Newsrooms are notoriously underfunded, and student newsrooms are no exception. Exorbitant printing costs and decreasing revenue from print ads make it more and more difficult for independent college newspapers to stay that way — independent. Papers are increasingly forced to choose between re-affiliating with their universities or folding altogether.
The Daily Campus, the student newspaper for Southern Methodist University, recently announced it is re-affiliating with the university after the financial burden of independence has become unmanageable. In response, student editors at The Independent Florida Alligator are spearheading a movement to call attention to the challenges student newsrooms face in producing quality content with limited resources.
The Daily Free Press itself has historically struggled to keep its head above water. In the fall of 2014, with debt amounting to $70,000, the FreeP switched from printing daily to printing weekly. That November, we announced that unless we could raise money to pay back a large portion of our debt, we would be forced to stop printing entirely. Donations amounting over $70,000 from high-profile donors, including Bill O’Reilly, saved our weekly print edition.
As a newspaper that emerged from BU student protests during the 1970 Kent State shootings, the FreeP has been independent since it was founded and plans to stay that way. However, high printing costs keep us perpetually in debt to our printer. We print in color depending on the revenue received from ads each week, and we cut costs to make our print edition sustainable on the lowest budget possible.
Despite these financial struggles, we have never come close to affiliating with Boston University. Without independence from the school, the FreeP wouldn’t be able to bring to light concerns about the BU-Wheelock merger, look into sexual assault scandals involving faculty or write editorials criticizing increases in tuition.
Threats to student journalism are threats to the future of journalism itself. Many accomplished journalists take their first steps at college newspapers. These newsrooms give aspiring journalists environments where they can learn to report, write and edit with greater flexibility and support from peers.
While re-affiliating with universities won’t prevent students at college papers from practicing these skills, it will strip them of the chance to practice holding their administrations accountable. Young journalists need to learn how to investigate controversial topics and challenge powerful institutions in a learning environment before they are thrusted into a professional environment.
Beyond providing invaluable journalistic experience to students themselves, student newspapers do a service to local communities. They put a spotlight on local issues that might not receive coverage from bigger papers, and they highlight issues on college campuses that impact the surrounding community.
Historically, the FreeP has had an antagonistic relationship with BU’s administration. John Silber, the president of BU from 1971 to 1996, and FreeP founder Charles Radin butted heads, with Radin publishing an onslaught of critical articles against Silber resulting in Silber claiming libel against the FreeP. At the time, the administration was hostile to student press, shutting down publications without censorship rules.
Today, we have a better relationship with the BU administration. President Robert Brown has expressed that he appreciates student journalism and occasionally corresponds with editors. Our campus editor talks regularly with Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore. We communicate respectfully with university officials, while maintaining the ability to publish content critical of their actions.
The issue of newsroom independence is an issue of freedom of speech. College students deserve a source of transparent information on the actions of their administrations. Whether or not a publication is independently funded draws the line between journalistic reporting and public relations. Regulated journalism is not truly journalism.