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While declining print readership and advertising revenue started prompting layoffs and paper shrinkage at professional newspapers decades ago, campus publications managed to stave off those financial woes for a while. But in the last couple of years, campus newspapers have been hit – in some cases, hard – and are increasingly turning to their student bodies for help.

Using student fees as a revenue source is not entirely new – the newspaper at Rutgers University, for instance, has done so for three decades – but as the journalism industry continues its transformation into a more digital-centric enterprise, more campus papers are taking that route.

“If not quite a time of reckoning for some campus papers, we have definitely entered a prolonged period of profound change,” said Daniel Reimold, assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa.

But to adopt a fee the papers need the blessing of the students, testing the readership’s willingness to personally invest in a product whose relevance (in the industry sense, at least) is declining on many campuses -- and to do so amid unrest over already rising tuition and fees, no less.

Western Michigan University, the University of California at Irvine and Rutgers University are among those putting a fee to a vote this month. The Western Herald in Michigan can rest easy, as students there voted last week to approve a new $5 student media fee to save the newspaper and campus radio station from imminent dissolution. The situation at UC Irvine (whose student body approved a new fee this week) was slightly less dire, as the print edition could have survived another year (at most). The Rutgers paper, though, awaits fates as the votes are counted.

In most cases, Reimold said, students have backed their publications and been willing to pick up a small fee to help them survive. But for the independent papers – those that rely entirely or mostly on advertising revenue and not on university subsidies – this new trend raises a whole new set of questions. Among them: Do students value their campus papers enough to support them financially? How will this new arrangement affect the papers’ editorial independence? And how will these attempts to save the print product affect students’ movement toward a digital presence, an inevitable change to which many papers at all levels have been slow to adjust?  

“The implications of this scheme are potentially enormous,” said Reimold, who runs the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters and also is faculty adviser to Tampa’s student paper, The Minaret.

Jessica Pratt, editor in chief of The New University at UC Irvine, just found out Tuesday night that 73 percent of voting students had affirmed the referendum for a 99 cent per term fee, which will cover rising printing costs.

“That’s a relief,” Pratt said – had things gone differently, the independent New University could have been ending its print edition a year from now. The fee will sustain the print edition for at least five years, but also allow the publication to build up its existing online presence rather than make a “hasty transition,” said Ryan Cady, the incoming managing editor.

“The conversion to digital isn’t free, and we want to be able to ease into that,” Cady said. “I think that helped the referendum pass a lot. We want to move into the digital age while maintaining an effective print paper for as long is appropriate for the paradigm of the time.”

The weekly paper has shrunk from 60 to 24 pages since 2007, and cut editorial board stipends in half. And while the fee puts the paper on solid financial footing, for now, Pratt said she won’t be rushing to increase expenses.

Rutgers Paper's Plea

The Daily Targum has actually been collecting a student fee since it became independent from Rutgers University in 1980. Every three years the fee goes up for a student body vote, and while it’s never been denied, the arrangement has affected the Targum’s editorial decisions, said its editor in chief, Skylar A. Frederick. When she and her colleagues are out lobbying for the fee and students ask why they should pay it when the paper doesn’t cover their events, it’s made editors “rethink” their coverage, Frederick said.

“We have considered putting in more stuff about fraternities and sororities” and other campus groups, she said, “so that we have those communities already in our pocket when it comes time for the next referendum. But, we are here to serve the Rutgers community and chronicle the Rutgers history, so it makes sense that we would cover them anyway.”

The $10.75 per semester fee is refundable, if students fill out a form. The Targum should learn its fate within the next day or two. If it fails, the paper could have to cut down on travel, expenses or salaries – steps many other campus publications have already taken – which could make it even harder than it already is to recruit a staff, Frederick said.

“I’d like to say that I would still do it if I wasn’t getting paid, but it makes it that much easier to work 60 hours a week and take 15 credits if I am getting paid,” she said. “We’re hopeful, but we can’t just take it for granted and say, ‘Oh, yeah, it’ll definitely pass.’ ”

The Western Herald received about $100,000 a year through the university’s general fund (unbeknownst to most students, its editor said) until the board of regents started making reductions in response to state higher ed budget cuts. Trying to come up with a different budget model after the funding plummeted to just $25,000, the staff wound up campaigning for a $5 per-semester fee that will more than make up for the lost money.

Despite having received a good chunk of university funding, the Western Herald still has seen its advertising revenue fall and its readership decline. Last May, the paper printed two to four times a week; now it prints once a month. (It’ll be twice that now, thanks to the new fee.)

“We were very concerned that it wasn’t going to pass,” said Ambrosia Neldon, news editor and web manager at the paper. But, with help from plenty of media coverage and lobbying by alumni, 63 percent of voting students opted to approve the fee.

Although dozens if not hundreds of newspapers already collect student fees, the elections to begin or continue a fee may be relatively new or uncommon, said Daniel Swartzlander, president of the College Media Association, who hadn’t heard of the practice before. Swartzlander advises The Doane Owl, at Doane College in Nebraska. His paper receives 70 percent of its revenue through student fees, which are collected by the college and passed on to the newspaper.

Swartzlander said he wasn’t surprised to see that the newspapers asking for a fee are at fairly large universities, as those are the papers that have broken off from their institutions and grown dependent on advertising dollars and are now dealing with cuts in revenue coupled with cost increases.

“I think this is all part of a way to determine what business model will work to deliver news in the digital age,” he said. “The paper for years has been able to advertise at rates much higher than online rates so if you go completely online, your revenue will suffer greatly – at least initially. Of course, expenses would also be cut, but not as much.”

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