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How Independent School Newspapers Are Holding Universities Accountable

In recent times, it is inconsequential for a university chancellor to relinquish their official position. If one wishes to gain prominence, it appears imperative to be associated with the field of journalism.

No, the president of Stanford University relinquished his post a few days ago due to revelations by the university’s scholarly periodical, “Stanford Daily,” that he was suspected of engaging in data falsification in numerous papers published several years ago. Following closely behind, the head coach of Northwestern University’s football team had to depart and make arrangements elsewhere as the school’s newspaper, “Daily Northwesterner,” exposed the team’s long-standing culture of bullying.

By the way, although these are school newspapers, they are all regarded as serious publications—substantial volumes of numerous pages, published on a daily basis during weekdays (some of which have also transitioned into online platforms in recent years). Such a comprehensive daily newspaper is produced by dedicated undergraduate students who meticulously plan, select topics, conduct interviews, compose, edit, print, and distribute the publication themselves after their academic obligations.

It is no wonder that people often say, “We somehow earned our degrees from Stanford, and our authentic specialization is the Daily.” Indeed, many of them devote 50, 60, or even 70 hours per week to their campus reporting.

For numerous years, as a self-respecting expert in American studies, I have always taken for granted that the funding for school newspapers should be allocated by universities. Otherwise, how would they acquire the necessary financial resources to print these freely distributed newspapers?

Even though I have been the subject of numerous reports in these newspapers, I was scarcely familiar with the fundamentals. It transpires that despite their diverse origins and distinct developmental trajectories, most of these newspapers are non-profit student enterprises that operate independently from the school administration, bearing their own financial gains and losses, and functioning autonomously.

The primary source of funding for these newspapers primarily stems from advertising revenue. In addition, they receive supplementary financial support from alumni donations and the allocation of student activity funds. Consequently, these newspapers not only possess ample funds to sustain their publications but also have the means to compensate their editorial staff with more than just nominal salaries. Some school newspapers even possess their own office buildings; for instance, the Harvard Crimson boasts its own printing facility.

The establishment of the Stanford Daily occurred almost simultaneously with the founding of the university in 1892. Since it was an affiliated publication at the time, the meager four-page tabloid predominantly reported on the principal’s “illustrious” Sunday sermons and the like. Subsequently, an individual penned an editorial expressing dissent regarding the school’s arrangement of resident advisers in student dormitories. Consequently, the school expelled this individual immediately, although they were allowed to return and complete their studies one year later: How can one argue against a dignified institutional policy?

Amidst the rise of the counterculture movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the Stanford Daily’s moment arrived. In April 1971, Stanford students staged protests against racism at the campus hospital, leading to violent clashes with the police.

The school newspaper published a photograph capturing the events. Subsequently, the police conducted a search of the school newspaper’s premises in search of evidence related to the alleged assault on the police. The school newspaper filed a lawsuit against the police, contending that they lacked the authority to search for evidence pertaining to third parties who were not suspects. The lawsuit eventually reached the Federal Supreme Court, which ruled against the school newspaper. However, in response, the U.S. Congress enacted the “1980 Privacy Protection Act,” explicitly safeguarding the privacy of third parties who are not suspects.

Confronted with an increasingly outspoken school newspaper, the university began urging the publication to become independent, fearing legal disputes and refusing to play into the hands of the school newspaper. In 1973, students established the Stanford Daily Publishing Company, thus achieving official independence.

Following the independent school newspaper’s exposure of data falsification in the principal’s research paper at the end of the previous year, an investigative team conducted an extensive six-month inquiry. The team concluded that the principal “did not personally engage in unethical scientific research conduct,” but it was determined that his laboratory had manipulated experimental results.

The school newspaper steadfastly maintained its original position in reporting and highlighted that due to the investigative team’s disallowance of anonymity, several key individuals did not cooperate with the inquiry. Consequently, the principal tendered his resignation.