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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Feven Getachew
Feven Getachew
May 6, 2024
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Michael Lozada
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Nathan Hoffman
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Harvey Wilhelm `24.
Harvey Wilhelm
May 6, 2024

New employment policies challenge student publications

Graphic by Tess Kerkhof.

As of 9:32 pm CST, this article has been reposted after the previous web post was found to be blocked on campus wifi.

Grinnell College has remained unique in its commitment to paying students for creative work on student publications. Now, a new student employment policy is testing that commitment.

The recent formalization of student employment practices has left many publications struggling to adapt, forcing them to reconsider their traditions and priorities in finding a way through the pandemic.

The closing of campus last March interrupted the typical period in which publications’ new media heads are hired and trained, leaving new media heads to figure out how to adapt on their own. After starting the fall ready to pick up where they left off in the spring, media heads learned from Student Publications and Radio Committee (SPARC) – the committee that funds and oversees all student publications – that they must now follow a lengthy and formalized hiring process to comply with student employment policy.

In a typical semester, SPARC funds around 15 publications, including The S&B. Last fall, they only received budget applications for nine, very few of which published content online at a rate comparable to the print content of previous semesters.

“It’s so hard to transition to doing this in a pandemic, and I don’t feel like we’re getting a lot of institutional support,” said Marnie Monogue `21, editor of satirical newspaper The B&S.


New rules

Before this year, publications have solicited work through an informal arrangement where students are compensated for their submissions as freelance contributors on a piece-by-piece basis. Media heads would give the contributor a NOVAtime pay code to log their work that could be used by any student approved for employment on campus, a custom that, though convenient, was technically illegal.

Now, the College is formalizing student employment policy to ensure compliance with state and federal labor laws.

It’s so hard to transition to doing this in a pandemic, and I don’t feel like we’re getting a lot of institutional support. – Marnie Monogue ’21

Because publications’ workers are employed by the College, they must abide by the state and federal regulations on student employment. Under these rules, students can only be paid hourly, and they must not exceed 20 hours of work a week. And backpay – receiving compensation for work much later than it was completed, as is standard for freelancers – is considered to be a form of timecard fraud. Payment by contract, which is how most professional freelancers are paid, is not allowed.

If the College were to be audited, violation of any of these rules could result in fines or other legal consequences.

“The policy has been in existence for years because of state and federal law. This is just the first time it’s being written down and shared with everybody,” said Ashley Adams, associate director of student involvement and adviser to SPARC.

Adams was hired in August 2019 to work with both SPARC and SGA to help standardize employment procedures and provide legal guidance. Before Adams, it was publications’ responsibility to account for the legality of hiring practices on their own, resulting in the lax hiring and work procedures that became the norm.

Any student working for a publication must now apply through Handshake and be approved by Human Resources to use pay codes specific to their position. Publications creating new positions must wait for their budget to be approved by SPARC before officially hiring, pushing the process further into the semester.


A test for publications

”It’s just really frustrating because we don’t know what the bureaucratic process is and are just seeing the policy changes that are coming out of nowhere,” said Zainab Thompson `22, who works as media head of Grinnell College Press, activist newsletter The Prairie Burn and Liberal Arts in Prison magazine Concrete Perspectives.

Student media heads have pushed for more support in finding ways to pay contributors for their work, for reasons ranging from the quality of work solicited to the inequity of sourcing only from students who can afford not to be paid for their time.

“Not being able to pay [freelance] writers has made it really hard to recruit people to write for us,” said Monogue. “I can see how people would say it’s not worth it to write this 500-word article in the middle of a busy week where I’m stressed out for online classes and not even get paid for it.”

As it stands, regulations restrict students from volunteering any work to a publication if anyone else is being paid for the same responsibilities. This also prevents students currently living outside of the United States – who aren’t allowed to work for the College – from being involved with publications.

We don’t know what the bureaucratic process is and are just seeing the policy changes that are coming out of nowhere. – Zainab Thompson ’22

“It’s been a struggle of, ‘Oh, we want to publish this piece but can’t because this person can’t technically work for us,’” said Oona Miller `21, another media head for The Prairie Burn. “We want to be able to pay people for their work. We don’t want to have to have people do that work for free just to be able to be published.”

In the aftermath of the pandemic and the recent policy crackdown, the number of students employed through SPARC publications has gone down drastically. During the 2019-2020 school year, Adams was the supervisor of 270 student workers between SGA and SPARC. This year, she only supervises 70.

According to student media heads, the lack of easy methods of outreach like posters and tabling have also led to a very low involvement rate for first-year students.

In addition, in past years, the majority of student publications have prioritized print formats, publishing online infrequently or having no website at all. SPARC has been working to provide websites for publications to function remotely, but creating the infrastructure for online platforms has been slow, in part due to the legal review required by the College before agreeing to a domain name contract and in part due to communication issues that arise from communicating remotely.

“Communication doesn’t always pass down [from SPARC to publications] and I think that breakdown of communication is partly why we’re at where we’re at,” said Adams. “SPARC leadership right now is working on trying to come up with some sort of system, where there is a better form of communication for media heads and the SPARC leadership team, so that we’re not in this position again moving forward.”


Adapting to changes

Tim Knight `22, chair of SPARC, suggested that publications avoid these new challenges by shifting to accept submissions on a volunteer basis.

“We don’t necessarily want people relying on freelance work for College employment,” said Knight. “When … anyone can contribute and people are not getting paid for freelance work, you can have hopefully more submissions because you don’t have to select people to publish from a certain pool [of students approved to work].”

Grinnell’s commitment to paying students for all work on publications is rare. At peer institution Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., five editors of student newspaper The Mac Weekly are paid, but no students are compensated for writing. The staff of Carleton College’s newspaper, The Carletonian, works on an entirely volunteer basis.

Student media heads at Grinnell are pushing to keep paying their contributors. Activist paper The Prairie Burn and comic zine The Sequence have adapted to the employment changes by creating staff positions where contributors log a low number of hours per semester.

The S&B, one of the only publications to continue publishing regularly during the pandemic, had already adapted to a staff-based writing system last spring, with most editors stepping into writing positions in the immediate aftermath of the switch to remote function. Co-Editors-in-Chief Zoe Fruchter and Seth Taylor, both `21, then got a budget approved to work through the summer to adapt the paper’s format to be successful online and without freelance work.

Rather than the previous rotating crew of freelancers who would write articles pre-pandemic, Fruchter and Taylor now hire staff writers who write roughly one story a week throughout the semester and get paid for their work.

“I’m very proud that we are able to compensate students for their hard work on our paper. Structurally, that enables us to attract and go out and gather the voices that good journalism requires,” said Fruchter in an interview.

“If you don’t pay students for work that they do – and creative work is work – the people that are able to do that work are most likely to be of one class and one type of student, … richer, whiter, just able to commit the amount of time without being compensated, which is a privilege,” Fruchter added.

Fruchter emphasized that The S&B is somewhat of an outlier from other publications in that it publishes weekly, hires a bigger staff and serves a purpose beyond the College as one of the only online news sources in Poweshiek County.

“I do think there are some structural conflicts to the way The S&B functions and how student employment functions,” said Fruchter. “I think Grinnell’s commitment to paying students for creative work is really admirable and hasn’t been tested in quite this way for some time. I think that that’s what this is, a test of commitment both for the College and for publications, to see if they can withstand a test of that value.”

Students also emphasized how paying contributors makes publications structured spaces to explore creative interests that might be hard to make time for otherwise.

“This has been my main creative outlet. I am a psych major concentrating in global development studies, so I don’t have a lot of structure in place for me to do creative things,” said Thompson. “It’s really hard for me to make time to do art ‘for fun’ if there’s not some other incentive for doing it. … That’s what SPARC is to me.”


The Scarlet & Black is a SPARC publication, and all staff members are paid by SPARC. Editor in Chief Zoe Fruchter did not take part in writing or editing this story.

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