Feb 272008
Authors: Clay Lambert

Hey kids, have you ever been to New York City?

Well, I hadn’t, not alone anyway. Not before the summer of 1985. That’s when, as editor-in-chief of the newspaper you are holding, I finagled – I mean “earned” – a trip to the Big Apple for a Big College Journalism Conference.

I planned for the trip the same way I might have prepared for an important midterm. Which is to say I didn’t plan at all. I stuffed a few things in a cheap suitcase and next thing you knew, there I was.

I didn’t realize anything was amiss until I checked into a Manhattan hotel.

They actually expected me to pay. The hundred bucks in my pocket, money I planned to spend willy-nilly on sin, wouldn’t even buy the first night’s shelter.

In the panicky moments that followed, I called the Collegian office. And the secretary did what Collegian folks have always done when real trouble comes: call the university administration for help. The vice president of Student Affairs wired me some money and I was instantly safe and warm and free to write that the administration was all just a bunch of jackasses.

Twenty-three years later, profiteers have come calling and this arrangement turns out to be a problem.

The Collegian gives every appearance of being an independent newspaper. Talented journalists work late into the night to bring you news from CSU and around the globe. They really do phenomenal work. Trust me. Some of them will go on to work at the best news organizations in the country.

In point of fact, the education reporters and editors get from working at the Collegian is more important than that which they receive in lecture halls across campus.

The trouble is the Collegian staff accomplishes this almost daily high-wire act above a safety net lovingly held in place by the Board of Governors of the CSU System.

The Collegian is actually an untidy sliver of the same state government it often lambastes. It’s time to change that. It’s time for the Collegian to go it alone.

Change isn’t necessary simply because Gannett would like to make the Collegian its 86th newspaper. It isn’t needed just because the editorial board printed the “F” word in close proximity to the name of the president of the republic. Lord knows that’s happened before. (Looking back at some old issues last night I see I called Ronald Reagan both a “tyrant” and a “terrorist.”)

No, it’s time to change Collegian ownership because it’s an obvious conflict of interest when a state-owned newspaper is reporting on a state university.

It’s time to change ownership because Collegian reporters and editors would benefit from learning they are free to write what they want, but they may well pay for having done so.

You can’t very well ask the university to bail you out of every financial crisis – and my trip to New York was only one of the least urgent – and then rail when the same university courts more profitable, less surly, bedfellows.

I don’t claim to know the path out. But I’m told the newspaper can achieve non-profit status through some lawyerly hieroglyphics and continue as an incubator for journalists and font of wisdom for students.

Such an arrangement may have implications for the newspaper’s professional staff. Perhaps the paper would have to move off campus.

And there would be no one to call when a flood leaves the newsroom in ruins or, as happened for a time in the 1990s, student fees were needed to keep the thing afloat.

In other words, the Collegian’s fortunes would rise and fall on the basis of the talent and hard work of its staff. Just like a real, independent newspaper.

Clay Lambert is the managing editor of the Half Moon Bay Review in Half Moon Bay, Calif. He was editor of the Collegian in 1985-86 and, for what it’s worth, worked for a Gannett newspaper for 12 mostly happy years upon graduation. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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