Nebraska student newspaper facing $20,000 funding cut after student body president vetoes fee allocation

NEBRASKA— The Daily Nebraskan, the independent student newspaper at the University of Nebraska, is facing a potential $20,000 funding reduction from the university’s student government for the upcoming academic year.

Lani Hanson, editor-in-chief for the Daily Nebraskan, said the yearly battle over student fees allocated to the newspaper began decades ago, and is more easily won in some years than in others. This year, the publication requested $134,882– around $3 of the $611 each student pays per semester– from the student government and was initially only granted $114,650, amounting to a $20,000 budget cut.

However, student senators voted in a March 9 meeting to amend the student fee bill and restore the Daily Nebraskan’s funding to the requested amount. Student Body President Spencer Hartman vetoed the bill two days later without offering an immediate explanation.

Hanson said that of the many frustrations for the Daily Nebraskan staff, one of the biggest was that the still-pending budget cut would only save students around $0.50 a semester in comparison to large projected tuition increases.

“Our state is in budget crisis and they’re about $1 billion short of where they thought they were going to be,” she said. “[The student government is] expecting that the university is going to be getting significantly less from the state than they thought, so they’re looking at the possibility of cutting departments and raising tuition, so they’ve been especially hard on fee users this semester in an effort to keep student fees low.”

Nebraska students vote in each student government election on a referendum asking whether they support the student fee that funds the Daily Nebraskan, and a majority of students must support the fee for the paper to receive any student funding. Hanson said the most recent vote returned a 62 percent favorability rating – the highest she had seen in her four years at the university.

“The student vote meant a lot to us. The 62 percent of students voting in our favor meant a lot to us because it was a significant increase from last year and the highest that we’ve seen in a few years,” she said. “I think it was frustrating to see the student body president go against what a majority of student voters had expressed their opinion on.”

The issue of the funding cut is not as simple as adjusting for state budget woes, Hanson said. During the initial presentations to the Committee for Fee Allocations, the Daily Nebraskan raised concerns about the impartiality of one of the committee members who had been outspoken against the paper’s coverage.

“He was named in a crime roundup and wanted his name taken out. He sort of appealed to the editor-in-chief at the time, and they were actually in the same fraternity, so I know that they had a lot of back and forth about why and why not his name should be removed from the story,” Hanson said. “He continued to sort of speak out against the DN in their fraternity house and has never been a big fan. That was a concern of ours. We thought that that had an impact on the decision that he helped to make to cut our funding.”

Hanson said she brought up the conflict privately with the Director of Administration for Student Government hoping to mutually benefit both parties by not publicly airing the concern.

“She, I guess, didn’t think it was a problem and never really got back to us,” Hanson said. “I left that meeting feeling that my concerns were going to be addressed, but they really weren’t. We never heard anything about it until we met with the committee.”

Hanson brought the issue up again during the actual allocation meeting and said the committee chair agreed with her and removed the member from the committee. At the next meeting, however, a different member argued that Hanson, as a non-committee member does not have the authority to bring up procedural issues. The committee voted to overturn the decision and reinstate the member to vote on the DN fee, which included the $20,000 budget reduction.

Student senators still have the opportunity to override Hartman’s veto and reinstate the entirety of the Daily Nebraskan funding Wednesday at the next student government meeting. Should the veto override fail, however, Hanson said the Daily Nebraskan will be left with tough choices to make.

“There are two options: take a $20,000 loss or to try and make cuts to save the $20,000,” she said. “We are projected to lose $90,000 next year already, so losing another $20,000, we want to do everything we can to prevent that. The problem is, we’ve made $500,000 worth of cuts in the last decade as print ad revenue declines, and we’re struggling to find alternate revenue streams.”

Hanson said the paper has cut the remainder of its professional staff over the last two years. She said the student fees allocated to the Daily Nebraskan make up 30 percent of the overall budget, while the other 70 percent comes from advertising revenue.

Student fees fund 57 percent of the paper’s core operational costs, including printing and distribution, Hanson said. The fees also pay the salaries of two full-time staff members: a general manager who handles the financial side of the newspaper, and a director of sales and marketing who oversees the advertising department.

“The things that the student fees cover are really things we can’t cut. Things like insurance and licenses, taxes, our web content management system and things like that,” she said. “We can’t cut those things. We could hypothetically cut printing, but like any cut to printing, that would also correspond with a loss of print advertising revenue, so that wouldn’t really save us anything.”

The last option, Hanson said, would be to cut already meager student wages, which are not funded from the student government-allocated money. Despite this, Hanson said the issue of paying students seemed to be a focal point of the funding dispute.

“[The student government] doesn’t think that our employees should be paid at all, which has been a frustrating argument to counter,” she said. “Our student wages are dismal, to be honest. We don’t pay per hour, we pay on a per-piece basis for reporters and photographers and our senior staffers are paid on a salary basis.”

If the Daily Nebraskan is forced to cut student wages, Hanson said the paper would ultimately end up decreasing its content output by 20 stories per week–equal to one day’s worth of content.

“We already pay them very little, but we think they deserve the wages for the time and effort they are devoting to informing their fellow students,” she said. “My argument to the senate has been that decreasing these already meager salaries would make it impossible for us to recruit and maintain an adequate staff, but also force us to sacrifice either quality or quantity of our content.”

The SPLC reached out to Hartman for comment on his reasoning for vetoing the fee allocation. He said in an email he would be making a statement explaining his veto at Wednesday’s senate meeting, as is prescribed in the Nebraska student government constitution. He did not offer further comment. This story will be updated once Hartman’s reasoning is publicly explained.

Hanson said it was hard to speculate on all of the senate’s arguments, but the arguments the Daily Nebraskan has been given do not necessarily coincide with each other.

“There are all of these different arguments coming from different places and none of them really add up. It’s hard for me to believe that they’re being objective, I guess,” she said. “It’s clear to me that at least some of the people who are speaking out or voting against us have objections that are more than just financial.”

SPLC staff writer Conner Mitchell can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318

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