The Wichita State University student newspaper could have its funding cut in half next year, a move its editor believes is in retaliation against the paper’s aggressive coverage of university leaders.
“It’s going to be devastating,” said Chance Swaim, editor-in-chief of The Sunflower, the student newspaper.
“If they want a little newsletter, then that’s what it will become,” he said. “But if they want an actual student newspaper, this funding model would destroy that – which I think is intentional.”
Teri Hall, vice president for student affairs at WSU, said the proposed budget cut “has nothing to do with punishing people for what they write.”
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“The Sunflower is valued as a voice for the students as reflected in their continued student-fee allocations,” Hall said.
A student fees committee, which barred reporters and the public from its discussions Friday, recommended cutting The Sunflower’s budget from $105,000 to $55,000. The Sunflower had requested $158,000 in student fees, the amount it had received for several years before a budget cut in 2016.
The Student Senate will consider the proposal at a meeting Wednesday. The Student Government Association recommends student fee allocations to Wichita State President John Bardo, who then presents a proposed budget to the Kansas Board of Regents for approval.
Paige Hungate, WSU’s student body president, said the proposed cut “has nothing to do with coverage, nothing to do with content.”
The committee’s proposal would raise WSU student fees overall by 1 percent.
She said the committee looked at student-fee funding levels for newspapers at other state universities and sought to “move (The Sunflower) to a more equitable model.”
According to data presented by The Sunflower last week, the paper gets about 54 percent of its annual funding from student fees and the rest from advertising or other sources. The University of Kansas student newspaper gets about 20 percent of its funding from fees; Kansas State, about 55 percent; Pittsburg State, 51 percent; and Emporia State, 81 percent, according to the data.
Swaim, the Sunflower editor, said he thinks the proposed cut to student newspaper funding is retaliation for critical news stories and editorials over the past few years.
The Sunflower is funded by student fees and advertising revenue, but it operates independent of the university, and students make all editorial decisions.
In a column published Monday, Swaim and columnist Ray Strunk chronicled months of conversations with university officials, during which several expressed dismay over the paper’s coverage of enrollment numbers, student housing, the development of the Innovation Campus and other issues.
“By covering these stories for our readers, our funding has been threatened, our independence has been threatened, and our very existence as the student newspaper at WSU has been threatened,” Swaim wrote.
Doug Anstaett, executive director of the Kansas Press Association, said the committee’s proposal to cut funding is “nothing short of censorship.”
“I think it’s a symptom of what happens outside of the university as well, where government tries to strong-arm the press into creating positive coverage,” Anstaett said. “And if they don’t, they’ll trash them or find ways to try to punish them financially.”
Anstaett said he’s also disturbed by what he views as evasiveness and a “condescending” tone from university officials in their dealings with student journalists.
“They have a right to criticize. We in the newspaper business get criticized every day by people who don’t like the way a story was handled,” Anstaett said. “But it seems to me the administration could have been much more productive by interacting with the students and … making it a learning experience.”
Amy DeVault, a journalism instructor and faculty adviser for The Sunflower, said she was “disheartened” by the proposed cuts in funding.
The average WSU student pays about $7 a year to help fund The Sunflower, which offers free print newspapers twice a week and additional content online.
Comparatively, the per-student fee for a new YMCA fitness center, set to open on campus in 2020, is $190 a year. The fee for WSU to join the American Athletic Conference costs each student $340 a year.
“Democracy depends on engaged citizens and the fourth estate, and a campus newspaper provides applied learning in both,” DeVault said.
Swaim, the Sunflower editor, said it’s unlikely the paper would be able to make up a $50,000 cut with advertising revenue, which is declining nationwide. The paper would have to trim editor positions or not pay staff photographers and reporters, he said, and the overall quality would suffer.
Molly McMillin, president of the Kansas chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, worked for The Sunflower when she was a student at WSU. She said the student newspaper provides vital real-world experience for students.
“There is a long list of graduates – me included – with successful careers not only in journalism but in a wide variety of fields,” said McMillin, a former Wichita Eagle reporter who writes for Aviation Week.
The Sunflower “gave us a place to make mistakes and to blossom,” she said. “It made us better writers, researchers and interviewers. It taught us about deadlines and gave us clips for portfolios to show potential employers. A diminished Sunflower will limit that experience.”
Hungate, the student body president, said the fee committee’s proposal cut two other student groups’ funding by half – Formula SAE and Baja SAE, engineering competitions sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers.