumni to call the university to complain about the cuts. If any of your alumni are now donors to the university, ask them to halt their funding until your budget is restored. Even better, ask them to donate to your paper instead, if they aren’t already.

3. Write about it

If you’ve tried out the first three options to no avail, invoke the court of public opinion. Your audience will want to know if budget cuts are threatening your ability to inform them. Tell them about the potential First Amendment violations, and get a media lawyer to corroborate those claims. 

We can help with that: Call SPLC’s legal hotline for a quote to go in your story, and to make sure your claim is strong enough to stand up to a potential lawsuit.

Explain the measures you’ve taken to try to secure your funding. Break down how the budget cut will affect your newsroom: will you have to stop paying staff? Are you going to have to cut back your printing schedule? Will it mean you can no longer afford to request public records or pay for software or equipment you need? 

If any of your alumni now work at professional newsrooms, pitch them the budget cut as a story. The more coverage you can generate, the more pressure you’ll add to reverse the cut.

4. Hire a lawyer

Usually, if your claim that the budget cut violated your First Amendment rights is strong enough, the university will back down. But if worse comes to worst, and you’re willing to fight the budget cut, you’ll need to take on a lawyer. 

Reach out to SPLC’s legal hotline, and we’ll help connect you with a lawyer from our Attorney Referral Network who is barred in your state and is willing to take on the case pro bono.

5. Amp up your ad sales, and get creative

If your budget doesn’t get restored, or you have to make do with less while you contest the cuts in court, SPLC has a list of tips to rescue your publication’s finances. Some tips include sponsored content, newsletters, new ways to advertise, and sponsored events.

Just make sure you carefully consider the ethics of each new way you sell ads.

Keep in mind you shouldn’t have to endure a budget cut to have a safety net — it’s always smart to diversify your publication’s revenue streams before you’re in a dire situation.

To see what other publications did when their budgets were cut, listen to SPLC’s podcast on when budget cuts are unconstitutional.

SPLC reporter Cameren Boatner can be reached by email at cboatner@splc.org or by calling 202-974-6317. Follow her on Twitter @camerenboatner

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.