Texas Student Media

Breaking the news on Texas Student Media

The Daily Texan news team chases a scoop on the future of student media.
The Daily Texan news team chases a scoop on the future of student media.

     Set aside, for a moment, all the important questions about the significance of the university’s nascent plan to place its quasi-independent student media under the quasi-control of the College of Communication.

     Instead, consider how the news broke.

     For nearly a year, Texas Student Media, the organization that manages The Daily Texan, KVRX radio, TSTV, The Cactus yearbook and the humor publication Texas Travesty, has operated under a shroud of speculation. More so than usual, which is saying something.

     Last spring, after several years of declining revenues and turnover in the director’s office, the board of trustees that governs TSM’s operations considered a proposal to reduce the newspaper’s print publication schedule. All hell broke loose, relatively speaking. Generations of alumni, including me, rallied to support the paper, with varying ideas of how to go about it. Having already eliminated much of the professional staff, the trustees cut the wages of student journalists, declining to make other substantive changes without more information. The paper’s journalism advisor quit in disgust (but not before urging me to take the job).

     As we’ve proceeded through the 2013-’14 school year, the move to the communication school has taken on the air of fait accompli. Last month, TSM’s director suddenly resigned with little explanation. That stirred the pot. But the substantive discussions continued to take place at a high level behind closed doors.

     For journalists, of course, high-level discussions of public consequence kept behind closed doors are the reason we get up in the morning. Over the past few months, in addition to the new digital initiatives I’ve described in previous posts on this blog, we’ve focused on ramping up our competitive metabolism at The Daily Texan.

     So when the student journalists at The Texan received notification of a meeting this coming Friday concerning the future of TSM, they flooded the zone. Texts went out. Senior reporters and assistant news editors came crashing down the stairs. Though the full issue staff has not even been hired yet for the semester, news editor Jordan Rudner got a team of four reporters and two editors working the phones. After two hours of stops and starts, playing their best hardball to press journalism professors and other potential sources onto the record (consider the irony), they got confirmation.

     Managing editor Shabab Siddiqui moved ahead quickly, editing the story with an eye for balance and context. Editor-in-chief Laura Wright composed an intellectually rigorous piece defining the stakes of the decisions to come, illustrated by a fine editorial cartoon. And the rest of the staff, never losing sight of all the other things that need to happen to produce our daily miracle, covered the new football coach’s presser, introduced students to new facilities set to open at the business school, reported out a knife fight on the drag, shot wild art on East Sixth, edited a feech on native plants, planned video coverage, designed pages, promoted the work on social media, monitored online metrics and sold advertisements.

     All in a day’s work. Impossible without editorial independence. Equally impossible without financial stability. Will The Daily Texan find the right balance at the College of Communication? I know where you’ll read the answers first.

 

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Daily Texan Editor Willie Morris once wrote, “The Daily Texan is bigger than any one man.”

But it took only one man, President William Powers Jr., to make a major decision about the future of this University’s 113-year-old independent student newspaper, which he did when he asked Roderick Hart, the Dean of the Moody College of Communication, to absorb the administration of The Daily Texan and its parent organization, Texas Student Media, known as TSM, into the Moody college. Prior to this decision, TSM was housed in the Division of Student Affairs, where a Board of Trustees ensured its independence. 

Not a single student manager in any of TSM’s five media properties, which include The Daily Texan, KVRX radio station, the Cactus Yearbook, Texas Student Television and the Texas Travesty, were consulted about the change or even made aware of it, outside of a brief conversation with Hart and Gage Paine, vice president for Student Affairs, at a September meeting of the TSM Board of Trustees. During that discussion, student managers expressed concerns about moving to the communications school, including the potential for censorship and limiting the paper’s independence. 

In response, Hart repeatedly reassured students that he had no interest in interfering with the workings of the paper, and, honestly, didn’t much want it in the first place. As he told a Daily Texan reporter on Wednesday, “[TSM] is not something that I lusted for.” 

The Moody college, however, has the fundraising resources that the Texan lacks. Whether or not Hart “lusted” after TSM, he will now be tasked with providing TSM the funds it needs, assuaging President Power’s fears about the paper struggling financially in the Division of Student Affairs. 

“President Powers has spoken many times about his commitment to The Daily Texan, to [TSM] and to student journalism. [TSM’s move into the college] is another way to show support and help maintain the excellence of the student journalists we have on campus,” Gary Susswein, a University spokesman, said on Wednesday. 

This editorial board believes in the good intentions of both Hart and Powers. Financially troubled media entities, after all, aren’t the most attractive business acquisitions, and the dean has better business to take care of than nit-picking at the Texan’s articles. Powers has, as Susswein said, consistently stood up for the independence of student journalism on the UT campus. 

But that doesn’t change the fact that neither of them has adequately confronted the potential challenges to the Texan’s independence that come with a move to the Moody college. And, though we trust Hart’s promise to refrain from interfering with the paper, it’s possible to imagine a college’s dean who feels differently, and it’s this worst-case scenario that has to be discussed. If a dean is able to limit the content printed in the Texan, hire and fire the TSM director, or challenge editors who defy him by threatening to tighten the paper’s purse strings, the core values of The Daily Texan — independence and student control — may be under fire. Worse yet, control of The Daily Texan could be granted to professors, who may feel more comfortable with a paper that conforms to their idea of perfection than one that fails — and learns — at the hands of students. 

Which is why we are so distressed that no one involved in the decision, as yet, has adequately explained how TSM will maintain its independence under the Moody college’s umbrella. 

As Dean Hart himself  said Wednesday, “There’s just a lot of unknowns …. It’s in a very sort of still-working-it-out stage.” 

In regard to why the student members of the Board of Trustees were not alerted of the move, Hart said, “All I can say is the president called me over to his office. That was it. I don’t know anything about the TSM board, or what its procedures are.” 

We’re happy that President Powers saw fit to turn his eyes on our beloved, and financially floundering, newspaper. We’re happy he saw fit to order a drastic action to save it. But we’re shocked and concerned that questions about preserving the Texan’s independence were answered briefly, poorly and unconvincingly by administrators at all levels. The editorial independence of one of the nation’s greatest college newspapers is not something with which to play fast and loose. 

Before TSM makes its move to the communications school, students should demand to know how the TSM trust, which protects the paper’s independence, will be amended and when. 

Students should demand to know whether, as Dean Hart put it, “solidifying the management structure” includes strengthening or weakening elected student leadership. 

Most importantly, students should demand a concrete answer to the question of how the communications school will absorb the paper without squelching its independence. That members of the UT administration have repeatedly promised not to meddle with TSM properties is not enough: It is easy to make promises when there is nothing holding you to them.

The Daily Texan and Texas Student Media, the organization that oversees the paper’s budget, confront a projected budget deficit of $175,000 for 2012. Former TSM director Gary Borders resigned Feb. 8 after meeting with Juan Gonzalez, vice president of student affairs, who announced in July that he will step down as an administrator and return to teaching at the University. Borders said Gonzalez told him he could either resign or be fired.

Gonzalez and Jennifer Hammat, assistant vice president of student affairs, began discussing their dissatisfaction with Borders’ job performance on Jan. 25, according to The Daily Texan, but neither discussed their concerns with the TSM Board of Operating Trustees before Borders’ resignation.

University administrators attempted to sanitize Borders’ resignation by calling the episode a “failure of communication.” Because the University did not consult the TSM board, it impinged on The Daily Texan’s independence and took an initial, heavy step on the path to exerting undue influence that could ultimately lead to censorship. At the same time — and probably not coincidentally — the deficit has thrown the Texan’s institutional connection to the University into high relief. All this unfolds at a moment when the organization is struggling to close a budget gap without discontinuing the paltry wages it pays its student employees — wages which, in recent decades, have failed to keep up with inflation.

UT owes TSM a deception-free explanation for Borders’ resignation, and TSM owes it to itself to right its ship before the opportunity to maintain and even strengthen its independence is lost.

The Texan is not the first student newspaper to grapple with financial challenges and face questions about its independence.

The Daily Illini, published and serving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently moved to charge students $3 per semester in student fees to maintain its rate of publication. The Red and Black, published independently and serving the University of Georgia, went to a weekly print product but publishes online daily.

Jill Disis, current editor of The Daily Illini, commented, “Editorial independence is important. If a newspaper ends up in a position that compromises it, it’s not doing its job as a watchdog and a check. You’re not providing the students with the opportunity to do good, solid, correct, faithful journalism if you’re censoring the kinds of things they can do.”

In order for the Texan and TSM to continue their tradition of serving UT by producing journalism with students’ interests in mind, the paper and the organization must be forward-looking. A technologically savvy way to deliver the stories made here to an audience of mostly college-aged students is not unthinkable. But if the news organization fails to make itself sustainable and profitable, another possibility looms: a long spiral of dwindling circulation and relevance, ending when the Texan ceases to exist at all.

Newly elected business representative Sam Leonard and natural science representative Kenzie Spaniol celebrate their new positions.

Photo Credit: Rebeca Rodriguez | Daily Texan Staff

Newly elected University and Student Government student representatives celebrated the end of their campaigns at the announcement of campus-wide student election results Thursday.

Election Supervisory Board chair Eric Nimmer announced the results of the campus-wide general election Thursday night in front of the Tower. Winners included Daily Texan editor-in-chief Susannah Jacob, Graduate Student Assembly President Michael Redding, board members for the University Co-op and University Unions, the student members of Texas Student Media’s board of trustees and Student Government’s University-wide and college representatives.

The elections for president and vice president did not go forward this week after former candidates Madison Gardner and Antonio Guevara filed a lawsuit against the University on Tuesday to challenge their disqualification. A Travis County judge issued a temporary restraining order postponing the elections for at least two weeks.

Melinda Sutton, deputy to the Dean of Students and SG advisor, said SG did not know how voter turnout would be affected by the disqualification of two executive alliances.

According to the voter count totals provided by the Office of the Dean of Students, there was a lower turnout this year, but the count did not drastically decrease from last year’s election total votes, which included votes for executive alliances.

The voting system does not calculate the total number of students who cast votes, but it does show the number of votes each candidate and position received.

“We believed it could have gone either way,” Sutton said. “Sometimes bringing more attention to elections could increase voter participation or instead, some may not choose to participate.”

Newcomer JD Weinstein, communication studies senior, was elected as a University-wide representative. Weinstein said he was initially worried about voter turnout but knew it would not affect the results dramatically.

“Whether we were first or last on the list of the eight elected University-wide representatives, the voters still came out and gave us these results,” he said. “I think there are a lot of ideas that will be provided by the new team.”

Weinstein also said he was excited to help with the issues that the current assembly will leave behind and use student opinion to move forward.

One of the night’s winners, communication studies junior Robert Milligan, will serve as an SG representative for the College of Communication next year and said he will work with students and consider any suggestions they may provide.

“I want to work to close the gap between college representatives and students,” he said. “I will not use my platform as a checklist, but instead work beyond it.”

Milligan, assistant director of Hook the Vote, said he is continuing his work on an initiative for American Sign Language certification for students, which he began before running for SG.

Kornel Rady, government freshman and incoming liberal arts representative, said he was nervous about campaigning with his platform as a focus on a college-wide level.

“This was much different than the first-year representative election, which was essentially restricted to campaigning online and in Jester,” he said. “I was just hoping my message would be received by the student body in a sufficient fashion.”

Rady said he will continue his work in SG by lobbying the Faculty Council for a fall break through a resolution passed by SG last month that he co-authored. Rady also said he will work toward improving the University smart phone application to include SG newsletters and resolutions in order to improve transparency.

History junior Susannah Jacob was elected as editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan and said she is looking forward to working with the newspaper staff.

“I am excited to continue the tradition of excellence at the paper and welcome any new ideas,” she said. “I am prepared to work with Texas Student Media on any developments that may be brought up for the following year.”

There were no candidates for representative of the School of Undergraduate Studies, the School of Social Work, the College of Pharmacy and the LBJ School of Public Affairs. A representative was elected for each of the schools during last year’s election, but none of them received more than 300 votes.

The results of a tuition referendum attached to the SG ballot were also announced. Sixty-four percent of participating students voted in opposition of a proposed 2.6 percent tuition increase over the next two years and 71 percent of students voted against budgets cuts to University program and services. About 4,600 students participated in each vote.

John Lawler, urban studies senior and SG presidential candidate, was the main author of the much-debated referendum and said the results illustrated the official opinion of the student body.

“The results show that previous recommendations made by the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee on behalf of students were totally off-base,” he said. “I am not pointing blame at University administrators but instead at student leaders.”

Lawler said regents and administrators should use the results of the referendum to advocate for more state funding instead of increasing tuition or cutting any budgets.

Printed on Friday, March 2, 2012 as: Student election results announced