College Media’s Future: Should Student Journalists Be Paid?

The Orient as we know it is dying.  The Bowdoin College student newspaper is bleeding money from its coffers at a pace that will soon make printing actual copies an unaffordable luxury.

In an easy-breezy blame game, the big fat target is the college’s SAFC.  Last fall, the Student Activities Funding Committee suddenly sliced the school’s annual contribution to the Orient budget by more than 50 percent.  Its funding allotment this year is only slightly higher.  And so, unexpectedly in need of mega-amounts of cash, fast, where has the paper turned?  An independent Orient savings account.  The plot thickens.

This independent account contains revenue from the newspaper’s subscriptions and advertising sales.  It has traditionally been used by the Orient editorial board to cover a slew of costs, most prominently providing stipends for reporters, editors, and other staff.  So in sum: For years now, related school funding has gone toward Orient printing charges.  Simultaneously, the paper’s own ad/subscription revenue has gone mostly toward staff pay.

As a former editor in chief explains, “The Orient began paying weekly stipends to staffers years ago. The editors determined that doing so creates incentives to do good work and inspires a sense of obligation in a perpetually distracted staff. . . . It now appears that the funding committee is trying to strong-arm the Orient into using [the paper’s independent account] to cover the bulk of printing and distribution costs, making it untenable for the editors to continue paying their staff.”

The SAFC strong-arm tactic is certainly inelegant for its abruptness.  But its larger point of protest is at least worth exploring.  What the SAFC seems to be saying with its budget slash: The school helps pay for campus events and organizations, not the students who run them.  So while it’s nice that the paper can afford to pay its staff, it should first cover its own printing.

The Orient‘s retort: Chicken meet egg.  Without motivated student journalists, there will not be any (quality) content worth printing.  As the e-board argued in a recent editorial, “The Future of the Orient:

“The SAFC has the College’s best interests at heart. It intends to allocate its large budget as fairly as possible, and from its eyes, the Orient‘s existing savings imply that it does not require as much help from the SAFC as those non-revenue-generating clubs without independent accounts. . . . But the SAFC’s aims to level the playing field are not just.  The Orient provides an essential service to the College, and has done so since 1871. It has the right to maintain a personal account and not be at the SAFC’s mercy for every cent.  If we can count on the SAFC to cover the cost of printing, we will continue to have the incentive to produce a good newspaper that generates the revenue that takes care of everything else.”

What do you think? Should the opportunity to learn journalism firsthand, scrape together bylines, and build a resume be incentive enough for the 21st-century j-student?  Or should college media staffwork be considered something worth paying for, a necessity on par with a quality printer and an active Web presence?

6 Responses to “College Media’s Future: Should Student Journalists Be Paid?”
  1. I think it depends more on the size of the school and the paper than anything else. The Acorn, the newspaper here at Drew University, is published weekly by a staff that I estimate at between 70 and 90 people. 90 would be nearly a quarter of one class year of Drew students, assuming there’s an average of 400 students per class, which sounds about right.

    A few years ago, a small group of us went to an ACP event in DC. In one workshop, someone asked the speaker about ways to encourage reporters to get their stories in on time. “Just dock their pay,” he said. He suggested that if the amount of money the reporter is paid goes down more for every day it’s late, you’ll be better off. My Acorn cohort and I were flabbergasted. Pay people?

    Perhaps at a larger paper at a state school, it makes sense. Here, I fear money would be a complicating factor in what we do, as much as I’d love to get paid for my hours in the office. The paper is close-knit group and money would only create animosity.

  2. Ryan says:

    My gut thought to the question, “Do we pay our staff?” is a solid “NO”. It’s a student organization, not a company. You should be there because you have a passion to share information with people. If you want money, go sign on with a schools work study program.

    Being on the editorial board for a major college newspaper in Boston – that doesn’t pay it’s staff – I do feel if the money allocates that the editorial board members should be paid a stipend or a lump sum of some sort. That money should be coming from the advertisers or the subscription costs – not the school. Editors put in a lot of work, and most people don’t realize the effort that goes into editing, layouts, websites, social media, behind the scenes administration issues. It’s essentially a full time job with a supervisory role. A modest stipend is reasonable, you can even encourage the staff to use it towards a ACP conference, or going to a journalism workshop or event on their own for personal development.

    As for paying reports, absolutely no. Like everything else in the world, you need to work your way up from the ground and prove your worth. If your paper is having issues retaining staff or getting people to write effectively, hold a training seminar, ect.

    Just my thoughts, everywhere is different. Let’s face it, financial compensation is great, were all poor college students, but I do feel it’s a different atmosphere when your doing it pro-bono.

  3. Alicia says:

    I’m the editor in chief of a mid-level college paper and we are facing some money troubles. Our university covers our printing costs but our advertising revenues cover paying 15 editorial staff. It seems that payment is no longer an incentive, it is expected and to take that away would cause some to leave to find work elsewhere. I fear the quality of the paper would suffer if it is pro-bono and not a job. I feel, that as editor, I would lose some of my power to enforce deadlines and keep my staff in check should problems occur. It is nice to be able to say you must do this well and on time because it is your job. Holding a training seminar will only go so far with some if this is just a student organization. I also believe absolutely that, while we are a part of the university, we must stand somehow apart in fear that we would lose some of our First Amendment rights. To make the newspaper a class or internship for credit would open us up for some nasty prior restraint issues.

    These are just my thoughts but it seems that this is an issue that more and more college papers must face.

  4. Erik says:

    I am the design editor and social media director at small college. There are a total of nine students on our editorial staff and about 20 students that are staff writers. We would personally love to have a pay incentive for editorial staff, as we cannot fill all the positions we have, yet we’ve managed to thrive for over a 130 years without being paid. It is not that we do not have the money, it is because of the crossover with the school funding our printing, and falling under a college organization, rather than just the envelope of the college.

  5. Dave Chase says:

    I am the managing editor of a small paper. I hear the argument that the paper is an organization and not a business and folks should not get paid but our editorial staff puts in way too much time to do it for free. It’s pretty much a part-time job for them, except that they could still make more working at a coffee shop.