How student media can cope with financial troubles brought on by COVID-19

The coronavirus outbreak is taking a devastating toll both in terms of human suffering and lives lost, and the shocking number of people who've lost their livelihoods in the economic fallout. Student media, like everyone else, must contend with this.  

The first priority of student journalists, of course, should be to stay safe and try to "flatten the curve." The second priority is to practice good journalism, and keep fellow students and the community at large informed, while dispelling incorrect information and rumors. The third priority, much less talked about, but still vitally important, is to ensure the stability and financial sustainability of your publication.

As schools adapt to remote learning and virtual classrooms, administrators or student governments might opportunistically use the crisis to cut back on journalism programs for a variety of reasons. Know that at public institutions, content-based budget cuts are illegal.

It's more important than ever to be aware of your news organization's financial structure and prepare your publication for what may be next. 

Budget cuts

Unfortunately, even student publications that receive "steady" funding from schools can be blindsided by budget cuts. It's important to diversify your sources of revenue, both to bring in some extra income and to have something to fall back on if your budget is slashed. Your publication should also maintain an emergency fund to pull from in times of financial strain like a budget cut. If your budget is cut, contact SPLC's legal hotline and read these tips:
How to deal with a budget cut

A crisis in advertising

School closures and "social distancing" have forced many student publications to halt their print editions and move entirely online. The loss of print ads and a decreased interest in advertising from small businesses struggling to get by are resulting in major losses from publications that rely on ad money. The University Daily Kansan said said cutting their print edition saved $17,500, but they lost an estimated $30,000 to 40,000 in projected ad revenue.

Representatives from College Media Business and Advertising Managers told an SPLC reporter that student publications should balance the economics and empathy of what they are trying to accomplish, and try to maintain relationships with advertisers where possible. They recommended hosting free or discounted ad space for local businesses if possible.

Rob Karwath, the general manager for The Kansan, agreed, saying: “If we could be gracious about refunding advertising revenue to businesses that are hurting and being flexible about trying to move things to the fall when they are up and running again and using our advertising space for important messages and not charging, I think that’s the right thing to do.”
More tips for working with advertisers

SPLC's Coronavirus Toolkit

SPLC has created resources to help you protect your newsroom and understand key legal issues while reporting on the coronavirus. It contains a letter reminding administrators student media is an "essential service" as defined by federal guidelines, plus guides for fighting censorship or other threats to your program, covering the coronavirus, managing your newsroom remotely and teaching online.
See the toolkit

Q: Recently, we had a student at our school test positive for COVID-19. He lived in an on-campus dorm and rumors are starting to fly, many of them inaccurate. He has not gone public, but we have confirmed the information. Can we publish his name? If not, what can we publish?  

This is an important question that many news organizations have started to ask. Publicly disclosing private and embarrassing facts about an individual can lead to an invasion of privacy claim. Revealing private and sensitive medical information about someone — without that person’s consent — generally falls into that category and should be avoided. That said, the primary defense to an invasion of privacy claim is newsworthiness and certainly a strong argument can be made at this time that alerting individuals that they may have been exposed to a potentially lethal disease is not only newsworthy but also essential to prevent further spread and to quash rumors and disinformation.

The first thing I’d do is approach the student and ask if he’s willing to talk. There is nothing shameful about being one of the growing number of individuals to contract the disease and now is the time to be like Tom Hanks (who announced his positive status to the world), instead of like Rand Paul (the U.S. Senator from Kentucky who continued going about his normal business, interacting and possibly infecting others, after being tested but before the results showed him to be positive for COVID-19).

If the student consents, you’re safe to publish his name. If he doesn’t consent, I’d be reluctant to identify him unless there is some other editorial justification for doing so. For example, if the student held a position of particular significance (for example, he was a player on the school basketball team who might have spread it to those he played with) or if there was some other unique angle to the story that editorially justified publishing his name it would be worth further discussion, including talking it over with legal counsel.

Even if you don’t publish his name, you can safely publish the name of the dorm and other details about the case as long as they don’t lead to the student’s identity (or accidentally point to someone else.) You cannot be successfully sued for public disclosure invasion of privacy by someone if you’ve not identified them.

See previous Ask SPLC answers

Help us recognize courageous student journalism

Nominate students by May 22, 2020 for SPLC's high school journalism and college journalism awards to recognize exceptional efforts in fighting for student press freedom.
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