Features

Freedom of the Press: The Hoya’s struggle to buck the University

September 10, 2009


Careful what you wish for: Editor-in-Chief Kevin Barber (COL ‘11) supported delaying independence for financial reasons.

On March 31, the day before April Fools’ Day, Max Sarinsky (COL ’09), then chair of The Hoya’s Board of Directors, received an e-mail that his newspaper had been awaiting for over five years and dreaming about for decades more. Meeting in two days, it read. Bring your pens. Let’s make a deal.

The message, from Vice President of Student Affairs Todd Olson, was the culmination of negotiations dating back to the fall of 2003 between Georgetown University and The Hoya, Georgetown’s newspaper of record, which was seeking financial and editorial independence from the University. After years of what present and former Hoya staffers say was stalling and rejection from the University, Georgetown was finally ready to allow its 89-year-old newspaper to go free—and take the trademarked “Hoya” name with it.

Deal of the century: The Hoya’s licensing agreement would have allowed them to purchase anything not bolted to the office floor for just $1.

Olson and the four staffers negotiating on behalf of The Hoya were to meet one last time on April 2 in his spacious office on the fifth floor of the Leavey Center, according to the e-mail, to give the licensing agreement one final look-over. If all went well—as was likely, considering that the agreement was crafted through months of painstaking meetings about issues as large as the conditions of the trademark license and as small as whether The Hoya would still be able to reserve classrooms once it went independent—they would sign their names on the dotted line, and Georgetown would cease to be one of only three top-25 universities that lacks an independent newspaper.

The agreement is remarkable not just because Georgetown finally granted an independent Hoya the use of its name. The terms also allowed The Hoya to purchase everything in its office not bolted to the wall, including 31 computers, two printers, and three digital cameras, all for one dollar —and remain tenants in University-owned office space, albeit paying for the privilege. The University would also likely provide The Hoya with start-up funding.

These concessions didn’t come without conditions. The University would maintain some control over the paper’s name. The contract gives the University the right to revoke the license in the event of a major breech of The Hoya’s responsibilities to the students of Georgetown or a profound failure of accountability.

It should be noted that these features of the agreement are not exhaustive. In an interview, Olson declined to provide any details about the deal, citing a non-disclosure agreement with The Hoya. Margaret McLaughlin (SFS ’10), the current chair of The Hoya’s Board of Directors, likewise declined to provide certain details.

One thing is clear: had the licensing agreement been signed in April, The Hoya would have spent the summer moving out of its cluttered office on the fourth floor of Leavey. At the elections last spring for this fall’s leadership, each candidate for editor in chief and board chair committed to staying in the District over the summer to help with the transition. The paper would also arrange its own legal representation, insurance, bank accounts, and all the other accoutrements necessary for independence.

Unpleasant surprises: At the end of last year, The Hoya seemed more likely than ever to achieve independence. Now their chances are uncertain.

When students returned to Georgetown in the waning months of D.C.’s cruel summer, they would arrive at a University with a gleaming new business school building, a bordering stretch of barren land paying testament to the financial crisis, and, for the first time in Georgetown’s 220 year-history, an independent college newspaper.

***

The issue of independence bothered Hoya editors for decades. Why should the paper operate under the shadow of the University and the Media Board, the organization that supervises and funds official media at Georgetown? But until The Hoya first seriously pursued independence in 2003, talk during caffeine-fueled production nights and daytime meetings about splitting off from Georgetown always remained just that: talk.

“Everyone had the dream of going independent,” Clay Risen (SFS ’99), a former Hoya editor in chief who is now a professional journalist, said. “But we all had the dream of flying too. It wasn’t something that we could realistically see happening.”

Risen’s generation of editors, which failed to progress towards independence, observed first-hand in the spring of 1997 the cost of depending on the institution you cover. That semester, the Voice published a lengthy exposé on the Georgetown’s Office of Federal Relations, the lobbyist arm of the University that had procured millions in federal funding while using its Jesuit affiliation to operate beneath the radar of lobbyist disclosure rules. Andrew Rice (COL ’97), the feature’s author, also intended to include a list of “special interest” students he had obtained—kids with important enough connections that one of the Federal Relations Jesuits called up the Dean of Admissions each year to ensure they were accepted.

Back issues: For all 89 years of its existence The Hoya has been owned by the University.

Days before the Voice went to press, one of the students’ parents called Georgetown and threatened to sue if the Voice published their child’s name. The University, which provides legal representation for all official media on campus, held a meeting with Rice and the Voice’s then editor-in-chief. If you publish the names, administrators said, and you’re personally sued, we won’t defend you. And we won’t defend the Voice.

The story ran without the names.

“It really left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth regarding the University,” Risen said.

To members of The Hoya, the episode illustrates a truth that’s nagged them for years: the inherent conflict when a newspaper covers the entity that supervises, funds, and owns the same paper. Georgetown owning The Hoya is the equivalent of Michael Bloomberg owning The New York Times or the federal government controlling the Washington Post, they say.

“They don’t censor us, but they could,” Moises Mendoza (SFS ’07), a former Hoya editor-in -chief, said. “And in the past, that has been a concern with editors.”

Martha Swanson, who served as Director of Student Programs from 1984 to 2008, dismissed these concerns. Aside from its prohibition on ads for abortion services, sperm donation, and other causes which conflict with Georgetown’s Catholic identity, Swanson said, the University does not interfere with content in The Hoya.

“They have never, ever been told that they cannot publish something or write something,” she said, referring to her time at the University. “Ever.”

Aside from editorial content, the University’s control over The Hoya’s budget gives it what Sarinsky called a “subtle but strong hand” in the paper’s general operations. Because it approves The Hoya’s budget each year and claims its leftover revenue, the Media Board more or less determines the flow of cash in and out of The Hoya.  When The Hoya would push to invest more of its surplus revenues—most contentiously for staff salaries—the Media Board would push right back.

It wasn’t until the late 1990s, though, when a student named Matt Reilein (MSB ‘00) took over The Hoya’s business team, that the paper ran more than a moderate annual surplus, used by the Media Board each year to fund other campus publications.  By the time he graduated in the spring of 2000, The Hoya was projected to turn a $50,000 surplus in the upcoming semester.

Organizations are only as good as their members though, and when Reilein left Georgetown, he took the success of The Hoya’s business staff with him.  During the next semester, The Hoya sold the same number of ads, but its business staff failed to collect from advertisers.  When the Media Board ran The Hoya’s numbers at the end of the semester, instead of a fifty grand surplus, it found itself staring at a scorching $70,000 loss.

The resulting $120,000 deficit wiped out the Media Board’s reserve fund and devastated campus media groups for years, according to Swanson.

Careful what you wish for: Editor-in-Chief Kevin Barber (COL ‘11) supported delaying independence for financial reasons.

“It didn’t just hurt The Hoya,” she said. “It hurt all of the other groups … They couldn’t buy new computers. They couldn’t buy anything.”

The Hoya turned a profit every subsequent semester, but the Media Board was still smarting from the loss in the fall of 2003, when The Hoya’s only digital camera, which it used to shoot the whole issue, broke. The first week the staff reverted back to film cameras, utilizing its abandoned darkroom; the next, Hoya members woke early on a Friday morning, donned suits, and made a lengthy presentation to Media Board explaining the steps they had taken since 2000 to ensure financial responsibility and their need for a new camera.  They were turned down cold.

“We just couldn’t understand it,” said Josh Zumbrun (SFS ’05), then editor in chief and now a writer for Forbes. “It just seemed so vindictive and insane to us.”

In The Hoya’s eyes, they were being punished for a sin they had long since atoned for.

“If you make money ten years and you lose money one year, you still ran a profitable business overall,” Zumbrun said.

But according to Swanson, who said The Hoya’s surplus revenue isn’t really profit because the University pays for the paper’s office space, utilities, insurance, and legal representation, the money just wasn’t there.

Either way, by 2004, The Hoya was pulling in $250,000 annually, $70,000 of which went back to the Media Board in excess of The Hoya’s operating budget. Due to the economy and declining print advertising, The Hoya now takes in around $160,000-$200,000 each year.

In the fall of 2003, Zumbrun launched The Hoya’s first major push for independence. Hoya staffers began meeting with University administrators like Daniel Porterfield, now Georgetown’s Vice President for Strategic Development, Olson, and Swanson that semester. According to Zumbrun and Nick Timiraos (COL ’06), who was editor in chief during the 2004-2005 school year, the University balked.

“At first I don’t think they thought we were serious [about independence],” Zumbrun said.

The major issue was then, and continues to be, the “Hoya” name, which the paper couldn’t just walk away with. To Hoya staffers, the name has too much the history and tradition behind it to let it go.

“It’s never been [that] the name mattered more than independence,” McLaughlin said. “It’s that people felt it was unreasonable for the University not to let us have both.”

The University is more tight-lipped about its position about the “Hoya” name.

“It’s an issue we need to be thoughtful about,” Olson said, declining to comment further.

Porterfield declined through a University spokesperson to be interviewed for this story.

Swanson, speaking from her own perspective and not the University’s, said that she would be concerned about the University losing the ability to protect the “Hoya” name, a brand intrinsic to Georgetown’s identity, once the paper is no longer under University control. But judging by the contents of the licensing agreement drawn up this spring, the University remains concerned with protecting its brand. One clause, for instance, prohibits The Hoya, after becoming independent, from publishing pornography.

“If they legitimately think that we could turn into a porno then I can see where they might be concerned,” McLaughlin said. “It’s crazy to me that they don’t trust students at Georgetown enough to not completely run away from something that we take very seriously.”

Zumbrun and Timiraos’s meetings with administrators progressed through 2004 and 2005. By the time Zumbrun graduated in May 2005, The Hoya had gained little traction with the University on the name issue, frustrating current staffers and Hoya alumni alike.

“To be honest, I’ve always had this sense that the name was just the legal basis for them to stop it,” Zumbrun said, echoing the feelings of many current and former staffers who feel the University has consistently opposed the paper’s drive for independence.

Swanson disagreed with this sentiment. She said that it was her sense that administrators never felt strongly either way about the paper’s independence and that The Hoya could leave anytime it wanted.

“Help yourself,” she said. “Hop on down, rent some space, put out a newspaper. There you go. But they wanted to take the name with them. That’s a different story.”

So without progress in their negotiations, as Timiraos’s graduation date neared in spring of 2006, The Hoya began to consider a more radical option: ending the negotiations, setting up in an office on M Street—they had picked out a space near the Exorcist stairs—and publishing under the “Hoya” name without the University’s approval.

“Even if [Georgetown] could assert a case in court, were they going to really want to try in the court of public opinion?” Timiraos said.

But negotiations with Olson seemed to be warming up again, and The Hoya was turned down by local banks and the Georgetown University Alumni & Student Federal Credit Union for a $10,000-$20,000 loan to cover start-up costs.

In the summer of 2006, the University signaled that it took the name issue very seriously when it reinforced its claim to The Hoya’s name: it filed a trademark application for the “Hoya” logo, which protected even the Georgetown silhouette within its masthead. The University owned the logo prior to the application—trademark rights in the United States are based on use—but registration is useful if, for instance, ownership is challenged in court.

When The Hoya finally discovered the registration, anger rippled through the staff. The paper filed extension after extension with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to prevent the registration from being finalized as The Hoya deliberated whether or not to challenge the University. Outside lawyers advised the paper that a legal battle would be expensive and most likely unsuccessful.  The Hoya’s Board of Directors narrowly voted in April 2008 against contesting the trademark.

Once again, the paper found itself faced with the choice of going independent under a new name or continuing what had so far been a vain effort to retain its name. Many, like Fiore Mastroianni (COL ’09), a former member of The Hoya’s Board of Directors, believed that The Hoya could only leave without its name if it had exhausted all other options.

“I didn’t want to be the person that killed The Hoya and replaced it with ‘The Hilltopper’ or something,” Mastroianni said.

So in the spring of 2008, Mastroianni and other Hoya staffers launched the “Save The Hoya” initiative, the paper’s first organized effort to garner public support for the independence movement. They launched a website, SaveTheHoya.com, and collected over 500 signatures on an online petition. The Georgetown University Student Association passed a resolution supporting independence, and the Corp threw its weight behind the movement.

It’s unclear how much of an impact, if any, the “Save The Hoya” movement had on the paper’s negotiations with the University. But Olson and Hoya staffers continued talks through 2008 and the beginning of 2009, reaching agreement on the name and hammering out details like software licenses and distribution rights.

Then The Hoya did what it does almost every year as cherry blossoms begin bursting into bloom around the District: it published its annual April Fools’ Day issue.  And the work of years fell apart almost overnight.

***

The April 2 meeting, a day after the April Fools’ issue came out, went well. Olson and The Hoya’s negotiators went over the remaining issues and, although they didn’t sign the agreement, all left with the assumption that they would sign it upon returning from Easter Break.

On the evening of the same day as the encouraging negotiations, 40 students staged a sit-in in The Hoya’s office to protest articles from the April Fools’ issue, which contained headlines like: “We Need More Interracial Loving at Georgetown,” “Brown to the Virgin Mother: ‘Gimme That’… Or Else,” and “Georgetown Cuddler: Why I Do It,” subtitled “‘A Girl Can Never Reject You When She’s Comatose.’” On April 7, over 200 students crammed into a White-Gravenor classroom to listen to Hoya staff members talk about their experiences with producing the April Fools’ issue. Almost two weeks later, University President John DeGioia made a rare public appearance in the ICC auditorium to address the April Fools’ issue and, more broadly, diversity at Georgetown.

For all the damage it did to The Hoya’s reputation, the April Fools’ issue might not have affected the independence movement were it not for a complaint filed with the Media Board in April by the Office of Institutional Diversity, Equity and Affirmative Action. In response to the complaint, The Media Board issued a decision with five sanctions.  The first four, which The Hoya accepted, called for diversity initiatives and stronger internal oversight.  The paper appealed the fifth sanction, that independence be delayed for a year during a probationary period. The Hoya lost its appeal.

Whether the April Fools issue represents a minor setback or a total derailment for The Hoya independence movement remains to be seen. Olson declined to say whether the licensing agreement would still be on the table next year when The Hoya’s probationary period ends. Kevin Barber (COL ’11), current editor in chief of The Hoya, said the paper is focusing on meeting the requirements of the sanctions and showing the University that The Hoya is ready to go independent.

The April Fools’ issue, McLaughlin said, confirmed the University’s concern that The Hoya’s frequent changes in leadership makes it difficult to depend on the paper remaining consistently responsible over a period of time.

“Even if I’m sitting in that room with Dr. Olson and in good faith saying, we’ve met these sanctions and we feel that we’re more responsible, more accountable … they have no guarantee that the person sitting in the office in three years from now will have those same commitments to those same journalistic ideals,” McLaughlin said.

“This current movement for independence, if it plays out will be because The Hoya’s interests and the University’s interests are aligned,” she continued. “But if they’re not, [Georgetown isn’t] going to hesitate about pursuing their own.”



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Comments 4

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    The missing ingredient for independence, financial stability, and editorial responsibility is permanent alumni involvement.

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    Nice piece Sam!


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