Between the devil and the sea

For the handful of college newspapers able to attain it, financialindependence from the university is often considered the highest guarantee ofeditorial freedom. With economic pressures weighing on the revenue streams ofthese few and proud, though, editors are being forced to follow the lead oftoday’s banks and automakers and define their breaking points ‘ andsometimes even ask for a bailout.

The Daily Californian at the University of California at Berkeley isone of those papers. The 137-year-old publication gained independence in 1971,and has operated with no financial help from its university since that time.Just last year, though, a loss in advertising revenue that has plagued both peerand professional papers nationwide hit the Daily Cal hard, and lastsemester it became the first of several student publications to cut a day ofprint.

Slashing Wednesdays from their production schedule was just one of the waysDaily Cal leadership has coped with dire financial straits;across-the-board pay cuts also topped the list of survival strategies. And whileEditor-in-Chief Bryan Thomas is hopeful these and other financial maneuvers willlead to a more stable future for the paper, he has had to prepare for theworst.

But for Thomas, unlike some other editors and publishers at financiallyindependent college newspapers, appealing to the university for funding rescueis not the worst possible scenario.

“Our independence is very critical to us, but we also have to bepractical,” Thomas said. “If the question is whether we would ratherstop printing or go back to the university [for funding help], while all of uswould hate doing it, it wouldn’t be the most responsible thing to saywe’re above it.”

Thomas said fiscal independence ensures the university could not censorcontent or otherwise intervene in newspaper affairs ‘ it secures thedemocratic freedom intended for newspapers to diligently pursue the stories mostimportant to their readership, which are sometimes critical of the school.

All the way across the country, some East Coast editors sharedThomas’ sentiment about the importance of independence, if not hispotential willingness to risk it in the name of survival.

JR Santo, publisher of Dartmouth College’s the Dartmouth, putit bluntly: “Asking Dartmouth College for money is not even an option wewould ever consider.”

Financial independence is simply too crucial to the paper’s mission,he said. It is “absolutely, without a doubt” what allows

Dartmouth editors to put out many of their stories, especiallyconsidering Dartmouth College, located in Hanover, N.H., is a privateinstitution that is not constitutionally bound to uphold the same press rightsthat apply to newspapers at public schools. And while a financial lifeline fromthe school might not result in immediate censorship, a simple phone call topressure an editorial decision might be where their control would start, andthat input is a conflict of interest, he said.

Of the very few financially independent student newspapers that dot therest of the country, allegiance to self-sufficiency can mostly be characterizedas strong and stronger.

Mary Cory, publisher of the Daily Illini at the University ofIllinois at Urbana-Champaign, which went off-campus and fully financiallyindependent three years ago, said they are “glad to not be in thatposition where [they] would have to worry about [going to theuniversity].”

The University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Badger Herald,produced every day just hours north of Daily Illini headquarters, has alonger history of financial independence and a more deeply rooted dedication toindependence to match.

“Under no circumstances would we ever, ever go to theuniversity,” said Nick Penzenstadler, Badger Heraldpublisher.

Amid the collection of student newspapers that would vow never to givetheir financial independence up to their universities, the Daily Cal isseemingly the first and, so far, only paper with a current budget dire enough toforce the consideration of that option.

“Our office space is one area where we’re looking for abailout,” Thomas said. “We pay rent to the university for the space,and we’re asking them to reduce our rent.”

On the one hand, Thomas said, a rent reduction can be seen as an impedimentto the paper’s independence. At the same time, though, it is not uncommonfor businesses under financial pressures to seek out ways to cut expenses, andnegotiation is not a foreign concept to usual business practices, he said.

Harry Montevideo, publisher of the University of Georgia at Athens’financially independent Red and Black, goes further to say that collegenewspapers, when seen as a service provider to the university, may sometimes beentitled to compensation. Comparing the newspaper to the city bus system,Montevideo said student publications provide a vital resource to the campuscommunity, and it would not be unrealistic for them to receive payment for theirservice.

“If the alternative is not staying in business, then something youmight be reluctant to do becomes a possibility,” Montevideo said, addingthat publishers who once would have shunned the idea of running front-pageadvertisements or cutting production days have had to resort to thosetactics.

Just last year when the Collegiate Readership Program ‘ which putsfree copies of USA Today and other professional papers on campus at somecost to the university ‘ came to UGA, Montevideo said the Red andBlack “toyed with the idea of asking the university for a similardeal.”

The newspaper ultimately abandoned the idea to appeal for funding becausethey simply “didn’t need the money,” but Montevideo suggestedthose funds, had they asked for and received them, would not taint the paper asa sell-out.

Aside from the debate over whether asking for a bailout compromises ahighly coveted independence, it is not necessarily the case that colleges would’ or could ‘ offer up any money anyway.

Thomas is finding this to be the case with UC-Berkeley.

“Our university is hurting hugely as well. It’s not like wecould get a huge bailout package from them anyway,” he said. “We metwith the chancellor and [other school officials], and they said that as much asthey would like to help, they don’t have the money layingaround.”

While Daily Cal editors pump a dry well in Berkeley, peer editors ata private school in Washington, D.C., are laboring for the opposite. GeorgetownUniversity’s student newspaper, the Hoya,currently receivesfinancial support from the school, but has been courting independence for atleast a decade.

Despite tensions with the university regarding the split, not the least ofwhich included trademark battles over the paper’s name, HoyaBusiness Director Roshan Vora said the newspaper’s financialindependence is “closer now than ever.”

In explaining the value of self-sufficiency, Vora listed several of thereasons fellow editors touted: the freedom to report accurately on theuniversity without fear of retaliation, a sense of ownership within theorganization, an increase in accountability that comes from dropping theuniversity as a “buffer.”

Another significant motivator for the Hoya to go independent isfinancial ‘ an about-face of the situation at other student papers vyingfor school funding.

“It would allow more control of our finances,” Vora said.”Right now the vast majority of our profits go back to the university tobe redistributed [among student activities]. We could reinvest that money intoour paper … to improve the quality.”

With the Hoya‘s financial independence on the horizon, Voraechoed what other student journalists struggling to maintain autonomyoverwhelmingly contend: “It’s about putting out the best paperpossible.”