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Thursday, May 23, 2024
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Letter to the Editor: The Eagle’s EIC, other student media leaders deserve their stipends

The disbanding of the Student Media Board raises multiple concerns including editorial independence and a lack of stipend for organization leaders

There’s been an issue stirring at American University since this summer that has made me one unhappy alumna. Over the summer, the Center for Student Involvement, decided to disband the Student Media Board, taking away stipends from highly deserving student media leaders and threatening editorial independence for The Eagle.

You’re probably asking why a 2015 alumna cares about the Student Media Board. I am the current chair of the Eagle Advisory Board, a group of alumni, local professionals and Eagle staff put in place to help guide the newspaper. We established the Eagle Innovation Fund as an endowment to help The Eagle financially. This year, the endowment is more needed than ever.

The Center for Student Involvement (formerly known as Student Activities, for those who graduated a while ago like me) decided to disband the Student Media Board without any input from its members on its dissolution and without it being re-established until next fall. Through the Student Media Board, members, like The Eagle, would divvy up the portion of the Student Activity Fee the board received each year through their own budgeting process. But this year, without the Student Media Board, the student media organizations did not get their cut of the fee. Instead, the student media organizations were told they would need to use their reserve funds since there was a large sum of money in the account. 

In the past, the Student Media Board has managed to wisely spend students' activity fees, which were frugally managed in order to provide avenues for students to hone their craft and provide critical accountability through reporting on the University. The board provided a necessary buffer between student journalists and the administration that provided editorial independence.

But rather than operate in the system students and staff designed, AU violated its agreement with student media organizations and supplanted their authority. Student media governing documents — meant to protect journalistic independence — are now obsolete, and those protections are in doubt. The Student Media Board's dissolution in the name of reform appears shortsighted at best and nefarious at worst. At this point, we have yet to hear a plan that puts in place a student media board that will protect editorial independence for its members.  

We would hate to see a future student journalist or editor at AU rethink their reporting for fear of retribution from the administration. While this administration hasn't taken those steps, future iterations of AU's leadership might do so. 

If AU and its preeminent School of Communication are sincere in their desire to train the next generation of student journalists, the University will provide the freedom they need to succeed.

Then there is the matter of stipends. By getting rid of the Student Media Board, the administration took away the ability for student media leaders to earn a stipend. Already, they were making the leaders do extra work for the stipends, as if running a news organization while being a full-time student isn’t enough.

This goes against at least 10 years of precedent. I was the editor-in-chief from 2014-2015. I earned a stipend of $2,000 per semester. It was not a lot, but it was something that allowed me to focus on being editor-in-chief. The stipend helps ensure that students who need a job to attend AU have a chance to be the editor — and it compensates leadership roles in student media similar to the way student government leaders have long been compensated. This helped put student media outlets on equal footing, rather than make them subservient to student government.

Consider the experience of former Eagle EIC Lydia Calitri: 

"One of the first things I did when I found out that I was going to be The Eagle’s editor-in-chief was I put in my two weeks notice for my on-campus job. That job was my only source of income at the time, and the reason why I left was that I knew that being editor-in-chief was going to take up a lot of my time (and it did!). I was able to justify the decision because I knew I’d be getting a $1,500 stipend each semester as the leader of a Student Media organization. I’m worried that without their stipends, Student Media leaders will have to choose between getting a job and being a part of the organization they love, because I can safely say looking back on my tenure, having a part-time job while being a student AND leading a student newspaper would have been impossible for me to manage. If other school leaders such as student government are continuing to get their stipends, then the leaders of Student Media organizations like The Eagle that hold them accountable should continue to get them as well."

Or former EIC Courtney Rozen:

"AU in 2017 committed to increasing equity and inclusion at all levels of the university. Eliminating the stipend for The Eagle’s editor contradicts that goal. It makes it more difficult for students of all backgrounds to build community at the paper. It also limits the career benefits to students who can afford to work for free."

AU has already decreased the stipend over the past couple of years, (notwithstanding tuition increases and a higher cost of living) but giving the Eagle EIC nothing at all this year shows how little the University understands the work done by the EIC. 

Here’s last year’s EIC Clare Mulroy explaining some of that work: 

"Being editor-in-chief of The Eagle, or the editor of any college media organization at American University, is no light task. On top of schoolwork, EICs dedicate their time and energy to their staffers, the integrity of their work and their audience. As EIC, I regularly worked on The Eagle for over 40 hours a week while taking classes and interning. A stipend of $1,100 certainly wasn't much, but it was a bit of financial support and acknowledgment that the University knew the work we put in as student media leaders. EIC stipends are about so much more than extra spending cash — they actively work to break down the barrier to entry, and they support students from diverse financial backgrounds who have to sacrifice leadership opportunities for an after school job. These leadership roles are more than just fun; they prepare students for careers in journalism and media, and everyone should be able to seek them without financial barriers. The University should be actively increasing student stipends if it is so committed to student success, not taking them away. "

The Eagle’s managing editors earn stipends because of the Eagle Innovation Fund. This year, they all got less because we used some of the funds to do what AU refused to do. We gave the EIC a stipend. It does not match what the EIC would have received, but it was what we could do.

The AU administration loves to use The Eagle to advertise its journalism program. It loves to use the paper’s alumni achievements as a selling point. But the administration's recent actions certainly aren't doing anything to help the paper succeed. In fact, these latest challenges threaten to weaken The Eagle and student media as a whole. AU has a long tradition of excellence in student journalism. While SOC teaches students how to report, places like The Eagle give AU students their first taste of reporting and provide them with the clips necessary for internships and jobs. The Eagle is the paper of record for AU, and it should not be treated as a public relations document for the University. That’s why I — like other members of the Eagle Advisory Board — am protective of editorial independence.

So this Giving Tuesday, if you want to donate (or even are thinking about donating to AU anyway), I urge you to consider donating to the Eagle Innovation Fund. Help us provide the students’ stipends and secure the paper’s future. 

And to the Center for Student Involvement as well as to administrators, who we hope read this letter, please reinstate the Student Media Board as soon as possible. Give the student media leaders back their power to budget for their organizations. And, please, start giving the leaders their well-deserved stipends. 

Thank you,

Heather Mongilio ‘15, chair on behalf of the Eagle Advisory Board 

Editor's note: This letter was updated to include a clarification about the timeline of changes to the Student Media Board. 

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