George Washington University student paper could lose office

The GW Hatchet, an independent student newspaper at George Washington University, will have to pack up its office and move into a university facility by the end of the summer — unless it can raise $100,000.

Currently operating out of an off-campus townhouse, the newspaper is in “grave danger of financial insolvency,” according to a letter penned by The GW Hatchet’s Board of Directors on June 19. After moving into the townhouse five years ago, the newspaper has experienced sharp cuts in revenue after its advertisers began to divest. It will need to raise $100,000 to be able to remain in the townhouse for the next year or $750,000 to buy it permanently. Unable to pay the bill for rent, the paper may now have to move in with the university.

As an independent paper, the Hatchet has covered sexual assault cases and the campus Title IX office, among other important issues. The newspaper, like many student publications in the country, has also faced financial challenges.

The Hatchet’s operating budget of $500,000 has fallen to one-fourth of that amount, and the newspaper can no longer afford a full-time business manager to raise sufficient funds. In 2013, it decided to reduce its print production from two editions per week to one and increase its online presence, but those efforts to scale back costs could not compete with advertisers pulling away.

“National advertisers began a precipitous pull from college media, [and] revenue loss meant the Hatchet could no longer afford a full-time business manager, and our nascent fundraising arm was unable to raise the sheer sums required to sustain a million-dollar newsroom,” Lillianna Byington, the newspaper’s editor, said in a statement. “We have sustained ourselves to this point from the generosity of everyone who has donated their time, services and money to this effort.”

The paper hopes to spare the staff from vacating its office with what the board is calling “an eleventh-hour donation” call to the Hatchet’s alumni and supporters. While some former staff members worry that the loss of the paper’s office would also mean the loss of its independence, Byington insisted that the move “would in no way jeopardize the Hatchet’s independence or affect the work” the newspaper does.

Independent newspapers at other college campuses have been facing similar issues due to declining advertising revenues. This should come as no surprise, as even many professional newspapers have been unable to guard themselves from the financial effects of a changing media market. Ad revenues dropped 15 percent in 2008 and 27 percent the next year, according to the Pew Research Center. The decline in 2015 was far less than the drop during the Great Recession, but still indicative of diminishing returns.

Several independent newspapers have turned to student fees to help sustain themselves, finding a necessary lifeline but at the cost of true independence from the institutions they’re covering. The Daily Californian, an independent paper at the University of California, Berkeley, is one such paper. After reducing its print production to six days a week and $120,000 from its budget, the Daily Cal still faced a deficit. In April 2016, it turned to the student body for help.

The newspaper launched the Ink Initiative Student Fee campaign to pass a $2.50 per semester fee for five years, with one-third benefiting campus financial aid. The initiative was a success, and the new fee will keep the paper afloat for the next five years.

The New University at UC Irvine, however, did not experience the same success with passing a ballot measure and the newspaper may shut down next summer. The New U asked students to contribute $3 per quarter in May. The effort did not secure enough votes. At UC Irvine, the New U is the only daily campus paper, according to Megan Cole, its editor-in-chief. After 52 years of printing, it has one more shot at passing a measure in the 2017-18 academic year before funds run out.

Despite the tough financial spot the New U is in, Cole said she still understands the value of independence.

“I think it’s very important for papers to be independent and for our readers to be able to hold us accountable and to know that students are the ones writing the material that goes into paper,” she said. “It gives people more confidence in the paper than if they knew we were funded by administration or student government, the very people we’re reporting on.”