Among the missions of journalism is to question authority, keep government accountable, as well as provide readers with news and features of general interest.
For a student preparing for a career in journalism, the college-level version of those missions is to keep an eye on the administration and keep students informed about the sometimes controversial aspects of popular culture.
It was the latter mission that got Arizona State University’s State Press into hot water with the administration and a major university contributor last fall when the paper published a feature on body piercing that included a photo of a bare, pierced female breast.
The photo sparked more than the usual administrative outrage. ASU’s largest single contributor, Ira Fulton, complained to ASU President Michael Crow. Crow had a representative visit the State Press to say that the administration was contemplating withholding funding from it.
Partly in response to the piercing story and photo, during the current legislative session state lawmakers led by state Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, proposed removing funding for the paper from its annual appropriation to the state universities.
Only about 10 percent of the paper’s annual budget comes from the university. But it is obvious that whenever government assumes that it has any control over the finances of a publication, that it will be tempted to exercise control, even though outlawed consistently by the courts as infringements on First Amendment rights.
That is why newspapers, in order to credibly fulfill their "Fourth Estate" role under the First Amendment, must be fully independent of government. That is, they must be privately owned.
Many newspapers serving public universities are set up as private, non-profit operations, often with board members from both the university community and the surrounding community. Ideally, boards set overall policy and hire a publisher, who oversees daily operations at arms length from the board. Such papers typically are expected to be self-supporting through advertising revenues, though some also enjoy the financial security of endowments.
It is time for ASU officials, the Arizona Board of Regents, the State Press, Valley media and community leaders to seriously consider taking the State Press private in the interests of ensuring student journalists can hone their skills at a campus paper that more closely resembles newspapers in the real world.
We are certain that the media in Arizona have the wherewithal to help make this happen and the Tribune would participate.
To fully achieve the world-class university status President Crow envisions for ASU, the State Press must be free to carry out its missions under the First Amendment.
Clearly, it cannot do so with financial and political strings attached to the university and state’s power structure.