Four reasons I care about what the student government is doing to The Sunflower (and why you should, too)

(Editor’s note: The situation at Wichita State University, in which the student government is cutting funding to the student newspaper, The Sunflower, is one of those horrible situations that needs hope:

EIC Chance Swaim said that sharing the message made sure that, “If a tree falls in the forest, I want everyone to hear.” Make sure people hear it loud and clear.)

Allison Hantschel Sansone, who has written for us here occasionally and runs a massively successful political blog, would occasionally confront a colossally lousy situation with a call for hope. She would call for her readers to donate coats for homeless kids, kick in to a GoFundMe for high school journalism kids or to give money for food to support hurricane victims. Her motto is one to which I aspire:

“Hi, we’re from the internet and we’re here to help.”

The responses she got often stunned her in terms of speed and help, as they did me yesterday. If you took any two posts I’ve written since I started this blog, added the views together and doubled them, you wouldn’t get as many hits as the post on The Sunflower got in 12 hours on Wednesday. (And that includes one post where I was basically giving people stuff for free.) More people bought T-shirts (or at least clicked on the link to buy them) than I had visitors for any post during the rest of the week.

You all are from the internet and you are here to help, so thank you.

For people who are still asking (and they’re out there), “Why do you care so much about a college paper in a state you never even visited and people you never met?” here are four simple reasons why I care and why I think everyone else should too:

1) Student media outlets matter: I know that this seems like a self-serving statement, but it has turned out to be more true than I could have imagined. If you skip past all the standard answers of why they matter (They shine a light on sketchy campus situations, they provide students with a voice, they train future journalists who can make an even bigger difference etc.), you can find other bigger reasons they matter.

Students who find the courage to enter the newsroom where it seems like everyone has a place and knows what they are doing tend to find their own place and their own purpose. I often joke that we’re a family, in that we all drink and yell at one another, but I mean it more honestly as well. I have yet to have students come back to me to reminisce about that “great midterm you gave us” or “remember the time in class when I raised my hand?” However, I have found they’ll come back, sometimes decades later, to talk about the paper and their time there. It is really a part of their lives.

2) Bullies suck: If you ask my mother the first time she ever saw me REALLY upset about something, she’ll likely tell you that I used to watch “Peanuts” TV specials when I was 3 or 4 years old and rail about how everyone was so mean to Charlie Brown. There is something about bullies that just drives me around the bend and I imagine I’m not the only one to feel that way.

What is happening at WSU is nothing more than bullying. And it really ticks me off.

Over the course of the past couple months, WSU student government President Paige Hungate has stated she can close a meeting when she wants, called the university president a coward, proposed draconian cuts to the student paper’s budget, told the faculty senate she is in charge and said the university president had no choice but to agree with her on cutting The Sunflower’s budget. Does that sound like someone versed in the nuance of collaborative governance?  It sounds like Loki:

Why are Hungate and others at WSU so interested in bullying the paper into submission? It could be that the paper has done a lot of investigative work that has caused the administration some consternation. It could be that the paper covers the SGA closely and it would be so much better for Hungate and the rest of the group if the paper were put on a leash. It could also be that the paper reported on Hungate’s parents who were “under criminal investigation for battery and anti-black, hate “fighting words” following an altercation at a student government banquet.” The former SGA president, Joseph Shepard, pressed charges following the event. It could be anything…

This isn’t an attack on Hungate, but rather an attempt to point out that bullying the paper into silence is something nobody should abide. Speaking up makes that point clear.

3) Feeling alone sucks worse: A big reason we take staffers to student media conferences goes beyond the writing, photography and design stuff they learn. The reason is to show them they’re not alone in their problems at the paper. A campus usually has ONE editor in chief or ONE managing editor who has to wonder, “Is all of this stuff normal or are we weird?” That “stuff” can be anything from “Why can’t the sports desk ever make deadline?” to “How do you deal with a photo editor who is trying to sleep with all his photographers and creeping everyone out?” When you think you’re the only one in the world who deals with this, it can be daunting.

The first thing Swaim asked me for wasn’t advice on how to defeat the SGA or how to fix the financial situation. He asked me to get the message out about what was happening. In other words, “Tell the story. Let people know.” When I did, he got back what he wanted to hear: “We see. We know. You are not alone. We are behind you.”

When I was fixing the finances at my student newspaper about 112 years ago, I’d be up until 4 a.m., tearsheeting a year’s worth of ads wondering where the hell everyone else was who “swore” that this place meant “so much” to them. When we asked for help to retire our debt, people wrote checks from all over the country and others who couldn’t sent letters and notes of support. It was that outpouring that told me the most important thing:

You are not alone.

4) The Hole Story: The person I can sympathize with the most is Amy DeVault, the adviser of The Sunflower. She is a long-time WSU faculty member, a top-notch journalist with a good amount of field experience and an adviser with passion for student media. The last thing she, or any good adviser, wants is to BE the news. Even more, advisers always walk the fine line of being helpful and taking over when things get rough. She saw this coming for more than six months and has been working quietly behind the scenes to try to avoid this rock-and-a-hard-place moment that seemed inevitable.

(Side note: The only way I’ve ever been able to explain the adviser-editor relationship adequately is through “The Godfather” movies: The editor is the “don” of the family and the adviser is the “consiglieri. The adviser offers all the advice and solutions possible, but at the end of the day, the don makes the call. That’s the way things are set up in student media at public institutions, thanks to this thing called First Amendment.)

I’d like to say that I can’t imagine what she’s going through right now or what Swaim is enduring, but unfortunately I can. Two years ago, the student government here decided to come after the paper. Making things worse, they came after me directly, putting together a formal resolution demanding that I resign as adviser and if I didn’t, that the chancellor fire me.

The students not only had to deal with the issue of how to fix the paper’s funding and the student government’s attacks on the paper/me, they also had to COVER this as NEWS. There is no more sickening feeling than having to leave your own newsroom because you didn’t want the students to feel awkward writing a story in front of you about an attempt at your ouster.

Every day feels like you’re getting the crap kicked out of you. You fear every email, every phone call and every text message because it might be the one that ends everything. I remember being unable to sleep and feeling like my heart was going to leap out of my chest at various random points. The world feels like it’s collapsing all around you and you have no idea how to stop it.

You also fear what it’s doing to your staff. My editors were constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown. It got so bad that I told my editor, “Look, if it will make life easier on you, I’ll just quit.” She looked at me and without hesitation said, “Even if it did make life easier, there’s no way I’m letting you quit.” (See point one. We were family.) DeVault sent me a message telling me that Swaim is in constant fear that what is happening here will cost DeVault her job. My students worried about that as well. Those were the worst professional days of my life.

Two years later, those student government… um… people… have graduated, the paper is fine (ish) and life is better. The only thing I have to remind me of all this is the resolution they signed to oust me, which I framed and put on my wall next to an autographed picture of Mary Beth Tinker. That’s why I want to help people like Swaim and DeVault. It’s the personification of “The Hole Story” I love to tell:

I’ve been in this hole, and I know there’s a way out.

If you have too, keep supporting these people. They deserve it.

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