Independence Matters

When I first heard the news, it landed like a gut punch. The Daily Campus, the SMU independent student newspaper where I got started in this business, is being shut down, taken over by university administrators who have been fighting to get their hands on it since well before my student days. (See “Who really killed the student free press of SMU”, published today by student editors)

Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. The Student Media Company, an independent business that publishes the DC and other student media, including the Rotunda yearbook, is dissolving after several years of financial losses. The newspaper itself will move under the direction of the Journalism Department. My professor friends there assure me the DC will be in good hands, and they don’t fear meddling by SMU administrators in content matters.

Photo illustration from The Daily Campus, published today

I trust that SMU student media will be well advised. The journalism department has a number of fine instructors with decades of professional experience. But I do not trust administrators to keep their hands off.

Flashback: I didn’t go to college with any intention of being a journalism major. Yet there was a scholarship available for taking the intro to mass comm course, and that’s where I made a ton of friends, and the next thing I knew, I was covering swimming and women’s hoops for The Daily Campus. By the fall of my second year, I was the football beat writer, and sports editor the next semester. The DC was my home. The next year, I was on the board of the Student Media Company as a student representative, while occasionally writing a column. And — life highlight — I got to interview Kurt Vonnegut, one of my favorite authors then and still today, when he came to speak at the literary festival.

If I had a picture of me and Kurt Vonnegut, I would put it here, but I don’t because we didn’t take pictures of everything all the time back then. Here’s a nice public domain image of him, though. Enjoy.

In my time on the board, though, SMU administrators were doing their usual thing. They wanted some say over the content published in the DC, essentially prior review of our paper before it went into publication. We resisted, saying that as an independent student media company, there was no role for administrative censorship.

The administrators didn’t like that, so they threatened us. We had huge offices on the second floor of the relatively new Hughes-Trigg Student Center, at a discounted rate that seemed to reflect the understanding that we were an asset to the university and its student experience. That lease was about to be up — and our options were to submit to prior review by administrators or be booted out of our offices.

We fought, negotiated, held out, bargained, consulted with lawyers, lobbied, and did everything we could to stay in our offices without submitting to university censorship. In the end, we won that battle. It was that process that made me think that maybe law school was the place for me, where I could study free speech and free press law. Twenty-something years later, I teach and write about that for a living. (Gratuitous link to Amazon page)

That all started in the crucible of the independent Student Media Company, which has fought off adversity and administrative influence in the many years since. SMU administrators began an effort to starve student media about 15 years ago when they allowed students to opt out of paying fees that helped support student publications, and things only got worse as ad revenues dried up a decade ago. Jessica Huseman, a DC alum and current reporter for ProPublica in New York, recalled fighting off university censorship in 2011, when administrators pulled a story criticizing lack of transparency by the school’s board from the summer orientation issue, which the Student Press Law Center wrote about at the time.

It’s funny. These days, I’m an academic administrator — the kind of bureaucratic villain I battled as a student many years ago. But I’ve never been a great fit as an administrator, probably because I tend to rabble-rouse. I don’t trust authority. I’ve still got too much student journalist in me.

And I think that’s why this hit me so hard, and why my friends and fellow SMU journalism alums bristle at the move. We are proud of the independence of the Student Media Company. Generations of student journalists before me fought for that, mine did too, and so did those after me. We used our independence to stand up to administrators, for so many years. Independence is a part of a journalist’s DNA — I mean, it’s right there in the SPJ Code of Ethics, where “act independently” is one of the four major tenets.

When independence is taken away, that’s a real loss. And while I trust my SMU journalism professor colleagues to be good advisers, and to fight off administrative encroachments into editorial control, I know that that is a very real threat. I’ve seen it happen too many times in the student journalism field.

I teach at TCU, which appears to be a model for student media that SMU is moving toward. We do not have independent student publications — the university is our publisher. Now, the culture here has been extremely hands-off, and that’s a good thing. It helps when one of your most high-profile alums is named Bob Schieffer.

But “almost no interference” is a different thing than “no interference.” For instance, once, university administrators over my head requested our student media to remove an article about an employee from the archives. For what it’s worth, it’s not exactly a “request” when it comes from a rank higher than dean. Saying “no, that violates every principle of transparency and ethics we hold dear” was not an option. That article is no longer in our archives, and I don’t feel comfortable saying anything more about that in public.

Another time, we faced a bogus legal threat from a person who wanted our reporters to take down a tweet of his that they embedded in a story as part of a Storify. There was no plausible cause of action against us; this kid tweeted something, and our student reporters used it to illustrate a story. Nevertheless, when university counsel said it was too risky and they should take it down, even with me (a lawyer who kind of knows about this sort of thing) noting that there was exactly zero legal risk and this would embolden private censors, there was no debate. The tweet came down.

These are the very real challenges that SMU student media will now face. It’s a shame, and it saddens me. I admit to being surprised that independent student media was given up so quietly. There was no “Save The Daily Campus” campaign. As an alum who just lives 45 miles away, and is pretty plugged in with journalism faculty over there, I had no idea that this was even a possibility. My friend Vince Filak successfully spearheaded a campaign to save his student newspaper at Wisconsin-Oshkosh when it was in dire financial straits and on the verge of closure a few years ago, and I was pleased to contribute to that effort. At my alma mater, alas, independent student media died not with a bang but a whimper.

So, what’s next? I don’t know. Alums from around the country are scrambling for a last-ditch rescue effort, though that would mean coming up with $100,000 quickly to convince the Student Media Company board to reconsider dissolving in May. And then we’d have to come up with a way to help the company pay the costs of running a media operation in a sustainable way, to the tune of about $350,000 a year, as estimated by Florida Journalism Prof. Frank LoMonte, erstwhile head of the Student Press Law Center.

And if that fails, student journalists at SMU will have to turn to their faculty advisers to stand up to administrative pressures, which can be hard when they’re signing your paycheck and in charge of your tenure and promotion situation. The Student Press Law Center remains a fantastic resource for students facing censorship efforts or advisers who are punished for crossing university administrators.

And maybe SMU student journalists should remember that they’ve got a pissed off alumni base ready to be called upon when it’s time to throw down. My cohort alone includes several folks who have built long careers in journalism, and we are ready to cry havoc and, well, you know…

Whatever farm animal of war, Lana