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Tech and Journalism | Friday, November 6th, 2009, 6:20 pm

Financial independence: How much is it really worth?

The Maine Campus is, like many other large college newspapers, a separate company from the university. While we are in large part funded through advertising revenue, we still take some money from the university, which we classify as a subscription fee. This is oftentimes lamented, but as we move into a harder time for newspapers in general, we need to ask how much financial independence is really worth.

Some of the best news organizations are not financially independent; the BBC is funded by a fee the British government collects, and NPR receives quite a bit of money from the government. Yet, those two organizations produce some of the best reporting in the world, whereas the USA Today has never even come close to producing such stories. Sure, it may be easier for The New York Times to report objectively on certain subjects, but all news orgs have their kryptonite — subjects they hate to breach.

We will see more non-profit news orgs relying heavily on grants in the future. This may well be the only way papers can survive as consumers increasingly demand free news — it will either be go non-profit or drop investigative reporting altogether. For my money, NPR provides a better service than 75 percent of the for-profit newspapers and certainly broadcast news outlets out there, so I would love to see others follow their lead.

This, of course, isn’t to say that news organizations, and in particular college newspapers, should avoid financial independence. It’s a great thing if you can swing it. But it is by no means a necessity to be an effective and qualitative news source. Generally the barriers are simpler — laziness and inexperience. Most universities are smart enough not to pull funding over an article, and the ones who aren’t that smart are just asking to be sued. The University of Maine has limited oversight over our financial operations and absolutely no oversight over what we print. The only way for them to try and squelch us would be to not write us a check next semester — certainly not the most effective form of censorship.

As a final note, what newspapers should avoid is being funded through student governments. Student governments are generally petulant and petty and do not have the same levels of bureaucracy and protection larger governments do, and so one hard-hitting article makes it likely to get the paper’s funding pulled. The Campus is directly funded through a separate fee called the communications fee, thereby ensuring as little meddling as possible. Also, college newspapers need to be editorially independent — no prior review of articles — and should be separate organizations from the university. If you do have to break off from the university, you don’t want them holding your copyright.

William P. Davis is editor of MaineMedia and a founding editor of the Observer.

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