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SMU Student Journalists Get Caught Amidst Alumni And Faculty Finger-Pointing As The 103-Year-Old Daily Campus Goes Online-Only And Loses Its Editorial Independence.

Print media’s slow death just claimed a victim at Southern Methodist University.

The university’s 103-year-old independent student newspaper, The Daily Campus, published its final print edition on May 9 earlier this week, and though it will live on in an online-only format, the freedom it will have to report on university issues is now up for debate.

At the end of May, the paper’s publisher, the 88-year-old student-led Student Media Company, will dissolve. At a January meeting, the board of directors behind that entity voted to shut down operations, citing operating costs and a lack of funds.

Once that decision was made public, though, it sparked a heated debate about university censorship, institutional mismanagement and the freedom of press at SMU.  In an editorial published last month, the Campus‘ editorial board wrote that they and past students alike had warned higher-ups about the paper’s finances, but that their warnings went unheeded. Meanwhile, a group of former alumni who organized a last-minute fundraising effort to save SMC’s independence says it is wary of the university’s claims that students will have the school’s the full support to exercise freedom of the press moving forward, citing the fact that the news of the January decision to shut down SMC was kept under wraps until early April.

More than just an interesting example of the changing media landscape, The Daily Campus‘ story is an interesting case study during this era in which our nation’s political leaders are openly expressing ire toward our longstanding press freedoms.

A Shady Pull of The Plug?

Associate SMU professor and SMC board member David Sedman says the January vote to wind down The Daily Campus‘ print operations and dissolve the organization at the end of May came after years of dipping ad sales revenue and shrinking circulation.

But while the decision may have seemed like a sudden one to outsiders, Sedman says that’s not how things look on the inside. Sedman says that, since he joined SMUs faculty in 1994, he’s seen a drop both in The Daily Campus‘ quality, and in the level of interest from the general student population.

“People were going more online to get their news,” Sedman says. “You can drift from source to source [there]. They would maybe start at The Daily Campus [website], and then end up somewhere else.”

But several SMU alumni who worked for the Campus in decades past see things differently. Many in this camp — including Jessica Huseman, a current ProPublica reporter who served as editor of the Campus while attending SMU — believe that the SMC board’s vote was a move made by an opportunistic SMU administration that had long sought to censor the student newspaper.

Backing up their claims, alumni point to the fact that the news of the vote had been kept private until early April, when outgoing Daily Campus editor Kylie Madry published a story detailing its results and repercussions.

Madry herself balks a little at that assertion.

“I’m not going to say [the administration] censored me,” she says now of her decision to not publish a story on the vote until April. “I wasn’t comfortable reporting on it before it was all said and done because there was so much uncertainty around everything.”

Still, as soon as Madry published her coverage, outrage rippled through the Daily Campus alumni network, with a group led by Huseman quickly forming a group called Friends of Student Media, which was created for the sole purpose of rescuing SMC and helping it remain independent from the university. After setting up a GoFundMe page that aimed to raise $125,000 — and secured $40,000, among other pledges — for the cause, FSM was able to schedule a meeting with the SMC board where it planned on pitching a new plan to keep the organization afloat and out of SMU administration hands.

Their pitch centered around getting the SMC board to reverse its January decision, and to instead enter a two-year agreement in which SMC, FSM and SMU’s journalism department would join forces in order to to keep the company going. Other restructuring points that FSM’s members felt would keep the company viable included the following provisions:

  • SMC’s board would turn over its duties over to FSM and a new advisory board made up of students and faculty would be created.
  • SMC would leave its rented on-campus space and be house in the journalism department’s computer labs.
  • FSM would commit to fundraising as a beneficiary for SMC, deliver the money it had on hand for the 2018-2019 year and manage operations in the interim until a new board formed.
  • If, by 2020, SMC was still not financially viable, steps to then dissolve the operation would be taken.

But when FSM’s members arrived at their scheduled April 24 meeting ready to present their business plan, they found that there weren’t even enough SMC board members in attendance to form a quorum — meaning that the board could not reverse its decision no matter how well the pitch went.

That move effectively stopped the FSM effort dead in its tracks. Regardless, Dallas-based business journalist, former Daily Campus staffer and FSM member Chad Watt says that, over the course of that meeting, sparks flew between the two camps. Viewing that contention, he says, it became clear that the board would not reverse its decision to dissolve even had a quorum had been present.

“What does them not showing up tell you?” Watt asks. “It was important enough for us to show up. When not enough members of the board show up, it means they never had a plan to listen to us.”

Daxton “Chip” Stewart, an associate dean and journalism professor at Texas Christian University’s Bob Schieffer College of Communication who helped organize the FSM effort and even publicly published its pitch to the SMC a few days after the meeting, says the paper was an asset and that its loss can be chalked up to the board’s unwillingness to fight for its future.

“We had a moment here where the alumni who hadn’t been involved for so long wanted to come in and help,” Stewart says. “And we were rejected. That just stings, and it’s disappointing for that to happen.”

A Failing Business.

One fact that all parties involved agree upon is that the independent SMC was no longer bringing in the revenue it once had.

Professor of practice and former Dallas Observer arts and culture editor Lauren Smart, who joined the SMC board in December 2017, says that the paper had been operating at a deficit for about a decade, and that it was set to be out of money at the end of May 2018.

“By the time I joined,” she says, “the state of the finances put us at the point that we needed to make a quick decision.”

By December 2017, two of SMC’s full-time, non-student employees — SMC executive director Jay Miller and business manager LaTicia Douglas — had both left to pursue other opportunities. Sedman says it was then that the SMC board got a closer look at seeing how the paper stood financially. And though he says he initially thought there was a slim chance things could be salvaged, the paper’s larger operating costs eventually sealed its fate in the eyes of the board.

“You could make the case that [revenue and costs] were pretty close,” Sedman says. “Some [parts of the business] finished in the black. But then you have to start adding in the other costs [like] salaries and rent. The paper was not self-sustaining.”

But Watt says that the financial data the SMC board shared with FSM showed that the company had no debt. And he and his FSM peers believe that its major operating costs could have been restructured in order to make the company more financially viable moving forward.

“My realization was that [the board] had already made up their mind, and they thought they could keep it secret for as long as possible,” Watt says.

Sedman counters by pointing toward an early ’00s policy change implemented by the university as having set up SMC for failure. When the school made optional a student fee that SMC would use to produce the SMU yearbook The Rotunda, SMC lost a significant chunk of its financial footing. (The fate of The Rotunda is unclear at this point; the Campus reports that the Student Affairs division at SMU is exploring the possibility of assuming control of its future editions.)

For her part, outgoing Campus editor Madry too thinks the decision was a long time coming.

“What’s done is done,” Madry says. “I feel like our board didn’t even want to try [to explore options to keep the print product alive]. I know there’s been some finger-pointing, but I also think there was a structural failure. A lot of the people on the board hadn’t been on [it] very long. They inherited this mess even though this issue started 10 years ago.”

Ultimately, though, Madry says she is in favor of the university taking on more responsibility with The Daily Campus moving forward. And if it takes an online-only version of the publication living on in the wake of the print product to get that, she says, then so be it.

“Frankly, our journalism at SMU needs it,” Madry says. “Nobody [here] knows [Associated Press] style. It’s about time there was more involvement.”

What’s Next?

Just this week, SMU journalism school faculty met to discuss how to proceed with The Daily Campus.

Because the journalism department has already been covering the paper’s online hosting fees and the costs of four student workers since 2011, Smart says the department is in a good position to handle the transition. But there are a number of details that need to be hammered out.

First and foremost, there remains the matter of re-organizing the student-led editorial board. Smart adds that she does not know what positions — if any — will be paid by the university, but believes that, because those students would then become university student workers and not employees outside of the school’s purview, their pay is likely to be substantially higher than it has been in the past.

Furthermore, the faculty is looking at forming an advisory board that would be able to better guide and provide feedback to the school’s student editors and writers.

SMU journalism division head Tony Pederson also offered a reassurance in a letter that was published last month by the Campus. In his note, he promised that he and his faculty would remain “committed to preserving freedom of the press in every facet of the classroom and newsroom.”

But alumni including Stewart say that these safeguards aren’t enough to guarantee SMU students’ rights to report accurately upon and criticize institutional problems SMU when necessary. That the school was so quick to dismiss its alumni networks’ concerns in this regard, he says, is telling.

The entire experience has left Stewart, Huseman, Watt and their FSM peers with bad taste in their mouths.

“I’m still hurt,” Stewart says. “I know I shouldn’t take it personally, but it’s a lot of [our effort to save the paper’s independence] being disregarded [by the school]. It really stung. It hurt a lot of us, and there are still pretty bitter feelings that will linger. I won’t be giving money to SMU anymore.”

But the battle between the SMU faculty and alumni is still clearly raging on. Just this week, SMU associate professor of journalism Jake Batsell took to Twitter to defend himself after he learned that a former student had allegedly told a Texas Observer reporter working on an as-yet-unpublished piece about The Daily Campus‘ death that he’d openly criticized SMU students for failing to raise funds and/or apply for grants in order to keep the print product alive:

In that Twitter thread, Batsell explains how, during his time on the SMC board from 2014 to 2017, the newspaper cut back to its printing schedule from three days a week to once per week, and that the publication also saw an online ad revenue increase from 2014 to 2015. Still, Batsell notes, the paper continued to fail as time passed.

It’s worth pointing out that SMU is not the only campus newspaper across the country that’s fighting both a lack of funding and concerns over censorship at the hands of their school administrations. But the battle over The Daily Campus has very much become a lightning rod in college newsrooms over the course of the last month. In the wake of the SMC board’s vote results becoming public, a group of University of Florida student journalists organized a national movement called #SaveStudentNewsrooms to call on universities to promise more funding and less censorship with regards to their student media organizations. The “About” section of the #SaveStudentNewsrooms website specifically notes the plight of The Daily Campus as the inspiration for the organization’s formation.

University of Florida student Caitlin Ostroff, who works as the online managing editor of her school’s Independent Florida Alligator publication and is one one of the organizers #SaveStudentNewsrooms, says that future members of The Daily Campus‘ editorial staff should know that organizations like hers will make themselves available as resources to them should they ever feel pressures to quash a story.

“Our hope is that SMU’s new editors stay involved and know that they have this network of other student journalists they can reach out to,” Ostroff says. “They are going to be directly university-affiliated, and if they have concerns, we hope they know they have people they can reach out to.”

As for Madry, she’s heading to Mexico for a year now that her undergraduate career is over. While there, she plans to do video work for a nonprofit organization called Hope of the Poor. She says she’s excited about that opportunity, noting that she’s a bit burnt out — not just from her time as an undergraduate student but also by this final bitter chapter of newsroom drama.

Even so, while the print product may be dead, she says she’s not ready to plan The Daily Campus‘ funeral just yet.

“I have been called naive for this and I know journalists are supposed to be pessimists, but I’m hopeful,” Madry says. “I’m hopeful that we’ll see a stronger journalism department and a stronger newspaper that will hopefully have enough support and faculty involvement that will keep the administration from censoring any journalistic efforts.”

Photo of SMU’s Dallas Hall by Jeffrey Beall via WikiCommons

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