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New Study Explores How College Media Independence Can Survive Financial Instability

More than half of college student news organizations have major financial ties to their university, which can be problematic for student journalists who risk losing their independence if there aren’t several safeguards in place. That was one of the findings in a new report from the University of Florida Brechner Freedom of Information Project, which studied the financial state of college newspapers, focusing on the editorially independence of student-run media, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the operations of many of these outlets.

The report, “Freedom in College Newsrooms: An Assessment of Financial and Editorial Independence,” summarizes three years of research done at the University of Florida’s Brechner Freedom of Information Project to explore how college media independence can remain stable amid financial instability. The research was funded by a $30,000 grant from Lumina Foundation specifically to research how COVID-19 affected college news.

According to the report, “In the past decade and during the Covid-19 pandemic, college-based, student-run media outlets have served as stopgaps in communities where the local daily has cut back or halted production entirely, and they have provided reporting when reporters couldn’t gain access to institutions. However, just as the commercial, local news industry has experienced issues of ownership consolidation and financial instability in recent years, so has the college media industry.”

Financial ties to universities can make student journalists vulnerable to influence and pressure not to report stories important to the community.

“Campus press freedom is imperative for training the nation’s future journalists to work on our behalf – to hold those in government accountable so they play by the same rules as the rest of us,” said David Cuillier, director of the Brechner Freedom of Information Project. “That is hard to do if they are beholden to student government or administrators approving their budget. Can you imagine a local newspaper asking the mayor for funding? Independence in journalism is critical for democracy.”

The researchers conducted interviews and analyzed websites for 512 student-run “papers of record” at universities of 5,000 or more enrollment in the United States. In addition, a survey asked these student news organizations to gauge their governance structures, financial needs and resources, and the effects of the pandemic on revenues and audiences. The team explored the organizations’ strategies and needs for building more diverse audiences and the extent to which they are the primary news outlets for their local areas.

To better serve the college media community, the research team built an interactive map of college media organizations that explains the editorial and financial structures for each outlet.

“This tool is something this group has needed for a long time,” said Jessica Sparks, UF College of Journalism and Communications doctoral student and lead researcher on the project. “As a former student media adviser, I know firsthand how pressures of all types can influence the students’ abilities to do good quality journalism. We hope that this report and the interactive map will help outlets find a way to maintain and improve as pivotal news sources in their communities.”

According to the research, more than half (56.1%) of student news outlets get funding from the university — either directly from the administration or allocated funds from a student activity fee budget. Additionally, about 59% of outlets had a university-paid faculty or staff member as an adviser. Meanwhile, only 52 outlets of the 512 were officially 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations independent of the university. These organizations were much more likely to be at large or elite institutions.

While the report provides recommendations for college media to move forward, Sparks says the biggest takeaway is that each outlet needs to find a good solution that will work for it based on its organizational needs and the culture of the institution.

“We recognize that the way The Florida Independent Alligator at the University of Florida operates will be vastly different from the way The Connector at the Savannah College of Art and Design produces its publication,” Sparks said. “This report offers some examples of structures that might work to create a better separation between students and the institutions they report on, but no one structure is perfect for every outlet. At least not yet.”

Posted: February 19, 2024
Category: Brechner News
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