Southern Oregon University student journalists fight to save 90-year-old publication

OREGON — With its 90th anniversary coming up in November, a Southern Oregon University student newspaper is struggling to stay afloat after the university cut the course that supported it.

On April 6, communications instructor Julie Akins received an email that may define the future of the SOU Siskiyou. The email informed Akins and her students that the class producing the student publication would be dropped after the term due to “low enrollment” — eight students are currently enrolled.

But instead of accepting that fate, Akins said the students are fighting to keep their publication alive.

“[The class] immediately went into a conversation about the news, and I asked them, ‘Are we going to accept that?’” Akins said. “When they said ‘no,’ I told them, ‘Then get to work and report on this.’”

This isn’t the first challenge the Siskiyou has faced in the past several years. In 2014, the Associated Students of SOU student fee committee revoked the newspaper’s funding after it failed to produce advertising revenue. The communications department then made the Siskiyou a class students could take for credit.

Ryan Brown, a spokesman for SOU, said university faculty and administrators are working to identify a way for the Siskiyou to continue being published, but the temporary solution of making it a class has been proven not to be a viable long term solution.

He said the university has made an intentional effort to reduce the number of low-enrolled classes, and that those efforts have virtually eliminated those classes from SOU.

Now, students writing for the Siskiyou have two options: raise enough money to apply for an endowment administered by the SOU Foundation, or apply to be a student group and receive funding through the same committee that previously defunded the paper.

Desperate to save their formerly award-winning publication, the Siskiyou staff are pursuing both routes, and hoping one has a positive outcome.

To apply for an endowment, the Siskiyou must generate $50,000 in donations. Akins has set up an online fundraising account to help with this, and so far, the cause has raised almost $700.

Though she is hopeful the paper can meet its fundraising goal, Akins said the foundation office has not promised to grant the Siskiyou an endowment even if it raises $50,000.

Eli Stillman, editor-in-chief for the paper, said making the newspaper a student group would be the easiest option, but it still presents several obstacles. The Siskiyou staff would have to gather signatures, prepare a budget, find a full-time staff or faculty member to serve as an adviser and present the plan to the student fee committee. Akins is a part-time instructor and wouldn’t qualify as the Siskiyou’s adviser if the student government funded the paper.

SOU will provide space, computers and assistance for the Siskiyou if it can continue publication without being part of a class.

Stillman said the newspaper has been struggling in part because SOU has lost many student journalists after the university got rid of its journalism emphasis in 2014. Since then, three new communications concentrations have been created: communication studies, digital cinema and social media and public engagement.

“Students don’t come here to study journalism anymore,” he said.

Stillman said his time at the Siskiyou has helped him find career opportunities after graduation, and he hopes to continue the paper to help give other student journalists these opportunities as well.

He said the accomplishments the Siskiyou has made since it was defunded serve as an encouragement to fight for the newspaper to stay on campus.

“Many of [the staff] have gotten great jobs, our readership has increased by a tremendous amount and we’re reporting on issues important to [the SOU community],” Stillman said.

In February 2011, 1,507 people read the online newspaper, but this February, the number spiked to 14,970 — an 893 percent increase.

Akins said since readership is much higher now, there is more student interest to keep the Siskiyou, and she hopes that the lack of advertising revenue won’t be a problem this time.

She said the primary focus of student journalists should be to report objectively, not sell quarter-page ads.

The determined student journalists have just under eight weeks to save the Siskiyou.

“It’s not a 90-year journalism institution that should end,” Akins said. “Journalism is a corner of democracy, and we shouldn’t allow any newspaper to be silenced without a fight.”

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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Corrected, 4/12: A previous version of this article said Eli Stillman will be graduating with a journalism degree. He is actually graduating with a degree in film television and convergent media. The article has been updated to reflect this.