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The Daily Trojan, Free Expression, and What It Means to Be a “Student” Newspaper, by Max

August 27, 2011

Newspapers have served as the watchdog of the powerful since their beginnings. In countless instances, “the news” has amplified the voices of the disenfranchised and oppressed. The Daily Trojan prints off approximately 10,000 copies per issue and likely gets again as many readers on its website (1). As such, it is by far the primary source of information and news for students and staff covering university matters. This means that the spokesperson role falls heavily upon the Daily Trojan newspaper; it has a duty to its readership to report not only on game days and speakers, but also to peer into the sometimes unpleasant crevices of the university. Unfortunately, this is not often the case. Why? As one must do to ascertain how any institution works, we must look at the fine print of the DT’s own structure and at the details of its past actions, not it’s professed values, to see how it operates and if it truly is a “student newspaper” (2).

The DT has a “staff of about 200 to 250 writers, editors, photographers, artists and designers” (3). The editor-in-chief (EIC) is elected for each semester and, according to the DT’s “Guidelines for Operation,” “shall have complete authority over content and editorial policy of the paper and shall be answerable in these matters only to the President of the University. The editor has final responsibility for judging what is suitable for publication” (2). Continuing on these official guidelines, “The editor of the Daily Trojan shall be appointed by the President of the University upon recommendation of the Student Media Board,” and “The Student Media Board shall be chaired by the Vice-President of Student Affairs and shall consist of equal numbers of faculty of the School of Journalism (including the editorial advisor to the Daily Trojan) and staff of the Division of Student Affairs (including the Director of Student Publications). The membership shall include also the editor of the Daily Trojan, the general manager of KSCR, the president of the student government association, and the director of the student news service” (2).

There are a number of bottlenecks in the process of choosing an EIC that are not in fact determined by students and that restrict DT staff independence. The Student Media Board is charged with choosing the EIC, but the Board itself is chaired by a USC vice-president, and consists of equal (though unspecified) numbers of journalism faculty and Student Affairs staff, neither of which are students. The student element of the Board members is the standing DT EIC, the manager of the student radio station, and the student government president (I have no idea who the “director of the student news service” is. Try googling it yourself for an answer). Overall, it appears there are 3 students on this board and the rest are staff, faculty, and its chair is a USC vice president. With this mostly non-student board, the EIC is still only recommended to the university president who then makes the final decision and who has the unilateral power to remove the editor. It’s hard to see how the paper can sincerely reflect a diversity of student voices, especially when they are critical of USC, when its EIC is so thoroughly determined by people who are not students and thus has different interests and priorities.

The financial structure of the DT is also riddled with potential conflicts of interest. USC likes to advertise that “the Daily Trojan receives no financial support from the university or from Student Senate funding allocations and is wholly supported by advertising revenue” (2). However, the DT does receive “other resources, like office space and legal counsel, from the university” (4). Former editor of the DT, Brendaon Loy, summed it up on his blog:

The administration holds various unspoken trump cards that would allow it to “squeeze” the DT if it ever really wanted to. Chief among these is that roughly half the ads in the paper, and thus roughly half the advertising revenue, comes from the university … Moreover, said staff wouldn’t have offices, and there wouldn’t be anywhere to print those 8 pages, because the university could take away the DT’s office space in the Student Union building” (5).

The real concern raised by this analysis comes from instances whereupon this structure has been used to subvert students’ voices. In 2006 the USC administration blatantly violated student concerns over the election of the EIC in just the way one might expect from the DT’s “Guidelines for Operation.”

On November 8th, 2006, Zach Fox, then editor-in-chief, was reelected by the DT staff by a margin of 37-21 to be the EIC in the coming spring semester (6). Having been at the head of the DT for 3 months and worked for them previously, his campaign claimed some aspects of the DT needed reorganizing to spread around responsibility more evenly and thought that the DT staff should have access to the financial documents of the paper, something obvious and crucial if the DT were to be a truly student newspaper (1). As the vote showed, a large majority of the students who worked at the DT thought this was a good idea.

On November 28th, Michael L. Jackson, the Vice-President of Student Affairs (who holds this position today), decided not to pass along the staff recommendation of Fox for approval by the Media Board, effectively vetoing the students’ democratic vote. For the next two days, Jackson refused to comment on the decision, breaking all trust between the administration and the allegedly student-run paper. Zach Fox resigned in protest.

Jackson’s decision sparked a wide-spread outcry from USC students, journalism students across the country, faculty, and parents. 21 former editors of the DT—including alumni holding positions at the NY Times, the LA Times, and the Chicago Tribune—wrote a letter to the Media Board on the situation (7) stating that “The administration is committing a grave transgression in violating the paper’s rights to editorial freedom and self-determination. Its actions in this matter damage the reputation and integrity of both the University of Southern California and the Daily Trojan” and that Jackson’s refusal to comment on his decision constituted “perhaps arrogance, perhaps cowardice, but it is certainly not leadership.”

A few days later, 18 college student newspapers, including the official papers at Stanford, Harvard, Yale, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, ran an identical editorial (8) on the DT events that include the following excerpts:

If campus newspapers are to succeed in informing readers and training reporters, they must be more than public relations arms of universities, and they cannot operate under the yoke of administrators’ censorship.”

The USC administration’s interference with the student press creates a chilling effect, forcing student journalists to weigh the risk of losing their jobs against the duty of writing a story about or questioning the administration.”

John Ketler, a professor of media law at USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism, said, “It tromps all over the reason for having a student newspaper in the first place … How can you have a student voice with the students being throttled by the administration? The [faculty] I’ve spoken with are outraged” (9).

Due to the vitriolic response, Vice-President Jackson partially recanted and scheduled a second election whereby he would not block a re-election of Fox, but Fox would not be on the second vote ballot and would have to be a write-in candidate. If Jackson had the authority to invalidate a DT staff vote, he obviously had the power to re-validate it but ultimately chose not to.

In the end, Fox thought that the best thing for the DT reforms he advocated was for his ally and friend, Jeremy Beecher, to run in his place. Despite an impassioned speech by the opposing candidate who blasted Fox and Beecher and praised the administration’s actions, Beecher won the staff vote 36-4 and was then approved by the Media Board.

The administration caved to some of Fox and Beecher’s demands, like giving access of the financial records to DT staff, but real change remained illusory. After three months of Beecher as EIC, Fox wrote in a DT editorial that the administration had “forced the new editor in chief, Jeremy Beecher, to conform to the existing job description: micromanagement” and that “the fact remains that university administrators direct the newspaper’s resources in the university’s interest.” (1).

The above case illustrates how the governing and funding structures of the DT allow the administration to override the “student” element of being a “student newspaper”.

As someone who has written articles for the DT over 2 semesters and has friends who have been DT writers and felt the same way, there is a kind of unspoken rule against criticizing the university beyond polite appeals for change. In my own experience, I engaged in a kind of self-censorship, watering down my opinion pieces, because I knew that certain things would not make it through the editorial process, and even then my articles were often re-written to an extent with which I was very uncomfortable. I would voice my concerns and demand to see the edits of my articles before they were published, but more often than not I would still not be given that basic level of respect. I suspect this is in part what Zach Fox was referring to when he called the DT “disorganized.”

Sherry Wang, a friend, former DT writer, and colleague in writing for this publication, had her articles censored on a level I had not heard of before but I imagine is all too common for those whose writing lies outside certain parameters. She wrote an article on the hazardous chemicals used in disposable menstrual pads and on alternative products that can be used in their place. She was told by her editor that the article was not appropriate for publication and thereby refused to include it or to even work with her to make it publishable. This is repulsive both for its censoring of content relating to woman’s sexual health, which ultra-conservative elements of society have long considered taboo, and its relevance to chemical pollution and environmental issues.

The next article Sherry submitted was an opinion piece critical of the USC administration’s dealings with the National Union of Healthcare Workers, who represented thousands of employees at USC’s recently acquired hospital, in their ongoing contract negotiations. Having not received a response from her editor for a few days, Sherry asked her editor at an end-of-the-semester DT dinner about it and was told that the piece was “too newsy” for an opinion article. To Sherry and this author, that seemed more like an excuse not to print the article as we found its content opinionated and well documented. Due to finals coming up and a general frustration with the DT, Sherry opted not to invest the time to fight her editor and subsequently stopped writing for the DT.

Without much information on the circumstances of the editor, one can do little more than speculate as to whether politics was responsible for withholding Sherry’s piece. Maybe the editor already had enough articles to finish out the semester or somehow lost track of the article. Maybe the editor’s own politics persuaded her to not work with Sherry on the piece. Or, as the evidence from her previous article rejection might suggest, perhaps Sherry had once again crossed an unspoken line of what was considered “appropriate” for the DT.

All of this isn’t to say that the DT isn’t worth reading. They have a large and hardworking staff that is far more comprehensive of its coverage of USC current events than any alternative. Some of its content is well-written and important. Nonetheless, the DT has certain constraints placed upon it by the administration that have the potential to limit student control of the paper as well as tilt the ideological bias in favor of USC.

If you are interested in critical perspectives from sources not influenced by USC’s official line, check out alternative publications like Black Student Voices (10), look for future issues of this zine (11), or start your own.

If you or your friends write for the DT and have felt your writing isn’t being respected, please feel free to contact us (uscundercurrent@gmail.com) and we’d be happy to support any effort to further democratize the DT and ensure that student voices be heard.

Sources Cited

1. http://dailytrojanbeta.com/2011/04/20/daily-trojan-dialogue-must-be-improved/

2. http://www.dailytrojan.com/general-information/

3. Fox, Zach. “Former Editor Says USC Daily Trojan Disorganized.” The Daily Trojan, 3-22-07

4. Farrel, Elizabeth F. “USC Bars Student Newspaper’s Editor From Reassuming His Position.The Chronicle of Higher Education. 12-15-06

5. http://www.brendanloy.com/wp/category/local-interest/usc-news-sports/daily-trojan-controversy/page/2

6. http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2006/12/1/admins-at-usc-force-newspaper-chief/

7. http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2006/12/daily_trojan_editor_might.php

8. http://www.thecrimson.harvard.edu/article/2006/12/5/defending-the-collegiate-press-span-stylefont-weight/

9. http://www.flathatnews.com/content/usc-administration-blocks-student-becoming-editor

10. uscblackvoices.wordpress.com/

11. uscundercurrent.wordpress.com

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