This is a letter I sent today to Texas Student Media, the umbrella organization that operates The Daily Texan and other publications and entities at the University of Texas at Austin. (Seems like I get caught up in events at my alma mater every year at this time. Must be a seasonal thing.)
Date: March 15, 2006
To: The TSM Board of Operating Trustees:
Thank you for this opportunity to provide input into the proposed restructuring of Texas Student Media.
You’ve asked that commenters identify themselves and their interests as stakeholders, so let me take a moment here to do so. My name is Mike Godwin, and I worked extensively on The Daily Texan staff and on the UTmost staff in the 1980s. I ran for editor of The Daily Texan twice — I won the second time I ran for editor, a year and a half after I had come back to UT Austin to attend law school. I’ve written one of the few comprehensive accounts of the formation and history of The Daily Texan and of Texas Student Media, and my work served as source material for Tara Copp’s and Rob Roger’s book on The Texan and for the Handbook of Texas entry on the Texan. That account appeared as an article in UTmost magazine in fall 1987.
I’m also a lawyer who has specialized in First Amendment issues. That experience too informs my comments here.
I agree generally with other commenters who urge that TSM revert in structure to something like the independent nonprofit corporation it was prior to 1971. Because I know your time and attention are valuable, I won’t repeat those arguments Instead, I shall limit myself to comments in the following four areas:
(1) The history of TSP/TSM and the ongoing trust obligations
(2) The institution of the elected editorship of The Daily Texan
(3) The role of the General Manager
(4) The need for rigorous requirements for editor candidates
I. Remembering the History of the Daily Texan and TSP.
As you know, students founded The Daily Texan. Moreover, for most of its history the newspaper was legally owned by the students of the University of Texas, as represented by the student government. The transfer of Texas Student Publication Inc.’s ownership to the University of Texas in 1971 was a transfer “in trust” — the legal owners of TSP’s (now TSM’s) assets have an ongoing fiduciary obligation to the UT student body, which is the beneficiary of the trust. Reorganizing TSM must not be done in a way that removes or diminishes the rights and benefits of UT students. (Indeed, any restructuring that removes or diminishes these rights and benefits could well be vulnerable to a legal challenge from stakeholders.) Among these rights and benefits is the right to elect the editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan. As a consequence of this history, the elected editorship of The Texan remains and will continue to remain a fiduciary obligation, even though some may dispute whether electing the editor is a good idea.
II. The Institution of the Elected Editor
There is plenty of evidence, however, that electing the editor is a good idea. The overwhelming testimony from former editors, former staff members, and former students has been that the elected editorship has been a wellspring of vitality and connectedness for The Texan and its relationship with the community it serves. Nevertheless, there have been efforts over the years to eliminate or undermine the elected editorship. (The undermining often comes in the form of a particularly misconceived notion — that the elected editor’s powers be limited to the editorial page.) These efforts have mostly come from three sources:
(a) The UT Administration or the Board of Regents, which sometimes have had an antagonistic relationship with The Texan;
(b) The General Manager’s office, because the GM has wished both to consolidate power within that office and to make The Daily Texan more like other student newspapers; and
(c) A few students who are fearful that the election process makes the position “too political” — without realizing that *all* processes by which an editor-in-chief is selected are inherently political.
Fortunately, the proposed restructuring of TSM can address the first two of these real and perceived problems. And a reinstitution of rigorous requirements for Daily Texan editor candidates can address the third.
III. The Benefits of Restructuring TSM
Restructuring TSM as an independent non-profit corporation will, it is hoped limit the ability of the UT Administration to constrain what The Daily Texan can do, what issues it can cover, and so on. It creates the opportunity to eliminate the prior-review institution, originally imposed by the Board of Regents in order to constrain the Texan. Eliminating prior review is a worthy goal.
What may be less obvious that this restructuring also creates a great opportunity to define more precisely the role of the General Manager. In some years, the General Manager’s office has taken the view that it functions as a kind of Faculty Adviser/Sponsor of TSM’s writers and editors. This view is, I think, incorrect. Loyd Edmonds, who is widely regarded as the best General Manager TSP ever had, understood his role to be one of making sure the *business operations* of the newspaper remained healthy. He abstained to the greatest extent possible from the politics of editor election/selection — he believed it was extremely risky if TSP departed from its historically anchored traditions, and when he helped create the Declaration of Trust in 1971 his highest priority was to preserve those traditions, including the elected editorship. No one knew better than Loyd how strong the elected editorship had made The Daily Texan over time.
I propose that under any restructuring of TSM the General Manager position be renamed/redefined as the “General Business Manager” position, to make clearer that this management role is primarily and essentially to maintain the economic health of The Daily Texan and other TSM enterprises, and not to act as a student advisor or faculty sponsor.
IV. Professionalism and the Elected Editor
As I noted above, a great number of former editors, both elected and appointed, have argued for the value of having an elected editor. Other former Texan staffers who have not been editors have also chimed in on this point, most recently in a group letter to the TSM Board of Operating Trustees a year ago. I won’t attempt to summarize all that testimony here. But I will note that any concern current students or TSM Board members have about “professionalism” can be addressed in part by re-instituting the following standard: the course and education requirements for the editorship should be the same as — or exceed — those for the managing editorship. If the editor is to be in charge of the entire paper (as he or she must continue to be), it undermines that institution to hold editor candidates to a lower education/experience standard than that to which managing-editor candidates are held.
I don’t pretend to know with certainty what the elements of these requirements ought to be. I do know that they have been changed over the years, sometimes for good reasons, but often for shortsighted ad-hoc reasons, such as trying to guarantee that multiple candidates are available to run for editor. I believe that the TSM Board is better off when it sticks to its guns and refuses to suspend those experience or education requirements that guarantee experienced editor candidates who have made a long-term commitment to The Texan. And I believe that on occasions in recent years the TSM Board has unwittingly undermined staff faith in the position of the elected editor by holding editor candidates to a less rigorous standard than that applied to managing-editor candidates — or to editor candidates in previous years.
Through most of the history of The Daily Texan, the newspaper’s staffers have known that the editor-in-chief had paid his or her dues even before attempting to qualify as a candidate for the position. That’s a tradition that must be restored and maintained. Do that, and you can preserve the benefits of the elected editorship while ensuring that those who hold that position have met the educational and professional standards and have demonstrated a commitment to The Daily Texan.
Thank you again for this opportunity to provide input. I remain available to provide further input on these or any other issues as TSM explores the complex problem of restructuring itself to increase its independence while maintaining its longstanding obligations to the students who are its spiritual owners and publishers.
Daily Texan editor 1988-89
J.D., the School of Law, University of Texas at Austin, 1990
Research Scientist and Fellow, Yale University, 2005-6