Saddled with debt, U. of Montana student newspaper transitions to weekly print cycle

MONTANA — The stories had already been written, the photographs already shot and some of the pages designed when the editor in chief of the student newspaper at the University of Montana ran to the newsroom to halt production.

Motivated by a budget shortfall that’s plagued the Montana Kaimin for years, the independent student newspaper’s editorial board agreed Monday evening to become a weekly for the rest of the semester — a significant shift from the previous Tuesday-Friday print cycle.

Although the newspaper staff planned to transition into a weekly magazine in the fall, the Kaimin’s hasty decision to cut Tuesday’s print edition came as a surprise to the campus community and members of the newspaper staff alike.

“We were planning on doing this,” Editor-in-Chief Ric Sanchez said. “We’re just doing it a little earlier” than expected.

The Kaimin’s production costs are covered by student fees and through advertising, but because both have declined in the last few years, the news organization borrowed $25,000 from the student government in January to cover three years of accumulated debt.

Total enrollment at the public institution peaked at about 15,500 in the 2011-2012 academic year, and the Kaimin got $126,625 from student fees. This year, however, student-fee revenue slipped to $107,669 because of a decline in enrollment, according to an article the newspaper published on Wednesday announcing the new print cycle. Decreasing print advertising sales follow an industry-wide trend, and the Kaimin’s plummeted 24 percent from last year.

On March 19, the student government’s accountant emailed Sanchez, Kaimin Adviser Nadia White and business office representatives to alert the news organization it only had $14,000 in its account. Continuing to print four days a week would have put the Kaimin $22,000 in debt, Sanchez said.

The Kaimin made its first payment on the student-government loan in February, and saddling next semester’s editors with more debt didn’t seem fair, Sanchez said.

In addition to scaling back on print production, some staff members volunteered to take pay cuts, Sanchez said, and others forfeited their pay for the rest of the semester.

As a result, the Kaimin “cut more than half” of its payroll costs for the rest of the semester, he said.

Wednesday’s print edition, which squeezed four days of print advertising into one issue, included a story on the paper’s new print cycle, which Gwen Florio, an adjunct professor and Missoula-based journalist, wrote. Sanchez also wrote an editorial for the issue.

“This isn’t exactly how I imagined the last weeks of my tenure as editor-in-chief, but I can’t imagine ever being more proud of my staff,” Sanchez said in his editorial. “Instead of complaining about an unexpected change, they offered to help. Instead of thinking about themselves, they’re doing whatever they need to keep a 117-year-old campus institution solvent.”

Although dire circumstances prompted the change, Sanchez said the organization’s new web-first mentality will teach student journalists how to better cover breaking news online. Without plans to scale back coverage and with members of the production staff “freed up,” Sanchez said the transition may allow student reporters at the university to accomplish more than ever before.

White said the organization plans to complete its transition to a weekly magazine, supplemented with online news and feature stories throughout the week, by August. Additionally, a new printer and different color options will help the news magazine cut costs.

“If the staff had not put tremendous effort into those plans already, this abrupt shift would worry me,” she said. “Because the groundwork is in place, it does not.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 785-5451.