The Georgetown student newspaper is battling against its administration to become independent, and recent university actions are setting the stage for a trademark dispute over the paper’s name.
The Hoya, Georgetown’s largest student newspaper, is funded and sponsored by the university. For many years, leaders of the paper have tried to re-form the publication as an independent business. This fall, the university applied to trademark The Hoya’s masthead, which would effectively prevent the paper from parting using the “Hoya” name.
The trademark application follows a recent push by The Hoya toward financial and editorial independence. Alex Schank, chair of The Hoya’s board of directors, said the board is struggling to defend the paper.
“We know the university has filed a trademark application with the U.S. Patent Office,” Schank said. “We know there is a mechanism in place to file an opposition. And we are currently considering all of our options.”
The staff’s insistence on keeping the “Hoya” name has ended past campaigns for independence – the last in 2006. University offficials said they have no problem with an independent newspaper, just under another name.
“We have worked thoughtfully with students leaders of The Hoya over the past couple of years on these issues,” said Todd Olson, vice president of student affairs at Georgetown. “We are supportive of our students launching an independent newspaper, but the university will retain the name The Hoya.”
Hoya staff members said they have struggled editorially under the university’s control, and that it puts the paper in a difficult position.
“The biggest reason we want to go independent is journalistic principle,” Schank said. “The fact we’re owned by the institution on which we’re reporting is a conflict of interest for a news source.”
Another need for independence, Schank said, is the university’s use of its profits – sometimes more than $100,000 – to fund other student media organizations. Though some of the money accumulates from year to year, it is minimal and difficult for the paper to access through the school.
“Certainly having the profits – the hard-earned profits that our business office works tirelessly to bring in – taken from us and given to our competition is ludicrous, quite frankly,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense from The Hoya’s point of view.”
Erika Cohen-Derr, director of student programs and a non-voting member of the university’s media board, which allocates money to campus publications, said the system is meant to help offset the financial risks of student groups.
“The rationale is that all student organizations assume certain risks and that these advisory boards help offset some of the risks of student organizations,” Cohen-Derr said. “A campus newspaper exists not just to make a profit and sustain its own business; it exists to provide a service to the university.”
Several years ago the media board aided The Hoya when the paper had a shortage of funds, Cohen-Derr said.
“When that happened, had they been an independent organization they might not have been able to cover their costs, so they were running a really big deficit, and at that point the media board covered their deficit,” she said.
Staying profitable can be hard for a small business, and is a big reason why most college newspapers should not go independent, said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center.
“The problem with going independent is that it’s honestly not feasible for probably most student media out there,” he said. “It really does mean being independent, and getting that advertising base and all that sort of thing. It works great for some schools in some situations . but for other schools it’s just not an option.”
Hiestand added that if a university does not respect student press and the publication can handle the financial independence, going independent is feasible.
“(Georgetown and The Hoya) don’t have such a great relationship and I think that it is kind of a bad marriage there,” he said. “And they are simply trying to put themselves in a position where they don’t have to deal with some of the baggage that seems to (come) with being so closely tied to Georgetown.”
Schank said that The Hoya would have to take out loans to go independent, but he does not anticipate any future financial problems.
Former University President Stephen Trachtenberg, who helped The Hatchet gain its independence in 1993, said an independent student press is beneficial to the university it reports on.
“By incorporating independently, the student newspaper gets freedom and responsibility. … They take the credit and assume the blame that comes with their work,” he said. “This is good for the students and the university, which no longer has to explain the newspaper to readers any more than it does the commercial, professional media.”
Having an independent student newspaper is especially important since Georgetown has no formal journalism program or major, said John Swan, The Hoya’s editor in chief. He added that The Hoya is also not currently allowed to print ads from condom manufacturers or pro-choice lobbying groups.
For now, The Hoya has yet to formally protest the university’s trademark of the name. Staff members said they are consulting with legal experts to analyze how to retain ownership.