Buffalo State’s ‘The Record’ April Fools controversy: Tough times in college media

It’s been said, but certainly not enough: It’s hard out there for a college journalist.

I know Buffalo State College’s The Record knows what I’m talking about. The newspaper, which is funded by its student government, published an April Fools’ issue (which they called The Wreckard’) and got a hell of a response – the student government froze the paper’s budget. It also asked the newspaper staff to remove its editions from campus.

It didn’t like The Record’s witty articles, because that’s, of course, a good reason to ignore the First Amendment.

United Student Government Executive Vice President Emily Leminger sent an email to the paper saying, “It has come to our attention from many students and faculty members that some of the topics discussed in the ‘Wreckard’ satire addition were offensive to members of Buffalo State and the surrounding community.”

The Spectrum chose not to do an April Fools’ issue for a lot of reasons (mainly, I’ve been told too many times I’m not as funny as I think I am) but that doesn’t mean I don’t support a college paper’s right to run an Onion-style edition.

And a quick look at The Record’s satire issue makes it clear the staff did an April Fools’ paper right. The articles are humorous and smart. They poke fun at things all college papers and students can relate to – like how painfully low voter turnout is for student government elections. There was a story about a "drone strike" killing UB leaders (I see you, The Record) and even if you happened to find it unfunny or in poor taste, it's still not worth pulling papers over. 

Yet, Buff State’s student government felt the need to censor the paper because people reportedly found it offensive – even though it clearly wasn’t.

I’ll never understand the odd phenomenon that is just how “cool” it is to hate your student paper. To me, that’s all this is.

Not shocking – because this is how this stuff usually goes – once people started siding with The Record (like popular journalist blogger Jim Romenesko) the student government responded on its Facebook.

Please read a portion of the post below, untouched so you can enjoy the group’s flawed understanding of grammar and what makes a good apology:

“Hello Community & The Record, After much consideration; we have reconsidered our actions about freezing your newspaper budget. Our initial actions were made based on the concerns we received from several students. As United Students Government, students come first. The removal of the "April Fools" edition of the paper was called in order to protect our students from feeling uncomfortable. However, The Record you're our students as well! & the freedom of speech and press proves that us limiting your distribution, is not right. (You can read the rest of the post here. But it doesn’t get any better, folks.)

I’m baffled, truly. How could students in leadership positions running their own government not understand how freedom of the press works? How can these students then decide making a borderline illiterate apology on Facebook makes it OK?

But the scariest part of this situation is how easy it was for the student government to freeze The Record’s funds. SUNY and universities need to do more to ensure student governments can’t just mess with funding whenever they don’t like what a college paper does.

There was a time The Spectrum got part of its funding from UB's student government, the Student Association. We don’t anymore. We haven’t for years. It’s a long story, but what it sums up to is easy to understand: Student governments are usually able to handle their budgets however they see fit.

And it’s easy for them to see not supplying money to their No. 1 critics as fit.

Now, all The Spectrum’s funding comes from our ad revenue. We’re completely independent from the university, financially and editorially.

We’re lucky a great history of leadership has allowed us to get to the point where we can hold that level of fiscal independence comfortably. But it doesn’t come without sacrifice – like being able to only give out very few (and quite small) stipends to students who pour 40-plus hours a week each into our publication. The majority of The Spectrum staff – like many other college media staffs – does not get paid and does the work because they love it.

I’ve had talks with the university about creating a voluntary student fee so The Spectrum can have some support from the student body, so my workers can be compensated for their time and so we can ensure the future of this publication.

But I am often told I should just go back to SA – that SUNY policy pretty much dictates that student organizations must get money through their student governments, which handle students’ activity fees.

I think Buff State shows why that model is flawed – and it’s flawed for every college paper that relies on its student government for support without there being any safeguard to protect funding.

How can any student paper staff objectively report on the organization that gives them the money they need to function?

It goes against basic journalism ethics, but for so many papers it’s impossible to avoid.

No student media group should fear upsetting its student government – or its university administration – will mean its publications can be stripped from the newsstands and its budget taken away.

This system is broken and it has been for years – it just isn’t apparent until instances like these make people pause and wonder, how is this even allowed in the first place?

To The Record staff, I’m sorry your student government has put you in this position. To everyone else, the best thing you can do right now is buy a print or web ad from a student newspaper.

I know as journalists we’re supposed to hate clichés, but lately it has never been truer: Every dollar counts.

Sara DiNatale is the editor in chief and can be reached at sara.dinatale@ubspectrum.com