Last month, as you’re no doubt aware, a group of activists at Wesleyan University launched a series of protests against the college’s student newspaper, the Wesleyan Argus.
The Argus recently ran an op-ed that clumsily, and in some respects obnoxiously, criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. This wasn’t the only source of friction between the paper and activist students of color on campus, but it was the most recent, and the most intense. It sparked a variety of actions and statements, but the one that got everyone’s attention was, of all things, a petition.
The petition demanded a number of reforms to Argus policies, and called for retaliation should those demands not be met. That proposed retaliation was to take two forms: The defunding of the Argus by the student government and a boycott of the paper defined (in somewhat oblique language) as dumping bundles of the offending edition in recycling bins.
This call for action quickly drowned out discussion of the activists’ substantive criticisms of the paper. The petition became the newest poster child for the climate of censorship and intolerance that supposedly exists on American college campuses, and the story swept the national press and opinion pages. (All this despite the fact that the petition was signed by something like five percent of the Wesleyan student body, the fact that the student government had taken no action to defund the paper, the fact that there was little evidence of large-scale recycling of the paper, and the fact that the Argus staff apparently agreed with at least some of the petitioners’ criticisms.)
The story was everywhere for a few days, and then it pretty much disappeared until last night. That’s when a journalist who had covered the story in its first iteration tweeted this:
The Wesleyan student gov has voted to cut the Argus annual budget from $30,000 per year to $13,000, a student tells me via text
— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) October 19, 2015
This struck me as bad news, and I said so — student newspapers require editorial independence to function, and their budgets should not depend on whether the student government agrees with the stories they print. But then, about half an hour later, the WSA, Wesleyan’s student government, tweeted this:
The WSA did not vote to defund the Argus. For more info on the resolution passed, please check http://t.co/YnA07nKJw7
— Wes Student Assembly (@WSAnews) October 19, 2015
So what’s the deal? Has the Argus been subjected to retaliatiatory defunding, or not?
A full answer to that question is going to take a little while to unpack, but the short version is this:
Here’s the long version…
One of the issues that critics of the Argus have raised is that of the lack of diversity on the paper’s writing staff. The original petition called for new efforts at recruitment and retention of writers of color to address that problem, and also called on the Argus to create new paid positions for writers and editors, who currently work on a volunteer basis. It’s hard to attract and keep good writers if you don’t pay them, particularly if the people you’re targeting are struggling financially, as many students of color do.
In aid of this goal, some students at Wesleyan put together what they called a “people over paper” restructuring proposal for the Argus and other campus publications. The plan, an ambitious and serious-minded one — it has its own earnest and comprehensive website — boils down to this:
- Twenty new stipended writing and editing positions would be established by the WSA to support campus publications. (The proposal envisions that as many as fourteen of these positions could go to the Argus.)
- An additional $2000 in WSA funding would be set aside for Facebook ads designed to boost online readership. (As much as $1600 of this money could go to the Argus.)
- Only publications that appear at least once a week would be eligible to receive the stipends and the ad money. The money would be allocated on the basis of student support for the publications, calculated via online readership figures and a student vote.
- The cost of the new stipends and advertising, pegged at $17,000 a year, would be paid by reducing the Argus print run. If the Argus emerged as the most popular publication on campus via the two funding metrics, some $12,100 of that $17,000 would return to the paper — with the money going overwhelmingly to paying writers and editors instead of printing paper copies of the newspaper.
- New opportunities for establishing independent study possibilities granting academic credit to publication staff would be pursued.
- Monitors streaming publication content will be placed around campus.
That’s the proposal that’s been floating around. Apparently it’s been the subject of a lot of discussion and revision — the version on the website as I write this is described as its fourth draft, published just this last weekend.
So is that what the WSA voted on last night? Not quite.
What the WSA approved yesterday was a resolution in support of the proposal, not the proposal itself. That resolution endorses the non-budgetary elements of the proposal — the stipends, the Facebook ads, the independent study plan, and the monitors — while launching a period of “study and debate” regarding the plan to fund the reforms through cutting the Argus print run, with that process to be completed by Fall 2016.
The resolution — which, again, does not cut funding to the Argus, and could lead to an increase in WSA funding for the paper if an alternate funding model is adopted — passed by a vote of twenty-seven to zero, with four abstentions.
This is not, in short, the apocalypse suggested by the earliest reports. Neither does it appear, on its surface, to be the opening salvo in a WSA war against the paper. But the Argus is not happy.
Three days ago the Argus ran a lengthy editorial, signed by the paper’s two editors in chief, denouncing an earlier version of the WSA plan. In it, the editors called the proposal “half-conceived” and “ineffective.” Their complaints took several forms.
First, they note that printing costs for a paper like the Argus do not rise and fall smoothly with the size of its print run. Instead, printing each issue carries a high fixed cost — reducing their circulation from 1000 copies an issue to 600 would, for instance, cut printing costs by far less than ten percent.
Second, they point out that while the Argus does not currently pay writers and editors, they do offer paid positions to nine students on their production staff. If their printing schedule and advertising revenue declined under the current plan, those positions could lose their revenue source — and, in some cases, their reason for existing.
Third, they argue that the stipends proposed for writers under the proposal would fund staff writers at a far lower number of hours per week than the paper’s editors currently work, creating an impediment, rather than a pathway, to such writers taking on leadership roles at the paper.
Finally, they suggest that the planned publication support metrics, particularly the student vote, ignore the fundamental differences between the financial needs of different kinds of publications.
That’s where the story stands as of this morning. My take is this:
The WSA proposal has weaknesses. It is unclear how the print revenue aspect would work — a fact they appear to acknowledge in deferring that aspect of the plan until Fall 2016. The student vote on publication support seems likely to lead to a mismatch between publications’ needs and their resources, and has the potential to facilitate reprisals against any publication that incurs student anger. The question the Argus raises about the disconnect between writers and editors in the stipends is a serious one.
At the same time, however, the plan is an attempt to grapple with a real problem — the distortions in staffing that arise from an all-volunteer editorial staff — that the Argus’s current setup has no way of dealing with. It does not appear to be a subterranean attempt to defund the paper, much less a targeted attack on the Argus’s editorial freedom. Rather, it seems like a solid, genuine attempt to grapple with the vital issues raised by last month’s protests while addressing the civil libertarian arguments made against the original petition.
Last night’s WSA vote is, in short, a start. It’s the beginning of a discussion, the beginning of planning for reform. It’s a serious, thoughtful effort to move forward, and if it continues in the spirit in which it was launched, it has the potential to bring real positive change to the campus.
Which is, of course, why it will get only a tiny fraction of the national attention that last month’s events received.
Tuesday Update | Last night the Argus published a response to the WSA vote. Though that response at times characterizes the resolution in ways that don’t seem justified by the text, it does point out something I missed in my original piece — that an essay written in support of the WSA proposal specifically envisions cutting back not just the size of the Argus print run, but its frequency, suggesting that the paper could shift from twice a week to weekly, print “only special edition issues,” or eliminate the printed paper altogether.
The Argus identifies itself as the country’s oldest surviving twice-weekly student newspaper, and cutting its print publication schedule by half or more would be a profound change, one whose implications for the paper’s readership and campus influence would not be easy to predict. It is not a change to be made lightly, and the WSA’s decision to defer action on the proposal until it can be more fully discussed and debated was wise.
Another aspect of the current situation highlighted in the Argus story is the fact that publication funding is not a zero-sum game. As the paper points out, the Wesleyan undergraduate activity fee — the source of the funds in question — is currently $270 a year. With a total undergraduate enrollment of about three thousand students, that’s a budget of something like eight hundred thousand dollars. The WSA’s publication initiative would cost something like two percent of that, money that could surely be found elsewhere than the Argus’s printing budget.
This week’s WSA resolution explicitly distinguished the issue of new publication stipends from the that of Argus funding. And while that fact has escaped the attention of many of WSA’s off-campus critics, it could well be crucial to how the next phase of this debate unfolds.