Beyond the hashtag: Saving student newsrooms

There is a First Amendment crisis on America’s college campuses. It’s just not the one you’ve read about.

You haven’t read about it because the occasional — and they are occasional — overzealous acts of social-justice activists who cross the line from walking out on a commencement speaker (perfectly legal) to throwing rocks at the speaker’s car (not at all legal) feed the popular narrative that drives clicks to news sites and donors to free-expression organizations.

But the piece of First Amendment turf over which these battles are being fought is a small and peripheral one: Whether “hate speech” is constitutionally protected (undeniably yes) or should continue to be constitutionally protected (open to reasonable debate) against government regulation on a college campus.

The heart and soul of the First Amendment is not whether Milo Yiannopoulos gets his preferred choice of auditoriums in which to call people “retards” and “trannies,” but whether members of the campus community can safely criticize government policies or call attention to government shortcomings. And that core First Amendment principle is under regular attack by campus authority figures fixated on cultivating a positive image for donors and legislators.

The impact of colleges’ obsession with “protecting the brand” is being felt in newsrooms across the country, where student-run media outlets are facing existential threats to their survival. With a few notable exceptions, college administrators’ attitude toward independent, student-led newsrooms generally runs from apathy to open hostility. Some are actively working to smother or starve watchdog journalism, and others are content to indifferently watch it die.

Here is just one recent week’s worth of headlines:

(1) Wichita State’s newspaper, The Sunflower, barely survives a threatened 50 percent budget cut and will be sustained temporarily by its university’s one-time agreement to buy $25,000 worth of ads.

(2) The student newspaper at Brooklyn College is holding bake sales to raise enough money to publish its remaining two editions of the semester.

(3) Out of money, the board of SMU’s student newspaper, The Daily Campus, votes to fold as a freestanding entity and let the university’s journalism department take over the once-independent paper as a lab project.

These dire developments impelled three Florida student editors to launch the #SaveStudentNewsrooms awareness campaign, in which 129 college media organizations are participating through editorials, social-media posts, videos and more. [Full disclosure: they’re my students at the University of Florida. Fuller disclosure: they run The Independent Florida Alligator, which I once edited. Fullest disclosure: I’d take a bullet for any of them.]

When the 2008–09 recession kneecapped professional newsrooms, leading to crippling job losses from which the industry has never rebounded, college newsrooms initially seemed immune, with their low labor costs, educated hyperlocal following, and unique ability to reach a desirable advertising demographic. Those advantages postponed, but did not avert, the reckoning.

Even traditional powerhouse programs are undertaking drastic survival strategies, including discontinuing print runs, moving to all-volunteer staffing or (like the Alligator in 2016) selling their buildings. The Hatchet at George Washington University, perennially one of the nation’s best (and best-financed) college newspapers, was forced to trade in its prized Foggy Bottom townhouse and move into more modest quarters. At the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the general manager of the student-run Daily Tar Heel, Erica Perel, told me:

[The newspaper] has eliminated key professional staff positions and significantly cut student salaries to bring expenses in line with declining revenues, as well as moving into smaller space. We haven’t replaced aging and broken photo/video equipment or editing stations in years. I believe that we are still fulfilling our mission to educate tomorrow’s journalists and serve our community with information, but that would be threatened with further cuts.

Faculty-led news labs at journalism schools offer an increasingly diverse and engaging array of training opportunities that, to the outside eye, may seem to obviate the need for “the college newspaper” of bygone generations. Students enrolled in one of those labs (“News21”) have broken national stories about the integrity of the voter-registration system and the fragility of America’s drinking-water supply.

But independent student newspapers do what faculty-led news labs rarely can: Expose wrongdoing on their own campuses and push back aggressively against excessive secrecy.

The financial threat to Wichita State’s Sunflower immediately followed a series of eye-popping investigative pieces exposing administrative corruption and mismanagement, including a devastating report detailing how administrators — desperate to sustain their narrative of growing enrollment — padded attendance figures with phantom students recruited to sign up for free .5-credit-hour online courses.

Southern Illinois University’s newspaper exposed how their newly hired chancellor helped two relatives get un-advertised jobs that appeared to have been created just for them, resulting in a “no-confidence” vote by graduate students and an independent ethics investigation.

At UNC, the Daily Tar Heel has repeatedly sued its own institution over the university’s distortions of federal privacy law to conceal embarrassing records that the public is entitled to inspect, including (in the most recent case) outcomes of secretive disciplinary hearings in which students are accused of felony-level criminal behavior.

If student-run newsrooms don’t exist, these stories go untold, these lawsuits go un-filed, and these scandals go ignored.

How are college administrators responding to the peril to student journalism on their campuses? By and large, by making the journalists’ job significantly harder and costlier.

The University of Kentucky is suing its own student newspaper to halt the paper’s investigation into the handling of employee sexual harassment cases, after the paper raised questions about the college’s diligence in disciplining an accused repeat offender who was allowed to quietly resign. The university’s president, Eli Capilouto, has waged a Trumpian campaign of misinformation vilifying student journalists for “sensationalism,” a charge so groundless that his entire journalism faculty demanded an apology.

A sister institution, Western Kentucky, brought a copycat lawsuit and — for good measure — depleted the newspaper’s ability to defend against the litigation by raiding the College Heights Herald’s hard-earned reserves.

In an especially egregious recent case, West Virginia’s Fairmont State University replaced the editors of the student newspaper and fired a well-credentialed faculty adviser after one year on the job, as punishment for a series of investigative stories that revealed unhealthy levels of mold in campus housing.

When they can’t directly silence their critics, colleges simply starve them of the information they need to participate in campus civic life. The University of Arizona, in defiance of binding state Supreme Court precedent, just chose a president in total secrecy, refusing even to reveal the names of those who were interviewed. Michigan’s state universities have fought in court — successfully — for the “right” to hold backroom “pre-meeting meetings” at which all the votes are prearranged before being announced as unanimous in a perfunctory public session.

It is no answer to say that students have the vehicle of social media to blow the whistle on campus shortcomings, because colleges’ punitive authority over speech now follows students 24/7 into their online lives. In the view of a growing number of federal judges, speech on social media is “on-campus” speech subject to the same level of control as if uttered in the hallways — and potentially even greater control, since appearance-conscious colleges are aggressively policing social media in ways they’d never regulate other forms of communication.

That is why freestanding newsrooms, staffed and run by college journalists with the freedom to make coverage decisions free from institutional retaliation, are irreplaceable.

Ask any college administrator in America, particularly after the dispiriting 2016 national campaigns, and you will hear that “civic engagement” and “media literacy” are urgent priorities for higher education. But when universities speak of “civic engagement,” they mean collecting canned goods for the homeless. That’s wonderful — but it’s not enough.

“Civic engagement” means learning to effectively participate in the hard work of community governance — the type of informed participation that cannot exist in a climate of lockdown secrecy without editorially independent coverage.

The belief among powerful campus authority figures, and the lawyers who advise them, that regulators get to punish people for speech that tarnishes the government’s image is the First Amendment crisis of our time. Colleges’ anti-speech and anti-press policies are not the product of impulsive temper outbursts by offended 19-year-old undergraduates. They are calculated and premeditated strikes by government officials at the very foundation of the First Amendment.

The April 25, 2018, edition of The Independent Florida Alligator contains testimonials from former student journalists from around the country. One wrote: “If your alma mater has a student newspaper that’s in danger of folding, you shouldn’t consider the issue as a potential loss for the university’s journalism program. You should consider it a loss for you and your community.”

To save student-produced news from extinction, creative financing models will be needed, and it will require vision and a degree of self-sacrifice from campus administrators. It will require opinion leaders, like Columbia’s Lee Bollinger (a renowned First Amendment attorney and scholar) to take the first leap and challenge their peers to follow.

One potential model (set forth in a 2016 report from the American Association of University Professors that I helped author) is to view student journalists as “performance auditors” with the same level of contractually guaranteed autonomy as an accounting firm. As the report (“Threats to the Independence of Student Media”) explains, colleges could view financial support for student media as a contract for candid feedback on the quality of services the campus provides, just as they contract with auditors to identify financial weaknesses: “No reputable college or university would insist that its auditors skew their findings to portray a deceptively favorable outlook because the institution is paying for the report, although they might dissent from those findings.”

Another potential model is to treat student journalists the same way we treat prized athletes, and to subsidize their tuition, room and board in recognition of the invaluable civic service they provide. Offering scholarships to standout high-school journalism graduates will free them to do the heavy work of informing the college community, and as an added bonus, reinvigorate high-school journalism as a pathway for those otherwise unable to afford higher education.

College journalism is one of the greatest bargains in all of higher education. The total operating budget for a paper the size of WSU’s Sunflower is about $350,000 a year. To throw off that amount in earnings every year, a university would have to set aside $7.25 million in a permanently endowed lockbox — which is exactly the amount Wichita State spends every year on men’s basketball. Funny thing about spending priorities — there is always enough for your first, and never enough for your last.

The philanthropic community can catalyze this change. Foundations that have invested many millions in journalism since the 2016 election mustn’t forget that the majority of American journalists go to work every day in classrooms and not in newsrooms.

To ensure that institutional financial support isn’t held hostage to control editorial viewpoints (which is what impelled many student news organizations to become independent in the first place), every state needs a “New Voices” statute that outlaws content-based meddling in student newsrooms. Fourteen states now have these laws on the books, with promising bills on the agenda in Missouri, New York, Minnesota and New Jersey. Last summer, the American Bar Association enacted a resolution endorsing the “New Voices” reform movement and called on the legal community to unite behind commonsense legal protections for student media: “If student journalists are to assume responsibility as the primary newsgatherers for their communities, they must be assured of independence from viewpoint-based institutional control or reprisal, as nonstudent professionals are.”

Student-led newsrooms with the financial strength to produce a high-quality product and reach a mass audience, and with ironclad insulation from editorial interference from the authorities they cover, are indispensable if colleges are to succeed in producing informed, participatory citizens. #SaveStudentNewsrooms is a cry for help to which all campus stakeholders — students, faculty, alumni, foundations, administrators and trustees — must respond with urgency.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte is Director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and the former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, www.splc.org, a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based advocate for student journalists’ rights.