University of Louisville newspaper struggles to survive funding cut

KENTUCKY — The University of Louisville, facing a $48 million budget deficit, announced earlier this summer that it plans to stop purchasing ads in the campus newspaper, The Louisville Cardinal. That money had been 41 percent of the paper’s $146,000 annual budget.

The move has forced the publication’s staff to launch an urgent search for alternate funding, and as word has spread this past week, a passionate campaign has sprung up to save the 92-year-old publication.

Since becoming independent from the university in the 1970’s, the Cardinal has received funding from the administration in the form of ad purchases, amounting to $60,000 a year as recently as two years ago. The university has often purchased more advertising space than it needs, essentially giving the paper an annual budget supplement.

Dale Billingsley, acting executive vice president and university provost, informed the paper in November 2016 that its supplement would be reduced by $20,000 for the 2016–2017 fiscal year already in progress and would be subject to further cuts in future years. This past July, Billingsley reached out again, stating in an email that the university would provide only $20,000 for the 2017-2018 year and that “due to the tight budget situation, this will be the final year for this commitment.”

He added that he hoped the early notice would give the paper “ample time to find other sources of revenue for future years.”

The funding withdrawal has put the paper in a critical financial situation, according to Jenni Laidman, the chair of its Board of Directors.

“To stay alive, we took almost all of our reserves and put it into this year’s budget,” she said. “We didn’t know how we were going to survive next year with only a $20,000 contribution from the university, and we really don’t know how we’re going to survive with no contribution.”

So far the Cardinal‘s budget has been reduced 15 percent to approximately $123,400 for the 2017–2018 school year.

Billingsley said his office didn’t think its role was to supplement the paper by buying more ads than it needed amid such a tight budget.

“After we considered the purpose of the money and the intention that it was supposed to serve, namely advertising, [we concluded] we were not using the money effectively in this office,” he said.

“The university is under fiscal pressure across the board, and what we do this year is driven by a kind of fiscal necessity,” he said, which has forced his office to examine funding “right down to the last dollar.”

He declined to state whether the university would step in if the Cardinal appeared about to fold. “I can’t speak to that kind of hypothetical situation,” he said.

Kyeland Jackson, the Cardinal‘s editor-in-chief, described some of the cuts the paper has had to make to its budget.

In addition to reducing its page count, eliminating its travelling budget, and slimming down its contest submissions, Jackson said they have been forced to cut their already paltry freelance pay in half, which has affected their ability to find writers.

“It’s hard to recruit people to write for $10 a submission in the first place. It’s even harder to tell them that it’ll be half that,” he said.

He noted that, because the University of Louisville, unlike other Kentucky universities, does not offer a journalism major, “the Cardinal is the only path into the field” for aspiring professional journalists.

A group of over 50 alumni and supporters, dubbing themselves the “Cardinal Calvary,” banded together over Facebook to buy a $1,190 full-page ad in the Sept. 26 issue of the paper urging Billingsley to restore the supplement.

Many wrote testimonials crediting the Cardinal with launching their journalism careers.

Michael Lindenberger, a former Cardinal editor-in-chief who now writes for the Dallas Morning News and who spearheaded the alumni campaign, wrote in a column on Medium that “no classroom I have ever been a part of has ever taught so much as what is learned in The Louisville Cardinal newsroom.”

As of this writing, a GoFundMe campaign for the paper has raised $4,280 in four days.

A journalism program at a local magnet high school wrote to the university warning that the move could damage its appeal to applicants. It describes the ad purchases as “an investment that boosts students’ academic engagement and increases the quality of the paper — which increases the appeal of your university to potential students.”

Media outlets across Kentucky have picked up the story.

Joe Gerth, a columnist for the Courier-Journal, the city of Louisville’s main newspaper, wrote a scathing column attacking former University of Louisville president James Ramsey, who is widely blamed for causing the university’s budget deficit through financial mismanagement.

“In a truly just world … Ramsey and his top aide, Kathleen Smith, would spend every waking moment they have left on this earth atoning for what they’ve done to the university,” he wrote. “And they’d start by buying advertisements each week in The Louisville Cardinal” to “humble themselves before the students they have harmed the most.”

Commentator Keith Runyon noted in a piece for local NPR news station WFPL that the university had fully supported the Cardinal during a previous budget crisis so bad that professors were assigned to help wash the bathrooms.

Some coverage framed the situation as a potential attempt to silence an adversarial voice.

However, Collegian staff members said they didn’t think this was what prompted the withdrawal.

“I don’t think the university is a villain here,” said the Cardinal’s adviser, Ralph Merkel.

Jackson agreed, although he said the choice did reveal the Cardinal to be “low among the university’s priorities.”

Jackson said the paper remains resolute in its mission to cover the news.

“We need to do what we can do to be the moral figures, the gatekeepers, the people keeping a watchful eye on administrators and on government [officials],” he said.

Merkel was optimistic despite the challenges. “At the end of the day, I think we’re going to weather this,” he said.

Laidman said the paper is currently exploring selling ads to athletics and to various university departments.

According to Merkel, printing costs are the largest line item in the paper’s budget; Jackson said going online would be the paper’s last resort. Print ads generate significantly more revenue than online ones, so Laidman said it is unclear whether this avenue would actually help the paper recover financially.

Cardinal staff members also said that, as a paper with a long history of editorial independence, they were hesitant to accept funding from the student government out of a concern that this would compromise their editorial integrity.

When asked whether he would rather see the paper fold than accept funding from a potentially compromising source, Jackson stayed quiet for a few seconds. He then answered that he would. “If we give up our editorial independence, then we’re no better than the fake news that a lot of people have made out journalists to be. If we do that, then we don’t deserve to be journalists,” he said.

*Correction: A previous version of this story listed The Louisville Cardinal’s 2017-2018 budget as $123,900 for the year, the budget is actually approximately $123,400. We also made minor wording changes for clarity.

SPLC staff writer Samuel Breslow can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.

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