Dependence on student fees for media operating budget creates instant conflict of interest
By Debra Landis
University of Illinois Springfield
The scene seems surreal: Journalists asking politicians for money to help keep their operations going.
That is exactly what happens in U.S. institutions of higher education when the leaders of college publications that depend on student fees to augment newspaper operations are required to appear before student government groups to ask for money.
It sets up the potential for showdowns in which student government leaders, upset with coverage by the campus press, are able to threaten to reduce or cut funding entirely. The publications, in turn, report their funding is being threatened.
It’s uncertain exactly how many student newspapers across the country request student fees each year, but “it’s the majority,” according to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
At some colleges, steps have been taken to work around this annual round of requests for funding, which Iowa State Daily adviser Mark Witherspoon compared to “begging for money” from groups that may not see the news media as working in their or the university’s best interests.
The Iowa State Daily now negotiates long-term student fee contracts with representatives of student government and the university administration, Witherspoon said. While the Daily relies mostly on advertising revenue, Witherspoon said operations still would be hurt if the paper’s budget didn’t include student fees.
“It is working out well,” Witherspoon said, adding that administrators and student government leaders understand the important roles the student newspaper serves on campus.
At University of Illinois Springfield, The Journal now receives a designated amount of student fees each year rather than being required to appear before a student government funding group. Former UIS Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs L. Christopher Miller, who helped spearhead the move, said of student government leaders approving money for the media covering them, “it’s a conflict of interest.”
In addition to removing student news organizations from annual student fee requests, there are other steps student media departments can take to be “censorship resistant,” according to Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
One step, according to LoMonte, is to publish a product that’s viewed a quality publication by professional standards. While student newspapers should never shy away from hard-hitting, investigative stories, it’s more difficult for student or administrative leaders to cut or eliminate funding if a newspaper is balanced, fair and accurate and devoid of spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors, LoMonte said.
If they haven’t done so already, student newspapers should consider developing strong alumni networks and professional media contacts for potential advice and support should money for operations be threatened.
For more information about becoming “censorship resistant,” contact the Student Press Law Center, which fields thousands of calls each year and offers assistance on a variety of media-related questions.
Debra Chandler Landis is in her 17th year as student publications adviser at the University of Illinois Springfield. At UIS, she advises the news and business operations of the weekly student newspaper, The Journal, as well as The Journal’s semester news and features magazine, Beyond, and The Journal’s summer publication, The Guide. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from Iowa State University.