If it seems like we’ve been covering student media getting the financial shaft a lot on this blog, it’s only because so many student media outlets seem to be experiencing this situation. We talked about the financial attack the student government levied against The Sunflower at Wichita State, the crippled financial state of student media at SMU (and the alumni’s attempt to save the publication) and the various times in life the bottom dropped out of the financial status of publications I worked with and more.
The latest student media outlet to get a kick in the teeth? The NT Daily at the University of North Texas. The folks who provide student service fee money to the paper have given the paper a three-year time frame to “wean” itself off of this pot of money.
“I certainly was not expecting to be told we need to ‘wean’ ourselves off SSF,” the paper’s editor in chief, Alec Spicer, said via email. “I thought at worst, they would just keep us at the same funding as the year previous, since they had already cut it in 2017 as well.”
(In case you are unclear on the concept of “weaning,” here are a couple videos to clue you in.)
Spicer, a senior broadcast journalism major who has worked at the paper in multiple roles, said the paper supports itself through advertising revenue and student fee money, with a heavy reliance on the latter.
“The Daily serves as a voice for the students, therefore our funding comes from students,” he said. “Since I have been at the Daily, our budget has been cut each year. However, for the first time, this year we were put on a three-year time frame of being “weaned off” student service fees.”
Of the 712 reasons funding cuts like this make no sense, the biggest is that the paper is truly the voice of the students and seeks to serve students on the UNT campus.
“We’re student run, for the students by the students,” Spicer said. “From reporting on a string of sexual assaults around campus that ended up being at the hands of a UNT custodian to the Trump Jr. coverage, we present news students need to know. If you tweet out photos of the poor living conditions in your dorm, we are the ones who are going to look into it and hold someone accountable. We’ve covered everything from the court hearings and protests on Denton square regarding the Confederate monument to robberies near/on campus. These are things the students have the right to know about.”
As was the case with the cuts Wichita State received from its student government, the question of “Why this approach and why now?” resonates for Spicer.
“As for why we were chosen to have our budget cut, it’s hard to say,” Spicer wrote. “The chairperson of the SSF advisory committee is typically the Student Government Association president and eight students who are supposed to be ‘representative of all students…’ I do know they asked one of the people we sent to pitch why we should have funding, ‘Why can’t you just not pay people?’ so it’s possible that the people on the committee weren’t educated enough about journalism.”
Of the 116 people on staff, only 16 are paid positions, according to a recent editorial the paper posted. If this student newsroom is anything like any of those I know, the “pay” is no more than a token of appreciation and could be exceeded with a part-time career as a shake-machine operator at the local Hardee’s. Also, students tend to need money to… um… eat and stuff. I can’t imagine the student government officials would willingly take no money for their SGA-related responsibilities, whatever those are, as the only actual line items in the organization’s budget listed month by month are salaries.
Spicer said although the paper has published content that hasn’t thrilled the powers-that-be, such as Donald Trump, Jr.’s inclusion in the university’s speaker series, he has no idea of why this sudden “weaning” need has emerged.
“UNT’s Provost Jennifer Cowley was also present for (University President Neal) Smatresk’s meeting with the (journalism) faculty and said she thinks sustainability concerns might have been one of the reasons why the SSF advisory committee decided to reduce our funding,” he said. “But again, that doesn’t add up. Our paper is only printed once a week, and every paper that isn’t picked up, is sent back to our publisher at the end of the week and recycled to make more newspapers. As for the papers that ARE picked up, they’re often still recycled by students on campus.”
The vice president of student affairs and SGA president sent the paper a letter on behalf of the fee committee suggesting that the paper look to get funding from the college of liberal arts or sell advertising. Spicer said this would undermine that independence of the publication and could put the staff in an awkward journalistic position.
“Let’s say hypothetically, (the college) supplemented the funding that has been cut, but we did a story they deemed unflattering, they could easily decide to pull our funding right back,” he said. “At that point, we would no longer be an independent news source.”
In addition, the rhetoric of “cut salaries” and “sell more advertising” doesn’t hold water in most cases any more when it comes to student media.
“Our ads are primarily from small, local businesses in Denton so there is no way the revenue we see from them could make up for the amount of funding we receive from SSF,” Spicer said. “I can’t say for sure what the future looks like for the Daily, but I would imagine it’s not looking good. As far as immediate affects, going forward we will no longer be producing a print version in summer.”
The staff of the NT Daily simply wants to continue serving its community, and it needs help. Spicer said several people have stepped up to provide some guidance, support and help. If you want to “express concern” (the polite blogging euphemism for telling people who are doing dumb stuff how stupid they are), you can contact the university’s president here, the university provost here and the student government here.
Another good way to provide support is through a funding mechanism the paper set up to help it close the funding gap that seems inevitable. Anyone interested in contributing can click here and make a donation. Every bit helps.
“We’re looking for support. And the best ways to do so are to be vocal of that support on social media, expressing support of the Daily to UNT’s administration, donating to the link above and reading the work of our extremely talented student journalists at ntdaily.com,” he said.