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Media

SMU Alumni Try To Save Student Newspaper’s Independence

A question worth asking, as The Daily Campus is set to be absorbed by the university: Does SMU actually care about freedom of the press?

SMU’s student newspaper will soon become a part of the school’s journalism department—and, some alumni fear, more susceptible to university censorship—unless a campaign to preserve The Daily Campus’ independence is successful.

In January, the university’s student media board voted to shutter the Student Media Company, citing the flagging print readership and declining ad revenue that’s doomed other newspapers across the country. The company, which runs The Daily Campus, a fashion magazine, and the yearbook, also suffered financially from a 2003 decision that made student fees supporting the company optional. As of now, the paper will end its print edition as part of the move under the wing of the journalism department.

A group of alumni, calling itself the Friends of Student Media, is trying to raise $125,000 to fund the paper independently. Jessica Huseman, a spokeswoman for the group and former editor of The Daily Campus, says concerns that the university has a loose definition of freedom of the press are well-founded.

“(The university) has a history of attempting to stifle student voices on that campus,” she says. “If the school is allowed to have financial control over the paper I think that we’ll see that happen more and more often.”

Huseman, now a reporter for ProPublica, says that in the summer of 2011, she worked on an edition of the paper sent to incoming freshmen. The university had oversight of the summer edition, effectively turning it into a “PR tool for the campus.” Administrators rejected Huseman’s editorial, a call for more transparency from the university’s board of trustees. Her replacement editorial, about a lack of financial aid offered to transfer students, was also rejected, she says. A publication on the “100 Things You Should Know About SMU” was shortened to 99 things before it was put in the hands of incoming freshmen.

She also cites a 2013 update to the student handbook, which removed all references to “freedom of speech and the freedom of uncensored student press.”

David Sedman, a member of the student media board, says the school’s journalism department will likely set up an independent board to be a voice for the paper, and to address any potential issues of censorship. The current journalism staff at the university would stand up for the freedom of The Daily Campus, Sedman says. That does depend on the current journalism staff, however.

“There is a legitimate concern that you don’t know who will be there in x number of years from now,” he says, part of the reason an independent board would be crucial.

While acknowledging that much of the work in The Daily Campus is guided by journalism professors working with the journalism students who write for it, Huseman is more skeptical about current faculty support for the paper’s independence. “The journalism professors I’ve spoken with have this really bizarre idea that if the paper is independent, the journalism school can’t help it at all,” she says. And any censorship wouldn’t come from the professors.

Huseman does question why journalism professors haven’t been more outspoken about the paper being absorbed by the university. She thinks it’s connected to what she says has been the paper’s declining quality in recent years.

“I think the journalism school has been openly hostile to The Daily Campus for decades now, and that has infiltrated the student body,” she says. “Journalism students don’t care.”

At one point, the journalism department started an online-only student-run publication, The Daily Mustang, to compete with the student paper, Huseman says. “Nobody censored The Daily Mustang because they weren’t covering any hard-hitting news,” she says, and the online publication merged with The Daily Campus in 2011.

Jake Batsell, an associate professor of journalism at SMU and former faculty adviser to The Daily Mustang, disputes the notion that the Mustang avoided hard news or watchdog journalism. He points to stories that were not favorable to the university, such as news on fraternity suspensions, and to recognition of The Daily Mustang from the Society of Professional Journalists, which awarded students writing for the publication for work that was far from fluff.

A 2012 “First Amendment Award” from SPJ’s Fort Worth chapter, for a series on campus crime and SMU’s compliance with the Clery Act, was shared between The Daily Mustang and The Daily Campus, hardly a sign of an “openly hostile” relationship, Batsell says. There was something of a competition when SMU was a two-newspaper campus, but SMU faculty members are concerned with making sure every student is prepared to be a professional journalist.

“The idea that we don’t care about teaching the students about watchdog journalism and journalistic independence is not accurate,” Batsell says. “All of us have worked in journalism in one form or another over the years.”

There was never any pressure from the university to “steer or spike” coverage while he was advising student publications, Batsell says. Whatever happens with The Daily Campus, student journalists will still be making the calls.

“There’s a real ingrained sense of belief that I have that those students should be making those editorial decisions,” he says.

In an opinion column in The Daily Campus, Tony Pederson, the chair of SMU’s journalism department, waxes poetic about the free press and speech at SMU, and makes a carefully worded assurance:

Economic realities have, sadly, affected virtually every news media organization in the U.S. Student media operations at many universities have been forced to change. Every member of our journalism faculty has at one point worked in professional news media. We are disheartened by the changes but committed to preserving freedom of the press in every facet of the classroom and newsroom.

Huseman says that, with the online GoFund Me and individual donations pledged to a foundation supporting the alumni effort, her group has raised about $40,000. With the last print edition of The Daily Campus due out in May, time is short.

 

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comment from Jake Batsell, associate professor of journalism at SMU.

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