Last year at this time, Wichita State University’s student newspaper, The Sunflower, found itself on the chopping block, thanks to a massive budget cut that appeared to have political and punitive overtones. Student government officials attempted to reduce the paper’s already diminished budget from $105,000 to $55,000. Those folks also tried to close the meeting in which the fees were being debated.
The paper had repeatedly reported on things the student government (and likely the administration) didn’t want covered, leading then-EIC Chance Swaim to note “this cut is tied to our coverage.” With heightened media attention from across the state (and country), as well as some awkward legal wrangling, the paper looked all but on its way to “an inelegant death.” In an attempt to diffuse all the bombs around him, WSU President John Bardo pulled an interesting sleight of hand that allowed the student government to cut some of the paper’s funding while not actually cutting the overall amount of money the paper got from the U. Still, the $105,000 allocation kept The Sunflower in a painful monetary situation and increased the financial pressure on the business staff.
“Last year’s student government president justified our cuts by saying we weren’t putting in that much effort into our advertising and using student fees as a crutch to fund ourselves, as well as some other weird justifications,” current ad manager Kylie Cameron said recently. “However, cuts to our paper also lead to cuts in the advertising department. We used to have about 2-4 advertising representatives and an advertising manager, but because of the lack of interest in advertising in papers as well as the lack of funding from student fees, the advertising department now consists of myself and one ad rep because we simply can’t afford multiple ad reps anymore.”
In spite of the situation, the students managed to keep the paper afloat during the year.
“The Sunflower is full of students with a ton of grit,” Sunflower adviser Amy DeVault said via email last week. “They thrive on roadblocks and challenges. While the cuts angered them, they knew it was political, and they didn’t let it demoralize them. The editor and staff just kept focusing on doing good journalism and the ad manager worked her tail off trying to help with funding as much as possible.”
However, the question remained, “What will the committee do for the next year?”
Apparently, the answer is return to sanity and value the paper. Not only did the student fee committee not try to cut the newspaper’s funding, but it nearly returned the paper to the level it had prior to repeated cuts over a three year span. The paper will receive $150,000 in funding for the 2019-20 school year.
“This committee was so different from last year,” DeVault said. “They asked important, relevant questions. Last year, it felt like nearly every question asked was some form of attack. They fixated on things like, ‘Why can’t you sell more ads?’ And ‘Why do you need reserves?’
“This year, it felt there were committee members who understood the value of a student newspaper and were prepared to do what they could to fund it. They recognized that the paper already operates on a lean budget. They had questions, but they were relevant and reasonable.”
Both DeVault and Cameron said the committee understood that The Sunflower informed the campus community about things that mattered, something that emerged during this year’s coverage of several big stories. In one case, the paper reported on allegations that the student body president had sexually assaulted a woman. More recently, the paper covered the death of university President John Bardo, who lost an extended battle with a chronic lung condition.
“Wichita State is all about these ‘applied learning’ experiences, so we emphasized the fact that we’ve been an applied learning experience since 1896, before applied learning was cool,” Cameron said.
DeVault said her big take away included several simple tips: Document everything, ask for help when you need it and “Make a nice handout explaining your budget and key points.” Above all else, however, she said it was critically important that the paper told its own story and kept fighting.
“Just don’t give up,” she said. “Campuses need student newspapers desperately. They need people asking hard questions, pushing for transparency and helping give a voice to those who might otherwise not have it.
As a member of the staff, Cameron said the committee’s decision to add funding back to the paper showed the staff that the university saw the vital role the paper plays on campus.
“All of us at the paper were absolutely thrilled when the committee came to their agreement,” she said. “Last year, we had to fight so hard to get the very little we got, and now we don’t have to fight to show how important we are, on top of covering everything else since we still have jobs to do AND being an advocate for other student organizations that received cuts. I also had a renewed faith in my generation in understanding the importance of journalism.”