What It Means to be an ‘Independent’ Student Newspaper
In the wake of this month’s Red & Black student newspaper debacle, I imagine the issues of censorship, prior review and editorial control are on the minds of student editors across the country.
Following the Red & Black board’s draft of a now infamous memo detailing major operational shifts in Red & Black editorial policy, including the removal of final control by the students, most of the staff at the student newspaper walked out in protest.
The move was great, but the response was overwhelming.
The walkout got major national press, as well as the personal attention and solidarity of working student journalists at universities all over.
Nationally award-winning student newspapers like the Oklahoma Daily and Arizona Daily Wildcat, in addition to Georgia State’s own student newspaper, The Signal, offered words of encouragement and solidarity.
Privately, the gall and sheer stupidity of the board’s decision stunned staffers at The Signal.
“If this ever happens at The Signal, I would hope we all have the balls to walk out as well,” said the paper’s Editor-in-chief Sabastian Wee on a private Facebook post.
The stunt at the Red & Black worked, though. In just five days, the students were reappointed back to their positions – and then some, including two new seats on the paper’s board of directors.
However, the harrowing tale of the Red & Black offers a striking opportunity to consider what it means for a student newspaper to truly be “independent.”
You see, independence comes in different shapes and degrees.
Although nearly every student-run newspaper claims to be independent, student journalists typically do the best of jobs differentiating between the two types that freedom can take: financial independence and editorial independence.
Editorial independence is by far the more important and most wide spread form, as nearly every student newspaper receives financial support from public sources, whether that comes from the university directly or an appointed organization like student government.
Financial independence, on the other hand, is far more rare. Aside from the Red & Black, worth about $5 million, according to tax records, I can only think of a handful of other major student newspapers like The Daily Tar Heel at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the Daily Californian at the University of California at Berkeley that are financially independent.
The fact of the matter is that financial independence is nearly impossible for many student newspapers, particularly at smaller schools with fewer advertisers and readers.
Even at large schools, it can be difficult for student newspapers to transition to complete financial independence, requiring a staff fully on top of its game and a paper with very strong ad sales, among so many other things.
And while financially independent newspapers may not face the same challenges publically funded papers might when it comes to potentially illegal funding shutdowns, they are subject, in part and to varying degrees, to the whims of their board of directors and advertisers, as the Red & Black’s example has shown.
Fortunately, the staff at the Red & Black now seems to understand this point by reversing their policy changes and reappointing the student staffers that resigned.
So what’s the takeaway from this whole ordeal?
And whether a student newspaper is editorially independent, financially independent or both, non-students should play a hand-off role in the day-to-day news cycle. Put explicitly, that means a paper’s advisor, publisher, board members or whoever should have no power even resembling prior review.
Second, by definition, a student newspaper must be run by the students. When students cease to maintain final editorial control of content, the paper no longer remains a student newspaper; it becomes a professional newspaper with students writing about university topics.
Make no mistake, student newspapers often mess things up. For many writers, working for a student newspaper is their first experience ever being published, let along working in a professional context.
Considering that fact, a typo or occasional error is to be expected; even the best of us sometimes get it wrong. The most we can try to do is improve.
Granted, student journalists have a responsibility to accurately report information, using their own conscious and those of their peers to determine what should and should not be published. And when we screw up, we should be responsible for our actions, doing everything we can to address the situation.
But, on the other hand, what is the alternative?
An “independent” student newspaper where content is sacrificed depending on the whims of those employed by the university or by non-student professionals? Where “good” content is placed above “bad” simply because of how it may negatively reflect on the school or related organizations, no matter of its veracity?
Calling such a paper “independent” would be an insult to the hundreds of student publications that do the hard work of good journalism day in and day out.