Current, former Daily Texan editors oppose interim director's 'Weekly Texan' fix to budget woes

TEXAS — Current leaders of The Daily Texan say they cannot support a budget proposal to cut the student newspaper to a weekly, a proposal that has also been questioned by Texan alumni.

The interim director of Texas Student Media has proposed cutting the five-day-a-week publication to a weekly amid declining advertising revenue and an 2012-13 TSM operating loss of more than $188,000.

Weather postponed the Texas Student Media trustees’ budget meeting until today. In the two-week period following the originally scheduled meeting, The Daily Texan Editor-in-Chief Laura Wright and Texan Managing Editor Shabab Siddiqui discussed the proposed changes with their staff and other student leaders. In a letter to the board, the two wrote that neither drastically cutting student wages nor decreasing printing to a weekly offers a solution, and they believe that both are “premature and potentially ruinous to the Texan.”

“Many of our staff members expressed serious concerns about their ability to hire and retain staff with drastically reduced staff salaries, while others were seriously concerned about the damage to the Texan’s reputation and campus influence that would be done by cutting the paper’s printing schedule,” the student leaders wrote.

After the meeting, Wright said that nobody’s going to be completely happy with any budget solution at this point, “simply because it’s not going to be built upon the traditional model that we’ve based The Daily Texan and the rest of Texas Student Media operating budgets on… but I will say that it was a decidedly more productive conversation.”

In a 16-page preliminary budget narrative, TSM interim director Frank Serpas outlines the financial realities of student media at the University of Texas at Austin.

In 2012-13, TSM saw an operating loss of $188,265. Serpas wrote that his rough projection is that TSM stands to lose another $239,000 this year.

He noted that, except for a $28 loss by the Texas Travesty, a monthly student humor publication, “all the TSM red ink during the previous fiscal year was attributable to The Daily Texan, which incurred a loss of $283,250.”

At some point, reserve funds won’t be able to cover those losses, Serpas said.

Printing weekly will “save expenses related to printing and delivery, liberate energy that can be devoted to the Texan’s online manifestation, and reboot the perception of the print product,” Serpas wrote in his activity report.

People were predictably unhappy with the idea of cutting the Texan’s printing schedule, said Dave Player, president of the TSM board. Instead of cutting expenses, many suggested increasing revenue.

“Trying to find new revenue streams is what print media’s been doing all over the country for the past couple of years,” Player said. “It’s not quite that simple.”

Serpas admitted there are pros and cons to the plan, but deciding which outweighs the other is difficult to quantify.

On one hand, a weekly schedule could reboot the newsroom, encourage a digital culture, enhance the education experience and provide a new product to offer advertisers. On the other hand, advertisers may not like the new product, or be hesitant to all shift to the weekly publication.

“But ultimately, it comes down to each person’s — what they hold to be most important and how much faith they have in the magnitudes of the impacts and the plusses and the minuses,” Serpas said.

This isn’t the first time the newspaper’s daily model has been threatened by budget cuts and falling revenue. Last year, a TSM proposed budget included a 30 percent cut to the newspaper’s printing expenses, which would have resulted in a drop to a four-days-per-week printing schedule from five.

In response, concerned alumni and supporters formed Friends of The Daily Texan, a non-profit group with a mission of “promoting the publication’s long-term sustainability.”

“It’s an emblem of the mismanagement that we’re in exactly the same place that we were a year ago — well actually we’re worse off because we’ve spent more of our reserves in the last year,” said Cliff Avery, president of Friends of The Daily Texan.

Last month, TSM shifted administrative arms within the university to the Moody College of Communication from the Division of Student Affairs, raising questions among students and alumni about the implications of the move.

In a letter to the TSM board earlier this month, Avery noted that what opportunities the transfer may bring are unknown. He wrote that it was “premature and ill-advised to make radical disruptions” without a well-thought-out business plan.

“We’re not convinced that killing a 100-year-old tradition after an executive director’s been in the spot for five weeks is a good idea,” said Avery, who was The Daily Texan managing editor in 1972.

Serpas wrote in a supplemental report that he has “failed to identify any other measure that would adequately address TSM’s deficiencies in a comprehensive manner.”

Avery suggests getting a permanent director in place and keep things as they are until the college of communication gains oversight of the Texan.

“Then when there are sound numbers and a sound plan on how to go forward and manage the change that all newspapers are going through, then we can start talking about how we tinker with the frequency,” Avery said.

The board will meet again March 7 to discuss additional ideas and ask more questions. They must pass a budget within the next month.

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact her by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.