Sink or swim

The Daily Texan and Texas Student Media, the organization that oversees the paper’s budget, confront a projected budget deficit of $175,000 for 2012. Former TSM director Gary Borders resigned Feb. 8 after meeting with Juan Gonzalez, vice president of student affairs, who announced in July that he will step down as an administrator and return to teaching at the University. Borders said Gonzalez told him he could either resign or be fired.

Gonzalez and Jennifer Hammat, assistant vice president of student affairs, began discussing their dissatisfaction with Borders’ job performance on Jan. 25, according to The Daily Texan, but neither discussed their concerns with the TSM Board of Operating Trustees before Borders’ resignation.

University administrators attempted to sanitize Borders’ resignation by calling the episode a “failure of communication.” Because the University did not consult the TSM board, it impinged on The Daily Texan’s independence and took an initial, heavy step on the path to exerting undue influence that could ultimately lead to censorship. At the same time — and probably not coincidentally — the deficit has thrown the Texan’s institutional connection to the University into high relief. All this unfolds at a moment when the organization is struggling to close a budget gap without discontinuing the paltry wages it pays its student employees — wages which, in recent decades, have failed to keep up with inflation.

UT owes TSM a deception-free explanation for Borders’ resignation, and TSM owes it to itself to right its ship before the opportunity to maintain and even strengthen its independence is lost.

The Texan is not the first student newspaper to grapple with financial challenges and face questions about its independence.

The Daily Illini, published and serving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, recently moved to charge students $3 per semester in student fees to maintain its rate of publication. The Red and Black, published independently and serving the University of Georgia, went to a weekly print product but publishes online daily.

Jill Disis, current editor of The Daily Illini, commented, “Editorial independence is important. If a newspaper ends up in a position that compromises it, it’s not doing its job as a watchdog and a check. You’re not providing the students with the opportunity to do good, solid, correct, faithful journalism if you’re censoring the kinds of things they can do.”

In order for the Texan and TSM to continue their tradition of serving UT by producing journalism with students’ interests in mind, the paper and the organization must be forward-looking. A technologically savvy way to deliver the stories made here to an audience of mostly college-aged students is not unthinkable. But if the news organization fails to make itself sustainable and profitable, another possibility looms: a long spiral of dwindling circulation and relevance, ending when the Texan ceases to exist at all.