Wichita State University's student newspaper, the Sunflower, will not receive student fee revenue until a task force has reviewed the publication's operations.
The newspaper receives $155,000 a year from student fee allocations. That figure makes up about half of the publication's annual revenue.
Ronda Voorhis, the Sunflower's adviser, said that while taking a good look at the newspaper's organization may be a worthy goal, "this isn't the time and place for that worthy goal."
"Sitting down and having that discussion with an outside group while our funding is hanging over our heads tied up feels like blackmail to me," Voorhis said in an e-mail. "There were avenues to have discussions about problems with the Sunflower before we got to this junction and they didn't involve holding our fees hostage."
In March, the student fees committee recommended to continue funding the newspaper at the same level as last year. But the committee also said it intends on withholding the funds until after an operational-review task force is appointed and the task force's recommendations are approved by the committee.
Ron Kopita, vice president for campus life and university relations, serves as chairman of the student fees committee. He stressed that the university is honoring a request from students on the student fees committee, which is made up of two administrators and five members of student government.
"In some ways, this was a fallback position," he said. "The students wanted to zero out their budget altogether. This was a negotiated position to allow their funding to move forward."
Kopita said that the creation of the task force should not be an indication that the Sunflower will not receive its funding.
"The request was to put together a review committee to look at the operational side of the newspaper. The $155,000 at this point is not at risk," he said. "The money is going to be allocated when I get the report."
Voorhis noted that the task force is not a fully sanctioned group until the budget is signed by the university president and approved by the board of regents.
"So there could still be a moment when a sane person could step forward and decide to remove the proviso from our funding line item and send the entire budget back to the student fees committee with the admonition that this is illegal and we won't stand for it," she said. "Now, I don't really see that happening, I'm just saying it could."
In rationalizing the review of the Sunflower, the student fees committee listed both product and structural concerns with the organization, including:
• Inaccuracy in reporting
• Reporters not attending events which they are writing about
• Not contacting sources for stories about whom they are writing
• Featuring one-sided stories
• Presenting opinion pieces as though they are factual news stories
• Advertising other universities
• Lack of news content (filled with games/advertisements/opinion pieces)
• Lifting quotes from the Internet
• Adviser is part time and only sees articles after they are run
• Appears no one is verifying authenticity of material
• Appears as though there is a lack of compliance with professional standards
• Lack of intentional educational components to help facilitate student growth as journalists
• Lack of clarification of the publication board's functions and reporting relationships
• Lack of clarity regarding compensation of the adviser and business manager
Todd Vogts, editor of the newspaper and a senior communication major, especially took issue with the committee's concern that the adviser only sees articles after they run.
"They basically requested prior review," Vogts said. "That's one of the bigger things. It appears that they want a PR publication."
Voorhis said: "I've tried to explain to administrators that that's not the role of the adviser but it has obviously fallen on deaf ears. They think that if it's a 'lab paper' then they'll get the prior review they are seeking. But they don't know that there can be no prior review with that model either."
Kopita acknowledged questions about the role of the adviser and of the publication's advisory board, but he said those are questions that will be clarified by the task force — which includes journalism faculty, students and a member from Kopita's office.
"No one is wanting to intrude on any First Amendment rights," Kopita said. "There is no question as to what topics should be chosen — that's the newspaper's job. But where is the accountability when a story is plagiarized? There are a number of unanswered questions.
"We've got an attorney on the committee and three journalists. My assumption is that they will know when the committee moves into areas they don't belong."
Voorhis said her position, hired by the Board of Student Publications, receives $2,500 per semester and serves a 12-month appointment. She said she's normally in the office about 30 hours per week.
"If the current administration decides to put a full-time faculty person in here instead, they certainly can. I don't have a contract," she said. "But that full-time faculty person will be teaching at least three to four classes and then advising on top of that load. I only teach one class and advise."
Vogts also said that much of the committee's concerns amounted to a misunderstanding of how the newspaper works.
"They only see what's in the paper," he said. "If people mess up, they are reprimanded or removed from their positions. We take care of things, but we do it internally and don't publicize it."
Voorhis agreed, saying, "administrators, staff and students don't realize that writing is just about one-sixth of what it takes to produce a newspaper."
She said the Sunflower recently won 23 awards at the Kansas Associated Collegiate Press, and that "the stories they won awards on were some of the very ones that the administration gave them the hardest time about."
Voorhis and Vogts said the Sunflower plans on covering the task force meetings just as they would other open meetings on campus. Sunflower staff members were offered a seat on the task force, but they declined, Vogts said, on the advice of the Student Press Law Center.
"We don't want to condone the task force," Vogts said.