Future of College Media: How can student newspapers avoid going under?

This post is the first in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post focuses on how collegiate newspapers can stay financially solvent in a depressed market for advertisements.

Financially, the Nevada Sagebrush is in a very different position then it was when I was initially hired. My first semester at the paper saw a paid staff of about 20 people, which was actually less than it’s heyday in the late 2000’s when the paper employed about 30 people. Now, it employees 11 paid staff members. These cuts to staff, pages in the print product and amount of content are all related to one issue: funding. The future of independent collegiate journalism is dependent on finding a reliable source of funding in order to continue operations.

By far, the Sagebrush isn’t the only college newspaper facing financial difficulties. Advertising, which most college publications rely on almost entirely, is following in the footsteps of professional news organizations and falling by the wayside. From North Dakota to UCONN to student papers in the United Kingdom, revenue shortfalls and budget cuts are the new norm in on-campus publications.

Some student organizations are taking the route that the Daily Illini did earlier this month, and pushing for increases or creation of student fee subsidies. After announcing a several hundred thousand dollar debt, the DI turned to “fundraising and other alternative sources,” including a fundraising letter by alumnus Roger Ebert, who got his start at the DI. According to this article, the fees will contribute about $120,000 a semester, or about 11-12 percent of their budget.

The positives of this move are clear: staff members get paid, the paper doesn’t lose anymore content and the organization can focus on better ways to report, rather than fundraising and riding out economic downturns. The negatives, however, might be less obvious. For one, student governments are notoriously fickle and very willing to cut funding or pressure reporters to not report on negative or unproductive activity. Earlier this month, the Student Government Association at Fort Hays State cut the funding for the student newspaper (The Union Leader) by more than half, citing decreased readership as proof. Just today, I spoke to an ASUN senator-elect who told me that many of his peers were interested in pulling any type of funding from the Sagebrush. Although it’s a steady source of funding, student fees in some cases lead to more trouble than they’re worth.

That being said, it’s better to survive and deal with spiteful student governments than it is to die out completely. Grants for college papers are next to nonexistent, and alumni donations aren’t regular or high enough to rely on. A question worth asking is how to interpret college media; namely, is it a business (and thus should be treated as such), or is it a learning opportunity for beginning college students? Even though staff members and Ebert advertised fundraising for the Daily Illini as helping to continue an institution which has produced a large number of quality journalists, the money raised still goes to Illini Media, the student media company which owns the DI.

I’ll be honest: college newspapers vary too much in size and quality to recommend a ‘one size fits all’ approach to righting their financial ships. The only advice I can confidently offer is to diversify. Larger organizations like the Daily Illini use a combination of donations, advertising revenue and student fees to stay in the black. But smaller newspapers such as the Sagebrush or the Union Leader in Fort Hays, relying on one source, as they’ve done in the past, is potentially fatal.


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