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Print Journalism Squeeze Hits Campuses

September 8, 2008

Students working at college newspapers are getting a true -- and bitter -- taste of the “real world.”

Late last month, two student newspapers announced plans to curtail print publications, citing the same drain in advertising revenues that has prompted layoffs at commercial newspapers across the country. The Daily Californian, which serves the University of California at Berkeley, and The Daily Orange at Syracuse University, have both announced that they’ll scale back their print editions from five days to four, while maintaining an online presence throughout the week. Both are independent student newspapers, which rely on advertising revenue -- not university money -- to stay afloat.

“We looked at our projections for this upcoming year, and the advertising revenue just wasn’t there,” said Bryan Thomas, editor in chief and president of The Daily Californian. “At the end, too much of our overhead costs are connected to the actual printing of the paper.”

The Californian wrapped up its first abbreviated print schedule last week, having skipped the Wednesday edition as it will for the foreseeable future. The newspaper is also slowing hiring, with an eye toward trimming its staff from about 150 to around 115.

“All these steps are clearly not the permanent fixes. We’re not saying they are by any means,” said Thomas, who said the paper has fortunately not had any layoffs. “They are sort of a patch to get us through the next year.”

TheDaily Orange has cut its Friday print edition, citing particularly low advertising sales on that day of the week. As with many colleges, Syracuse’s attendance and class offerings are lowest on Fridays, and the lack of readership on campus at the end of the week made selling advertising space difficult, editors say.

“We just weren’t making money off the Friday paper, and the paper wasn’t getting picked up on campus,” said Stephen Dockery, editor in chief of the newspaper. “Online, though, the online readership was as high as it usually is.”

The paper receives between 15,000 and 20,000 page views on its Web site each day, Dockery said.

While the newspaper is cutting its Friday edition, The Daily Orange wants to continue to capitalize on the interest in its sports coverage, which draws some of the paper’s most intense readership as Saturday football games approach. In order to continue to tap that market, the paper will publish a special edition on the eve of each football game, beginning last Friday with a 12-page section.

The Orange also plans to increase the number of papers it prints Monday through Thursday, bumping up distribution from 9,000 to 10,000 on those four days.

In addition to the problems with advertising revenues, Dockery noted that a pending lawsuit brought against the newspaper is requiring additional expenditures. Dockery would not discuss the details of the suit, but a story in The Daily Orange said the suit was brought by a local business in response to a 2006 article.

Some Papers Have Safety Net

By and large, most student newspapers receive some financial support from their colleges and universities. Some of the most respected student newspapers in the country, however, have independent status. Such independence is meant to ensure impartial news coverage, but it also means the paper won’t be bailed out by the university if times get tough.

“I certainly think it stands to reason that student newspapers that are supported through student fees … or through some sort of subsidy are probably more resilient to economic downturns,” said Logan Aimone, president of the Associated Collegiate Press, which works to improve student media and steer students toward careers in journalism.

Independent newspapers, however, aren’t the only ones that have had financial troubles in recent times. Howard University’s student-run newspaper, The Hilltop, shut down its print publication completely in March, citing financial woes. But the paper, which owed its printer $48,000 after a period of fiscal mismanagement, was bailed out by administrators and resumed daily print editions in August.

The Hilltop is the only daily student newspaper published on the campus of a historically black college, and students were adamant about maintaining that elite status, according to Traver Riggins, managing editor at The Hilltop. Riggins said she’s been approached by several students this year who’ve praised the newspaper’s return, but there are still some who wonder if it can maintain its daily schedule.

“Some people are a little a skeptical, [asking] ‘are you going to be around?’ “ she said. “Kids talk nasty.”

Bob Lloyd, a professor at Syracuse’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, said student newspapers are facing the same difficult test as all other newspapers.

“We’re at a crossroads,” said Lloyd, a former executive editor at a newspaper in Pennsylvania. “And the crossroads is we’re in a bad economic time at the moment. So when we crawl out of this economic slump, will advertisers return to newspapers? Or is this drift away from newspapers going to be a permanent thing? No one knows the answer to that.”

 

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