On Objectivity, Money and the Loch Ness Monster

Lynne Lott / Sun Star Advisor
Nov. 15, 2011

Village Voice Media, which owns the eponymous newspaper and a chain of respected alternative weeklies, distributes a “writer’s manual” to all new reporters.  It covers story selection, the importance of reading and tenets of the company. Particularly interesting, I think, is what the manual has to say about objectivity.

“Keep in mind that objectivity is the Loch Ness monster of journalism. Only a few claim to have seen it, and no one believes them,” the authors write. I often bring this up in my journalism classes. My life experience defines how I see objectivity, I tell them. Your life experience performs the same function. To assume our viewpoints will match is akin to a man saying he understands childbirth because he saw “Knocked Up.”

Instead, I instruct my students to report honestly. That means rather than calling someone sloppy — a loaded adjective subject to reader interpretation — a reporter does his or her job through illustration. Does the person you’re writing about have an office with a garbage bin overflowing with discarded yogurt containers and a small chair-shaped space surrounded by piles of overstuffed file folders? Then write that. That’s based on observation. A person can’t object to reporting based on verifiable facts.

As the faculty advisor to The Sun Star, it’s my job to coach the students who run this newspaper. I can’t mandate, edit, hire or spend. The students do that. They do it with my guidance and with guidance provided by a five-member publication board. But what they do each week, they do largely alone. Sun Star editor Heather Bryant works 20 hours per week, at least according to her timesheet. I know from the time stamp on the emails I receive that this is as much a fiction as Harry Potter. Another thing I tell my students: as a journalist you will never work harder or for less money. And you will never have a job you love so well.  Much like a visual artist, a good writer and editor cannot look at the clock and say “well, I’ve worked on this story for eight hours, I guess it’s done.” Instead, she strives to make it the best she can.

Heather is not alone in her commitment to the paper. Most of the staff works diligently through reporting and multiple drafts in order to do the best they are able, all while learning the ins and outs of a profession that at its best is nobler than any I know. Journalism is the rough draft of history. For all the criticisms and snap judgments reserved for those in the profession, few jobs concern themselves with informing the public of the events, people and policies that affect their day-to-day lives. They do this not to make money (that’s the publisher’s job, and The Sun Star doesn’t have one) or for personal gain (that’s the job of the four-term congressman), but — and this may be my personal objectivity talking — to inform, entertain, affect change and contribute to the greater good.

This is why the current state of the paper’s funding and oversight trouble me. Unlike the majority of college newspapers, The Sun Star’s funding comes from ASUAF, the student government. Such a structure is a clear conflict of interest, as was borne out last year at the University of California San Diego. Student government there dissolved the student-run television station and suspended funding to the student newspaper, The California Review, after a controversy involving coverage of student government. Similar conflicts occurred in the past few years at Montclair State University in New Jersey and Florida Atlantic University. It’s easy to see why. Can you image what would happen if Congress funded The Washington Post? For a newspaper to approach any standard of objectivity, it cannot be beholden to an entity other than the public it serves.

Currently, The Sun Star receives 7 percent of the “student activities fee” paid by all students at UAF. It’s $2.45 per student, about enough to cover the cost of printing the paper. The funding for staff salaries, office supplies, phones and everything else comes from advertising sales. New computers aren’t in the budget. Of the five in the office right now, three came from grants and one from UAF surplus. The journalism department donated the final computer when it updated a departmental lab. Simply put, this is not sustainable, let alone encouraging of growth.

Here at UAF, every new student organization recognized by the school must have an advisor. Advisors receive no additional remuneration for this role; most faculty contracts include “service” to the university and community as a component of our workload. Advisors are encouraged to “coach” and “educate” their organizations, according to UAF’s Student Organization Advisor Handbook.  “Programs and student groups serve as vehicles in which students hone and enhance their learning,” according to the manual. UAF’s debate club has an advisor. The Latin Dance Club has an advisor. ASUAF does not. No board, like that of The Sun Star, oversees the student senators who manage upward of $500,000 in student money each year. The senators who work so hard to govern UAF’s student body have no one to look to for professional advice, no oversight and no one to check their objectivity. If they did, I’d like to believe The Sun Star would not be in its current situation.

Because attempts to negotiate a percentage increase in the amount of Sun Star funding failed last year, and because there is little incentive for ASUAF to grant autonomy to the student newspaper, the staff decided to pursue independence this semester through a petition on the ASUAF November ballot. It asks for formal separation between The Sun Star and ASUAF — as well as creation of a $7 media fee to fund the paper.

I told The Sun Star staff it would be difficult, a risky proposition at best. I spoke to the them about voter apathy, the fact that many people on campus likely didn’t even know a student newspaper existed. It doesn’t matter that students at many universities (including UAA) pay a media fee larger and less defined than what they propose. Getting students to back a new fee would require commitment that made their weekly news output seem a trifle. Just determining what, exactly, was required to get the proposition on the ballot involved at least two Sun Star publication board meetings, a flurry of emails and hours of conversations and research on the part of Heather Bryant and Ad Manager Jordan Schilling.  Yet they persevered.

Reporters and photographers seek signatures each week in addition to their regular duties. I’m soliciting signatures too. I believe students should decide where their money goes and what it pays for. Heather’s done the math, down to the penny. She grew up participating in Future Farmers of America, an organization that required her to track all her income and spending. UAF and The Sun Star are lucky to have her resulting spreadsheets. She’s happy to show them off, if you’re interested.

Seven dollars per student, per semester will create a newspaper independent of student government and free of any potential influence. It will also create a bigger, better paper, with more coverage and valuable staff training to “hone and enhance student learning.” Many Sun Star employees aren’t journalism majors. They’re students who want other students’ voices heard. They recognize the importance of writing history’s rough draft, for today’s students as well as those who will refer to the paper’s archives in the future. If The Sun Star initiative makes it to the ballot, I have to believe it will pass. After all, it’s your voice. It’s your Sun Star.

Another fee is difficult to swallow, no doubt. The Sun Star staff has been working on a project involving student fees — their history at UAF, how they’re spent, what they fund. Unlike the proposed media fee, other fee research has netted surprisingly murky results thus far.  Next semester, we hope to bring the students an accounting. It may not be everyone’s version of objective, but it will be honest.

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7 Responses

  1. Jennifer Chambers says:

    The student government does not manage upwards of $500,000/ year. 49% of the funds generated by the $35/student taking 3 credits or more fee are automatically distributed to the governance groups aka KSUA, Concert Board, and the Sun Star.

    The percentages given to each group are specified in governance agreements with each of these entities. The student government representatives do not have the ability to amend these agreements. The governance agreements with the Sun Star and the Concert Board can only be amended or terminated by a vote of the students, which means barring a vote of the students, the student newspaper will not be independent of ASUAF. One of the only things that the student government representatives could do that would impact the Sun Star (or another governance group) would be to vote to place a question on the ballot which would amend the goverance agreement. The only exception to that that I can think of are the occasions when the student government has given additional funds to cover some of the costs of printing over the summer to the Sun Star since 7% of the summer fee is not sufficient to cover these costs. One year, these funds were given with no stipulations and last year ads were purchased from the paper with the funds.

    On another note, I have several questions about what will happen with the Sun Star if they separate from ASUAF. Will the newspaper exist under the journalism department? Who will be providing financial services to the Sun Star and how much will it cost? How will students be able to give feedback about how the funds are being spent and who will officially have the power to decide how funds are allocated?

    I am of mixed opinions about the separation of the Sun Star and the creation of the media fee. I do understand the Sun Star’s desire to be independant of the student government and do not oppose that. However, as listed above, I have many questions about the implications of this decision. I am also unclear why $7 was chosen as the desired fee assessment.

  2. Jennifer Chambers says:

    Something that I should have added with respect to the autonomy of the Sun Star is that because of election rules, ASUAF student representatives told the Sun Star that they cannot publish articles/editorials about this iniative. This is because an iniative, according to the ASUAF Elections Manual, is considered to be a candidate for the purposes of campaigning and an illegal form of campaigning is the use of ASUAF funds. However, if this isn’t followed the only consequence that student government can do that I am aware of is throw out the initiative from the election. It would have no impact on the 7% that the Sun Star presently receives.

  3. Kennedy says:

    Wait… the Sun Star won’t be reporting about an initiative that creates a FEE that every student will have to pay? What the @*#*??? More ASUAF shenanegans. Maybe you do need an adviser… lol

  4. Jennifer Bell says:

    As a student, I am uncomfortable with any part of my student government fee being used to argue for creating a fee increase. While this is not exactly what has/would be occurring, some ASUAF money goes to the Sun Star, which desires this new media fee. When editorials are published arguing for this new media fee, the students are paying for part of the campaign for adopting this initiative. I wonder what would have been published in this space had the Sun Star not solicited votes through editorials. It is a conflict of interest for the Sun Star to be printing articles about the referendum question when the Sun Star stands to gain quite a bit of money should be referendum be adopted. That is a clear incentive for the Sun Star to not cover other student issues and print editorials arguing for this new media fee. This is a student paper and should focus on student needs, not the Sun Star’s personal agenda.

  5. Editor-in-Chief says:

    I assure you that no stories are being sacrificed so that those editorials appear. In fact, we’ve increased coverage. If you’ll look at the past few issues, you will find they are 20 page issues with more than a dozen reporting pieces. That is as much reporting as we can afford to do.

    And while, some ASUAF money comes to the Sun Star, the majority of our budget is from ad revenue.

    The Sun Star hasn’t written any articles that directly addresses the Sun Star initiative. I have maintained and will continue to maintain a separation between the editorial stance of the paper and the objective reporting that appears in the paper. However, the fee created by the initiative, if it passes the student vote, will be a part of the Sun Star’s fee reporting project that will run next semester.
    Additionally, I will be publishing monthly reports on the Sun Star budget.

    The needs of the students and that of the Sun Star are intrinsically linked. The Sun Star is the main venue for students to have their voices heard. The future of the Sun Star is essential to maintaining the avenue of student expression.

  6. Mark says:

    I was an undergraduate and am now a graduate at UAF. I find ASUAF’s protestations laughable.

    First, ASUAF is, collectively, a wholly ineffectual group that shouldn’t be in charge of any significant funding without some kind of oversight. I’m sure there are individual representatives who are honest, diligent, and desire the best for students, but that is a theoretical supposition without obvious evidence.

    Why should a chess club spending $200 have an advisor while ASUAF, handling hundreds of thousands of dollars, comprised of rotating crew of mostly– judging by both their public statements and decisions, immature students who operate based on willfully incomplete understanding and petty personal grudges and bias– not have one?

    Second, why NOT put the funding levels of KSUA to a vote? If anything should be changed financially, it should be to lessen that funding, which would still be adequate, and accept the relative pittance needed for the Sun Star. How can one justify the disproportionate number of dollars going to pad KSUA’s carry-forward, and which was made so large to deal with a one-time issue, which is similarly a student run operation that has significantly more issues with the quality of their product and lack of listeners? Both ASUAF and the Sun Star are both media outlets AND places for learning a craft. Underfunding either of them because they are staffed by students who will make mistakes (have you ever LISTENED to the KSUA on-air people?) or overfunding them for no good reason is another example of ASUAF’s general lack of an adult approach to the world.

    The Sun Star is at least as effective and of at least the same quality as other institutions our size. They should be funded properly, which isn’t about an abstract $ figure an inattentive student rep has determined makes sense, but is about meeting an operating budget that can support the proper staff and equipment.

    Third, It makes no sense for ASUAF to have a connection to the Sun Star except for it being a way to try to enforce limits on reporting about ASUAF’s own lack of responsibility. Otherwise, why should they care? If they are that opposed to the separation, then they should have provided adequately for the Sun Star– and treated (and treat) them with respect– so the group never would have needed this measure in the first place.

    Finally, the Sun Star *editorials* are not the same as Sun Star articles. This is a matter of basic comprehension. The Sun Star shouldn’t publish articles about the fee, but they absolutely should publish editorials about it. It is, after all, their initiative and their right. Trying to quash opinion about a measure by those proposing the measure, who are precisely the ones who have an obligation to write about it, again represents the childishness and amateurishness of ASUAF and their attempt not to allow anyone to scrutinize the operation of their sad little fiefdom.

  7. Lynne Lott says:

    Jennifer,
    In fiscal year 2011, the student activities fee generated $461,780, according to numbers provided by Sabra Phillips last year. Precision in word choice is important for journalists. I used the word “manage” because it means “handle, direct, govern…” (Webster’s Dictionary). A good synonym in this case might be “administer.”

    I did not indicate that ASUAF “controls,” “spends,” or otherwise acts using the these monies. I stand by my use of the word manage in this case.

    As for your other questions, I hope they have been answered. The newspaper will NOT exist under the journalism department, but rather be governed by a five-member publication board similar to what exists currently (although reconfigured). The board would, of course, include student representatives outside of The Sun Star. Allocation of funds will be overseen by the publication board (as is the case now), though the editor would have authority over day-to-day expenditures such as phone use and postage. Students will be able to provide feedback in spending the same way they do now with ASUAF and all other entities receiving money from student fees.

    If you have further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me, or editor Heather Bryant. I’m reachable at lynne.lott at alaska dot edu.

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