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The End of Newsroom Democracy

The End of Newsroom Democracy
March 16, 2005

About this time each year, in a ritual repeated at campuses across the country, students at the University of Texas at Austin listen to campaign speeches, take stock of the candidates and vote in student elections. They cast ballots for president and a slew of other positions in the student government. But they also, uncommonly, choose the editor of the student newspaper.

The list of men and women who got their start as editor of The Daily Texan is long -- the paper is more than 100 years old -- and star-studded: It includes Willie Morris, the renowned Mississippi writer, and Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of The Texas Observer. They and almost all of the paper's other editors have been elected after persuading fellow students that they would produce the best newspaper for the community -- a tradition that the university is poised to end, to the consternation of some who've held the position.

The question of how one university's student newspaper should pick its editors may seem a small and insignificant one. But participants in the discussion at Texas say it touches on such weighty concepts as editorial independence and the role of the student press.
 
The Texan is believed to be the only student newspaper in the country that selects its editor this way. The publication's founders went that route because there "were times in the past when this institution had a pretty unsavory history of trying to control the content of student media through interfering in the selection of an editor," says Kathy Lawrence, director of student publications. The Texan "felt that by giving students an opportunity to vote on the editor, that would ensure more freedom from content control."

Under current policy, the candidates must meet a set of criteria that include having taken a set of journalism courses and worked in a meaningful capacity for the Texan, though the Student Publications Board that oversees the Texan (made up of students, professors and administrators) can, and does, waive some requirements to try to ensure a competitive race. The elected editor oversees the newspaper's opinion pages and is technically in charge of the entire paper, although a managing editor appointed by the publications board runs the news-gathering operations day to day.

Chief among the criticisms that have been raised about the election over the years, says Lawrence, is that candidates have to campaign for the job.

"It sets up in the election process an opportunity for candidates to go campaign before studend organizations and interest groups and seek their favor," she says. "When you have a student editor going out to do that, that doesn't speak well toward being an objective observer of the news. Some editors wind up making election promises they're not able to fulfill, or people who agreed to support them feel that they've been let down."

Ben Heath, the Texan's current editor, calls the campaign he ran in February 2004 "the longest two weeks of my life." "How you win campaigns," he says, "is by telling people you're going to cover their organization," and "cover nice things about your organization" -- though Heath says he didn't do the latter. The 5-10 percent of students who vote in the election each year aren't particularly interested in the newspaper position, he says, and the voters are "dominated by special interests."

The other major problem with the current structure, says Lawrence, is the uncertainty (at best) or conflict that can arise from having an elected editor and appointed managing editor, with the newspaper's staff not necessarily knowing whose lead to follow. "We've had some years where the two of them have worked well together, but there's always this strange question of 'Who's really the boss?' "

To solve those and other problems, Lawrence says, the Student Publications Board, whose six student members also are elected by the student body, voted unanimously this month to take initial steps to end the election of the editor and instead have the board appoint it. Under the proposed policy, which will require a change in the newspaper's charter, which it is currently negotiating with university administrators, candidates who wished to be considered by the board for the appointive post would need the support of at least 30 percent of the Texan's staff, as decided in an internal vote.

The board would choose among those candidates who meet that threshold. The editor would then select his or her own managing editor, ensuring more cohesion among the newspaper's managers, Lawrence says.

Mike Godwin, legal director for Public Knowledge, a First Amendment policy group, was the elected Texan editor in 1988. He thinks the proposed change is both unnecessary and a mistake. The election of the editor, he says, "has been a source of independence for the newspaper for nearly 100 years" at a university with a history of "antagonism" toward student journalism. University administrators, he says, have been less likely to try to impose demands on editors who are seen as representing the student body as a whole.

The elective process also helps the editor better represent his or her peers, Godwin argues. "Student newspaper editors elsewhere tend to be chosen and to operate in very hermetic environments, because student journalists can be clannish and insular." Being forced to campaign isn't pleasant, says Godwin  -- "stiff calisthenics aren't pleasant, either" -- but the process "forces you to be more familiar with the university, and that benefits the community and the newspaper."

John Schwartz, a New York Times science reporter, was actually appointed rather than elected as editor in 1981 because the elected editor that year was ousted for plagiarism and other offenses. He calls the campaigning "unseemly." But that doesn't mean editors have to make promises they can't keep, he says. "I never saw a candidate say, 'And the frats will finally get a fair shake.' I did see people say, 'You say I hate the frats; I say we'll have fair coverage.' There's nothing wrong with that."

Godwin says that the real problem with the current system is not a structural one -- that the editor is elected -- but the fact that the student publications board too often waives the requirements for candidates to let in insufficiently qualified candidates. Fresh in the minds of many participants in this discussion is last year's mess. Over several years, a student, dissatisfied with the Texan's coverage of him as a student leader, got himself elected to the publications board and persuaded a majority of its members that he should be allowed to run for editor, even though the board's lawyer argued that it was on solid ground in excluding him, Lawrence says.

"People come out of the woodwork to run, and if the board certifies students who have minimal connection to the newspaper, the staff gets understandably panicky," says Godwin.  

Schwartz supports the continued election of the Texan editor almost despite himself. "If you had told me before I served as Texan editor that the editor is elected and not chosen by merit by a group of experts, I would have said it's a crazy way of doing things," he says. "In a context that's highly politicized, though, it works. That's in part," he says, "because it's unclear that other ways would work any better or be any less politicized."

The editor of The New York Times shouldn't be chosen by popular election, Schwartz says -- though it would make a "terrific reality show," he surmises. But the fact that The Daily Texan is the only major student newspaper that still chooses its editor that way is both no reason to abandon the practice and, Schwartz says, perfectly consistent with the ethos of the university's home town, which boasts the slogan "Keep Austin Weird."

"Austin's the 'only place' for a lot of things," Schwartz says, "and that's one of its strengths."

 

 

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