After months of debate and controversy regarding the fate of funding to Wichita State University's student newspaper, university president John Bardo approved the student senate's proposed $25,000 cut to The Sunflower — but plans to restore the paper's budget through other university resources.
He made the announcement in a newsletter to students, faculty and staff on Wednesday, but the final decision will be made by the Kansas Board of Regents when they review the proposed Student Fees Budget. If approved by the regents, the cut from $105,000 to $80,000 would be effective in July.
The Sunflower student newspaper received 50.6 percent of its $158,000 request of student fees for Fiscal Year 2019 in the proposed budget. Of the six fixed-line items in the budget approved by the student senate, five other organizations received between 98.5 and 100 percent of their requests.
Bardo said in the newsletter that the cut voted on by student government was "part of an announced effort to keep an overall student fee increase to 1 percent."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Wichita Eagle
While the editor of the student newspaper previously said he thought the funding cut was payback for the paper’s aggressive coverage of university leaders, Bardo said the cut does not have to do with First Amendment rights.
"Continued funding of student newspapers is a conversation that's happening, or has already taken place, on many campuses," he said in the newsletter. "It has more to do with how people are receiving news and the overall steep decline in newspaper industry revenues than it does with the First Amendment freedoms of the speech and the press."
Despite the president's approval of the recommended cut, he said he supports restoring The Sunflower's funding to its current level of $105,000 through other university resources — so as not to "suffer the same fate" as other news media outlets while consumers turn to social media "as sources of news."
"As print advertising has declined, our community newspaper, The Wichita Eagle, has endured dramatic reductions in staffing, news space and print deadlines," Bardo said in the newsletter. " . . . We don't want to lose an active student media voice on campus or the applied learning opportunities that Sunflower staffers receive."
Chance Swaim, editor of The Sunflower, said Bardo's statement of support for the First Amendment is great, "but actions matter more."
"It was interesting Bardo, or whoever wrote this statement, chose to use the statement to jab The Wichita Eagle, while in the same statement, he called Twitter and Facebook news sources," Swaim said in a written response. "In that context, of course he thinks cutting The Sunflower is not a First Amendment issue. In his statement, he acknowledges the struggles of newspapers to secure advertising money, and connects the cut to that fact.
"He's cutting the paper and knows our external revenue will be less — how does that show he values freedom of the press on Wichita State's campus? In what way is this not punitive?" he continued. "This takes control of The Sunflower out of students' hands and into administrators' hands, plain and simple."
Dale Seiwert, general manager of The Wichita Eagle/Kansas.com and a member of The Eagle's editorial board, said he was pleased that WSU is effectively restoring The Sunflower's funding. The editorial board had supported restoration of the funding.
"The Sunflower and organizations like it on other campuses are important training grounds for young journalists who, like reporters at The Eagle, fulfill an important watchdog role in our democracy and must not be afraid to hold public institutions accountable," Seiwert said.
To make up the funding difference, Bardo said Student Affairs Vice President Teri Hall plans to take money from an open staff position in her division and offer up to $25,000 to The Sunflower in print and online advertising.
"With all of the innovation the university is encouraging across campus, we hope The Sunflower's staff and Publications Board will take this upcoming year to deeply reflect on The Sunflower's funding model and develop sustainable ideas for its future," Bardo said. "These conversations are especially important in assuring students' applied learning experiences reflect the massive changes affecting news media today."
Swaim said there has been no written or signed agreement between The Sunflower and Student Affairs concerning the $25,000 in advertising, so the paper is not counting on it yet.
"Until an agreement is written and signed, I don't feel confident saying this additional money won't come with strings attached," he said. "What we know today is that Bardo chose to cut The Sunflower. Until something is formally agreed upon by all parties, the 'up to' $25,000 from Student Affairs could very well equal zero dollars."