Three-Card Monte: The final funding shuffle for The Sunflower

The long, strange saga that has enveloped The Sunflower at Wichita State University seemingly came to a close Wednesday with an outcome that had me asking the paper’s adviser, “This is good… Right?”

Or as the paper’s EIC Chance Swaim noted in an email he sent me after the university announced its “solution” to the cuts: “Am I going completely insane?”

In looking at how WSU President John Bardo managed to keep the paper’s overall university funding at the same level for next year as it is this year, I am reminded of the street hustlers who get you to play three-card monte. It seems like a simple thing that will yield only a benefit to the person playing, but in the end the constant shuffling is a distraction so the hustler can walk away with a win.

The background on this can be found here, but the short version is that the student newspaper had petitioned the student government for about $150,000 in funding for the 2018-19 school year. Instead, the fee committee cut the paper’s already-diminished funding from $105,000 to $55,0000, which was later changed to $80,000 and forwarded to Bardo. This put Bardo in an awkward position of either siding with The Sunflower and undoing a Draconian measure or essentially telling the whole student body, “Yeah, your representation and demands don’t matter at all.”

So he used a sleight of hand that made it really difficult to figure out if his way out of this mess was a good one or not.

Bardo announced that he was backing the proposed allocations, thus cutting $25,000 worth of funding from the paper. This would lead to losses in student jobs and a cut to the size of the paper, among other unpleasant things. However, he managed to backfill that loss when he and Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Teri Hall pledged to use some sort of slush fund to provide the paper with $25,000 in student affairs advertising for next year.

So the paper’s funding level from non-advertising money stays the same for next year as it was last year, which means technically, there isn’t a loss of funding that would lead to some of the problems EIC Chance Swaim outlined in earlier posts.

That said, it’s not dealing with several larger concerns, namely the instability of the funding from the university, the way in which this all came about and the ridiculousness of the “go sell more ads” philosophy the university provided.

“On its face, this looks good,” Swaim wrote. “With less than a month left in my term as editor, I could easily chalk this up as a win for the good guys and walk away on top of the world. What’s not to love? The Sunflower’s funding seems to go to the same level. The administrator who said she was working on ‘fixing’ our independence and receipt of student fees now has to cover the cut to The Sunflower with her division’s budget.”
That said, not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but Swaim did have some legitimate concerns in looking at this in a more critical fashion:
“Here’s what actually happened: Bardo effectively diverted $25,000 from The Sunflower’s budget to $25,000 in advertisements for Student Affairs. Advertising costs for a reason. Advertisements equal dedicated space in the paper. Assuming we print four page papers next year, as we did most of this year to save money, at our current rates Student Affairs would get a full page ad in every issue of the paper next year. That’s a quarter of our pages filled with Student Affairs advertisements. If that’s not creepy enough, on top of that, Student Affairs advertisements would appear on the website for seven months. Printing those ads is not free. The time and labor it takes to design and place ads is not free. Do these people understand newspapers at all? They should. The VP of strategic communications was a publisher for The Wichita Eagle.”
A couple other thoughts occurred to me as well:
  • The paper didn’t get the funding it wanted/needed to build a top-notch publication. It basically wasn’t a win or a loss, but rather a push (to borrow a gambling term). Making this push even more offensive was that the staff, the faculty and pretty much every student newspaper journalist out there who heard about this had to raise unholy hell to get to this point. Making this even MORE offensive than that, nobody else took a whack at all and some places, like student affairs, got more money.


  • This doesn’t teach the student government anything. What it essentially said was, “We met in private, we cut the hell out of the student paper’s budget and we got away with it.” The underlying sense of being forced to explain WHY this cut was appropriate at that level and how it was anything more than an attempt to backhand the student paper across the face. The money fix is helpful, but it’s a lot like a parent buying a kid ice cream after the kid’s sister breaks a bunch of his toys. It’s palliative, but it doesn’t fix the toys and it doesn’t punish the sister.



  • What happens next year? Therein lies the rub, to misquote “Hamlet.” The school got a ton of negative attention about this, and for good reason. That attention and the constant pressure forced two big changes to the situation: Moving the fee discussion from private to public and then finally providing The Sunflower with a more reasonable amount of funding. OK, great. Does that mean that next year the staff will deal with the exact same thing? Will student government be better off with new leadership or are they going to be worse? Can the paper ever truly recover the lost support? Nobody knows. The staff gets a year worth of a reprieve before it has to start fighting again.  My hope would be starting now, all the parties sit down and figure out a way to keep the paper funding at X level without letting the student government mess with it while the administration revamps the rules for these things to avoid conflicts of interest and violations of open meeting laws. I also hope that I’ll manage to grow all my hair back by tomorrow. Not sure which one is more likely.

What this essentially did was hold back The Sunflower’s Doomsday Clock for a year through some shuffling of elements that might or might not lead to an overall solution to the bigger problem. It’s worth commending the administration for at least making a move that wouldn’t outright kill the paper, but at the same time, it’s unclear what happens when Bardo finishes his wheeling and dealing.

I’m not sure how this all plays out, but the only true way to win at three-card monte is not to play in the first place.


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