What does Daily independence mean in practice?

Opinion by Andrew Bridges
Feb. 23, 2023, 5:18 p.m.

This month The Stanford Daily celebrates 50 years of independence from Stanford University. The years leading up to the separation in 1973 were tumultuous, with violent protests and strident arguments over social policies, the Vietnam War and a sheriff’s raid on The Daily. The parting was by mutual agreement: The Daily wanted freedom from University control, and the University wanted insulation from controversies and liabilities flowing from the Daily’s work.

The publisher is The Stanford Daily Publishing Corporation, a California public benefit corporation and an IRS 501(c)(3) charitable organization. Each editor in chief is the president and CEO. A Board of Directors governs the corporation: four members are current students, one (the COO) is a recent graduate, and four are seasoned professionals in the fields of journalism, business, academia and law. Apart from the COO, an all-student staff manages and operates The Daily.  

The Daily occupies a dedicated building, under a long-term lease with the University, built with donations from Daily alumni, principally Lorry Lokey ’49. The Daily and the University also negotiated a contract, the Memorandum of Understanding, which protects The Daily as an exceptional student organization with carefully demarcated boundaries of University control. Thus, the University and the Daily are contract counterparties.

What does independence mean in practice? Typically, student newspapers have numerous pressure points: access to facilities, finances, university discipline against student organizations or individual students, intimidation by faculty and staff and alumni complaints to the university. Thanks to its legal status, contracts, corporate board, outside advisors and lawyers, The Daily can live by the maxim “without fear or favor.” The Daily does not answer to any University officer, faculty member or administrator for its publishing activities. Some faculty and staff are surprised at the response when they threaten or try to intimidate The Daily’s personnel. If the University or an employee encroaches on The Daily’s independence, directors will show up in support if necessary, and lawyers are available to enforce the Memorandum of Understanding.

All this allows The Daily to publish articles that discuss or challenge powerful University figures, as several recent articles have done. Reporters can follow the news wherever it leads them, focusing without distraction on the hard work of great news sourcing, writing, and editing. Their pieces can serve the entire University community, as well as the broader public interest given Stanford’s academic, economic, and cultural prominence. 

I was a Daily staffer in the mid-1970s, shortly after independence. I joined The Daily’s Board four years ago, and I have been amazed at how complex the operation has become since my undergraduate days. The advent of digitization, incorporation of audiovisual reporting, online presence, new publishing and reader engagement channels, transformation of the advertising marketplace and greater prominence of the University, as well as the social and political pressures of this era create nearly unfathomable challenges in the lives of reporters and editors who are full-time undergraduate students. Freedom from the additional pressure and limitations of University control or oversight gives breathing room for The Daily’s staffers to develop their skills, provide the best possible service to the community and join earlier Daily alumni in the top ranks of reporters and editors in the nation.

Andrew Bridges ’76 is currently the chair of The Daily’s board of directors.

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