Maine Campus in the red

By Ryan Robbins

It should come as no surprise to the University of Maine that its student newspaper, The Maine Campus, is in dire straits financially. For years, the university has simply handed over the paper's portion of the communications fee without giving the students who run the paper any guidance or ensuring the paper spends the money wisely.

In September 1998, I talked with members of the journalism department, including the paper's faculty adviser at the time, about The Maine Campus' cavalier management and business practices. I even gave the adviser an excerpt of a report I had written that outlined the paper's poor management during my tenure as a staff writer, copy editor, opinion editor and columnist. The adviser and staff at the paper ignored my warning that the paper was a "disaster waiting to happen."

Now the paper finds itself $17,000 in debt.

As former journalism department chairman Stuart Bullion told the Bangor Daily News last week, student newspapers are "strange creatures." Their high turnover rate and a frequently inexperienced staff of students who often have visions of padding their resume and leaving their mark on the paper invite trouble, especially when the university fails to adequately prepare the students in the art and science of running a newspaper that could rival that of a small Maine town's paper.

The paper has no formal operating policy, leaving the editor in chief, advertising manager and business manager to answer to nobody.

Several years ago, the university adopted the Student Organization Administration Policy, which sought to ensure that student groups using university funds were managing themselves wisely. Among the policy's requirements is that all student organizations receiving student fees must provide the university with a constitution or set of bylaws and appoint a faculty or staff adviser.

Although the university knew two years ago that The Maine Campus did not have any operating procedures, the university did nothing to ensure the paper's stability. The university has essentially handed the paper $70,000 a year in student fees to be spent as the paper wishes. In recent years, the paper's staffers have made personal long-distance telephone calls on the paper's tab, destroyed office furniture for kicks and sponsored parties at which alcohol was served to underage drinkers.

No one editor in chief or business manager of The Maine Campus deserves the full brunt of the blame for the paper's situation. Some editors have required a professional atmosphere, but others have not.

However, the university owes the current staff and the rest of the campus help in continuing the 125-year tradition of the paper. The paper is the first place most journalism, advertising, business and computer students get experience. It enables students to learn the value of teamwork. It also informs the campus community.

Although The Maine Campus' immediate concern is money, its most pressing need is guidance from the university more than anything if it is to succeed in the new century.

First, the university must clearly define the paper's relationship with the university -- without compromising the paper's editorial autonomy. Second, the university must establish communication between The Maine Campus staff and the journalism department, again without compromising editorial autonomy. Third, the university must enforce its student organization policy and require the paper to implement operating procedures and to appoint an adviser -- preferably from the journalism department.

But most important, The Maine Campus and the university need to work on establishing a board independent of the university, preferably comprising former staff members of the paper and journalism professionals from around the state. The board could, on a regular basis, review the paper's operations, provide feedback and advice, and choose a new editor in chief, business manager and advertising manager annually. Such a board would do away with much of the personal politics that so often lead to poor management decisions.

Giving the newspaper money to continue publishing will be a temporary fix only. By continuing to neglect The Maine Campus' inherent management problems, the university will only invite the same problems down the road, cheating students out of their communications fee and robbing students of "real-world" experience.

This column originally appeared in the Nov. 1, 2000, edition of the Bangor Daily News.
2000, Ryan R. Robbins.