For both a summary of the following arguments and to express support for more transparent financial policies and the protection of publication finances from WSA politics, we invite you to view and sign our petition, here.
It’s time for the Wesleyan Student Assembly to stop trying to defund The Argus.
The most recent development, in which certain members of the WSA leadership have retracted and temporarily suspended our WSA-provided funding (explained further below), is just one in a series of attempts to undermine our independence as a newspaper and to remove financial support, a movement that began early last semester, when the paper published a controversial Opinion piece.
We took much of the ensuing criticism of the newspaper to heart, and have broadened our coverage, expanded our outreach, and introduced new programs and practices in the interest of becoming a better newspaper. We have reached out to the leaders of over 20 student groups for the input and participation of the students they represent. We have a burgeoning new column in the Opinion section called “Voices,” which presents personal stories from around campus that might otherwise not be heard. While not a panacea, these efforts have received a positive response, and we are optimistic about the future of the newspaper.
The WSA, seemingly, is not.
On March 14, we received an email from the WSA’s Student Budget Committee (SBC), informing us that they were planning to take back the entirety of our thus far unused funds for Spring 2016. This is money we were planning to use to produce the newspaper for the rest of the semester and also to pay for some of the issues that have already been published. They are also temporarily blocking funding going forward.
The reason we were given is that “[The] SBC does not endorse rainy day or emergency fund[s].” The Argus has an account, separate from SBC funding, comprised mostly of donations received last semester, approximating the amount needed to keep the newspaper running for one semester. We stressed in our request for donations that this money was to protect our independence and to provide security after we were threatened with being defunded. Most of the money was donated by alumni who feared that the newspaper’s funding could be pulled at a second’s notice. Ironically, it is the presence of this emergency money that is now being used as the pretext for the withdrawal of WSA-approved funding.
Here’s the catch: There is no policy against student organizations doing their own fundraising to obtain supplementary donations or, as the SBC referred to it, “rainy day funds.” Nevertheless, the SBC informed us that not only are we losing our money for this semester, but we will not receive any more money from them until we use up the entirety of our donations. This means that every penny we received to shield us from WSA whims is in effect being retracted to expand the WSA budget, rather than to provide emergency support to The Argus—as our fundraising efforts and donors clearly intended. This represents a painful lack of transparency. Perhaps even more tellingly, the bylaws under which these actions were presumably taken cannot be found on the WSA website, despite a note there that says the bylaws are “currently being updated” and will be available “before February 2016.”
We have tried to be cooperative with the WSA. On Feb. 24, The Argus received an email from the SBC stating that “due to the disproportional lack of funds left in the SBC budget,” they were reaching out to student groups to seek return of any money they expected not to need. We complied, offering back what we calculated to be extra out of a budget that had already been carefully tailored. Accordingly, their response was unexpected.
Regardless of the WSA’s ability under the bylaws to reassume funds from student groups, a policy of retraction on the basis of donations is not stated and it would be outrageous for the student government to have a secret policy that all donations intended for specific student organizations can effectively be appropriated for other purposes by the SBC at any moment. We were unaware of such a practice when requesting donations (as were the several other groups from which the WSA took much, much smaller amounts of money) and of course our contributors were not advised.
The Working Group
As disturbing and unorthodox as this recent event is, it could be seen as simply motivated by financial mismanagement on the part of the WSA, rather than as part of a systematic attempt to remove support for the student newspaper. However, seen in broader context, these WSA actions against The Argus do not seem like a coincidence or an isolated event.
Last October, explicitly in reaction to the controversial Opinion piece, the WSA passed a resolution that created a working group to deal with issues of “Stipends, Academic Credit, and the Digitization of On-Campus Publications.” We all share the goal of making student groups more accessible. The Argus is working to reduce costs and we are looking into the possibility of providing academic credit or stipends for low-income students on our staff. This is a challenge faced by student organizations on campuses across the nation, and one we hope to meet.
However, the resolution was explicitly premised on a proposal that involves dramatically slashing Argus funds. The working group is supposed to evaluate the different measures referenced in the resolution, meaning the defunding was not set in stone. Unfortunately, The Argus has been excluded from the process. The Argus members of the group, after receiving assignments, have not been receiving emails or information, or been invited to meetings if there have been any. In spite of this, we have heard that the group will publish an update soon (one that we will not see before it becomes available online), and that they will shortly be conducting a survey about online versus print readership. For a process that is supposed to be collaborative, our exclusion is disconcerting and it’s hard to not conclude that the relevant members of the WSA have already made up their minds.
We do not welcome a process happening behind our backs, without discussion, in a way that seems more retaliatory than productive, and that obscures the facts of our situation. While we just learned of a way to formally appeal, the bylaws state that this process is done through the Executive Committee—the same people who, according to the email we received, made this decision about our funds. Yes, The Argus receives a significant sum of money. We anticipate that next year we might require $24,000 for the full year, or $12,000 per semester. According to the WSA bylaws, the SBC budget is 84 percent of the Student Activities Fee (SAF), which will be $300 next year. Approximating the entire SBC fund to $756,000 (3000 students each paying $300, 84 percent of which goes toward the SBC), this represents 1.58 percent per semester of the entire SBC fund—3.17 percent over the course of the whole year, and 2.6 percent of the SAF. This small percentage makes the claim that we are standing in the way of stipends ridiculous.
It is striking to note that until Spring 2013, many more Argus positions were funded by the WSA. In Fall 2012, the SBC decided to strike this funding saying in an email to The Argus, “The foundation of our decision is based on the precept that the student newspaper should be a volunteer activity, not a source of employment.” Former Argus Editors-in-Chief speculated that this was in reaction to an article published the previous semester, criticizing the WSA’s misuse of funds. While The Argus argued that with these funds eliminated it would be harder for low-income students to join the staff, the WSA responded bewilderingly that payment could represent a “conflict of interest.”
Furthermore, even with over 250 student-run groups on campus, the amount of money provided to The Argus is not unreasonable. Over the 2015-16 school year, The Argus has had 176 students serve as editors, managers, staff writers, contributing writers, photographers, layout staff, copy editors, web design, and more. Let’s assume it’s the same number next year, with each person paying a $300 activities fee. 176 people paying $300 comes to $52,800, more than double the approximate $24,000 the paper will be requesting. Moreover, the worth of the paper is not confined to the paper’s staff—The Argus is a valuable part of the Wesleyan community, consistently and effectively covering campus events, investigating and exploring campus stories, and showcasing campus opinions.
The Argus is open to change and we are always looking for suggestions from and discussion with others at the University. We want to continue to make this paper strong and representative of the University community, which we cannot do that without the help and support of students, faculty, and staff. Suddenly withdrawing financial support, particularly with no dialogue, is neither helpful nor supportive.
The Printed Paper
In reaction to last semester’s controversy, part of the WSA’s approach has been to consider forcing us to go completely digital. Needless to say, we recognize the value of an expanded online presence, and we are embracing this expansion as we continue to build our web team. However, the virtues of also remaining in print are manifold.
Print advertising is used to fund our few paid positions, and if the paper were eliminated this financial source of funds would disappear. In addition, it would displace the entire 20-person layout and production staff who are very much a part of the Argus community and receive valuable InDesign training and practice.
Many Argus members have been interested in journalism since high school, and might not have come to Wesleyan if it were a school without a print newspaper. The opportunity to see one’s name in print is a huge draw for students to join the staff, particularly for those new to journalism. Working for a real print newspaper is an opportunity we want to provide students, especially since Wesleyan does not have a journalism program.
Finally, straightforwardly, many people read The Argus in its paper form. This is particularly true among faculty and prospective students and their families upon touring Wesleyan. The paper version, located throughout the campus, increases our readership both by being picked up in highly trafficked locations (we see this all the time—it makes us very happy) and by making people aware of stories they may later want to read online.
All in all, a paper copy adds value and lends legitimacy. There is a reason that most newspapers have retained print as well—it’s not a newspaper without a newspaper. More tangibly, if someday we decide to go digital it should be the decision of Argus staff, and not by fiat of an outside body, let alone one in which we do not even have a voice.
The WSA—supposedly the voice of the students—has chosen to act autocratically and in secrecy. The independence of The Argus hangs in the balance. We hope you will support us.