Student Media Company evolves over 75 years
MISSION: To operate superior, responsive student media in a learning environment dedicated to excellence, student freedom of expression and sound business practices appropriate to a university.
That mission statement, although developed in the late 90s in connection with efforts to prepare for accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, could have been written nearly three quarters of a century earlier when Southern Methodist University chartered the SMU Students' Publishing Company.
While the structure of the Company and its relationship to various University entities has evolved over the years, including a name change to Student Media Company, Inc. in 1990 to reflect the addition of electronic media, the essentials have remained the same.
Chartered in April 1930, the Company was set up to "protect the University from possible libel suits resulting from student publications," "insure a sound financial foundation and good business management for student publications" and "insure responsible journalism," according to a report prepared for then-President Willis M. Tate in June 1972.
What prompted the University to act when it did is unclear.
At least one SMU history suggests then-President Charles Selecman, said to have an autocratic leadership style, was unhappy with coverage of him in Rotunda yearbook (see Rotunda story). Another contemporary close to the situation cited mismanagement of funds.
The original charter gave responsibility for "publication and sale" of official University student publications to a seven-member publishing board composed of three faculty, two students selected by the Students' Council (now known as Student Senate), and the editors of the Semi-Weekly Campus and Rotunda, the only two established publication units. The board had broad responsibilities, including the appointment of a professional business manager and negotiation of contracts. The University president appointed the faculty members.
But, as the late Dr. Jerry Drake, who served as first business manager following incorporation, told Michael Leftwich for a commemorative edition marking the Company's 60th anniversary, the ties with the university were not immediately broken.
"Later they broadened the powers of the directors", he told Leftwich. "During my time the journalism department was more involved with the newspaper." Indeed, Rotunda reported in 1932 that one of three faculty appointees had to come from the journalism program, a requirement continuing today.
Students' Association was heavily involved with management of student publications as well, not only in funding the program but also in selecting publication editors. Drake told Leftwich the students chose the editors. The student body picked the associate editors of Rotunda and The Semi-Weekly Campus in spring selections and after serving as associates for a year, these students became editors of their respective publications the year following.
As the Company has evolved over the years, however, it became more independent.
There are still three faculty on the SMC, Inc. Board of Directors, including one from the Division of Journalism, but they now are nominated by the Faculty Senate and appointed by the Board itself, and there are four students, two nominated by the student body in campus-wide elections and appointed by the Board and two appointed by the Board after a written application and interview process. The vice president of student affairs serves as a member ex-offico with vote. The Company's executive director, originally called business manager, serves as a member and secretary, without vote.
And the Board now directly appoints publication editors following an application and interview process, and the Company receives no funding from either the SA or the University, relying exclusively on revenues generated from the sale of advertising space, subscriptions and services. It leases space in Hughes-Trigg Student Center.
The tie to the Division of Journalism is very informal and the tie to the University via the Division of Student Affairs is informal as well, although the vice president of student affairs does sign all "official" University paperwork having to do with personnel services requiring a vice presidential signature.
In the beginning, the chair of the publishing board was to be a student and the treasurer a member of the faculty, and that arrangement continues 75 years later. Many students have served in that role, including former editors.
Because of the involvement of faculty, the Board has developed considerable stability over the years. Many faculty members have served for extended periods of time, some more than 20 years.
Current bylaws call for the Board of Directors to appoint an executive director, appoint editors, approve operating and capital budgets, establish general guidelines for the media and define broad standards of professionalism and codes of ethics for staff members.
In all actions, the bylaws state, "the Board of Directors shall protect, maintain, foster and encourage First Amendment freedoms for each of the student media under its jurisdiction and shall expect editors and managers to strive for the highest standards of professional and responsible journalism and media management."
A look back
Darwin Payne, a professor emeritus of journalism who served many years as the journalism faculty member on the Students' Publishing Company Board of Directors, calls his service on the Board as "perhaps the most fulfilling, meaningful and exciting things I did during my 30 years at the University."
And, that is not hard to understand after one reviews the Company's minutes for the last 75 years.
During Payne's time and that before and after, the Company has survived three-quarters of a century marked by numerous changes in the economic cycle, the impact of World War II and Vietnam and multiple assaults on student Freedom of the Press at other colleges and universities. Fortunately, SMU has been spared the latter.
Add to that eight University administrations, countless student presidents, periodic changes in general professional journalism policy and practice, various attempts to distribute alternative publications on the campus, SMU administrative policy and procedures changes with an unfriendly impact, and the ever-changing attitudes and behaviors of SMU students...and student editors and managers.
Economically, there have been good years and bad, the high point being the dot.com boom in the 90s and the low post-9/11, but the Company over the years has been able to adjust its balanced budget to accommodate the business cycle through curtailment of operating expenses, which has included discontinuing popular media activities and laying off professional personnel. It has built up reserve funds to handle "rainy days" and to replace and repair equipment.
During the "up-years," the Company has grown, armed with additional revenue, as former Executive Director Les Hyder (1983-1994) puts it, "to improve what we had been doing and to initiate new and innovative programs and services."
Events overseas did have an impact. World War II produced fewer student journalists and dwindling supplies. The Company mailed subscriptions overseas. At one point in mid-1943, Jerry Drake reported to the Board that "the prospect of getting materials for next year's Rotunda seem to be favorable," according to the minutes.
Some 20 years later, the Vietnam War produced student unrest at SMU as it did elsewhere, prompting some strain with the University administration and making things tougher for both Martin S. Reese, who served as business manager from 1952 to 1971, and Charles A. Reynolds, who succeeded him with the title of director of student publications and radio, beginning in 1971.
Reynolds told Leftwich in an interview for the 1990 supplement that relations were good between the Publishing Company and administration, noting that both Presidents Willis Tate and Paul Hardin supported media independence, a philosophy with which current President R. Gerald Turner agrees.
"Understanding the role of a free press in a democracy is vital to the education of our students," President Turner said in a statement for this publication.
"Whether they become professional journalists or pursue other careers, they must be able to analyze and evaluate information on complex societal issues. Guided by the principles and practices of the journalistic tradition, an independent student newspaper provides a laboratory for learning both the rights and responsibilities of a free press."
Constant vigilance was thought to be necessary, according to Payne's recollections. "During the years I was on the Board in the 70s and 80s, there was a rising realization of the need for independence from the administration," he said in an e-mail interview. "The original reasons for the formation of a separate student media company frequently had to be cited on those occasions when the administration would seek to reprimand what it considered to be undue transgressions."
Frank Ragulsky, who succeeded Reynolds as director of student publications and radio, echoed Reese and Reynolds, noting in his interview with Leftwich that relations with the university were excellent during his tenure and he never was asked by the administration to see a story before publication
According to the minutes, Board members attacked a lot of issues, both large and small, including moving the Company from plywood prefabricated buildings to the Umphrey Lee Student Center in 1955 and eventually to its current space in Hughes-Trigg Student Center in 1987. In addition to the routine tasks of certifying/appointing editors and approving budgets/vendor contracts, among other yearly tasks, the Board also answered complaints about editorial and advertising content, most often doing nothing or referring the matter to a committee for a report back; heard proposals for new media units, more often than not reacting favorably but always certain to protect the newspaper's advertising base; dealt with sensitive issues related to a Rotunda organization contract and personnel matters relating to grade requirements for editor; and, in the early 90s, attempted to hammer out a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the relationship between the Company and the University.
The Company has evolved over the years and has adapted to the changing times. Perhaps two actions the Board took in February 1948 and April 1953 illustrate this rapid change. At the first meeting, the Board authorized "first class railway transportation" for the Rotunda editor to check proofs at the printing plant in Iowa City; at the second, it authorized "plane tickets."