Between the devil and the sea

While independent college media faces bleak financial prospects, most prefer cutbacks over risking autonomy by seeking a bailout from universities

For the handful of college newspapers able to attain it, financial independence from the university is often considered the highest guarantee of editorial freedom. With economic pressures weighing on the revenue streams of these few and proud, though, editors are being forced to follow the lead of today's banks and automakers and define their breaking points ' and sometimes even ask for a bailout.

The Daily Californian at the University of California at Berkeley is one of those papers. The 137-year-old publication gained independence in 1971, and has operated with no financial help from its university since that time. Just last year, though, a loss in advertising revenue that has plagued both peer and professional papers nationwide hit the Daily Cal hard, and last semester it became the first of several student publications to cut a day of print.

Slashing Wednesdays from their production schedule was just one of the ways Daily Cal leadership has coped with dire financial straits; across-the-board pay cuts also topped the list of survival strategies. And while Editor-in-Chief Bryan Thomas is hopeful these and other financial maneuvers will lead to a more stable future for the paper, he has had to prepare for the worst.

But for Thomas, unlike some other editors and publishers at financially independent college newspapers, appealing to the university for funding rescue is not the worst possible scenario.

"Our independence is very critical to us, but we also have to be practical," Thomas said. "If the question is whether we would rather stop printing or go back to the university [for funding help], while all of us would hate doing it, it wouldn't be the most responsible thing to say we're above it."

Thomas said fiscal independence ensures the university could not censor content or otherwise intervene in newspaper affairs ' it secures the democratic freedom intended for newspapers to diligently pursue the stories most important to their readership, which are sometimes critical of the school.

All the way across the country, some East Coast editors shared Thomas' sentiment about the importance of independence, if not his potential willingness to risk it in the name of survival.

JR Santo, publisher of Dartmouth College's the Dartmouth, put it bluntly: "Asking Dartmouth College for money is not even an option we would ever consider."

Financial independence is simply too crucial to the paper's mission, he said. It is "absolutely, without a doubt" what allows

Dartmouth editors to put out many of their stories, especially considering Dartmouth College, located in Hanover, N.H., is a private institution that is not constitutionally bound to uphold the same press rights that apply to newspapers at public schools. And while a financial lifeline from the school might not result in immediate censorship, a simple phone call to pressure an editorial decision might be where their control would start, and that input is a conflict of interest, he said.

Of the very few financially independent student newspapers that dot the rest of the country, allegiance to self-sufficiency can mostly be characterized as strong and stronger.

Mary Cory, publisher of the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which went off-campus and fully financially independent three years ago, said they are "glad to not be in that position where [they] would have to worry about [going to the university]."

The University of Wisconsin at Madison's Badger Herald, produced every day just hours north of Daily Illini headquarters, has a longer history of financial independence and a more deeply rooted dedication to independence to match.

"Under no circumstances would we ever, ever go to the university," said Nick Penzenstadler, Badger Herald publisher.

Amid the collection of student newspapers that would vow never to give their financial independence up to their universities, the Daily Cal is seemingly the first and, so far, only paper with a current budget dire enough to force the consideration of that option.

"Our office space is one area where we're looking for a bailout," Thomas said. "We pay rent to the university for the space, and we're asking them to reduce our rent."

On the one hand, Thomas said, a rent reduction can be seen as an impediment to the paper's independence. At the same time, though, it is not uncommon for businesses under financial pressures to seek out ways to cut expenses, and negotiation is not a foreign concept to usual business practices, he said.

Harry Montevideo, publisher of the University of Georgia at Athens' financially independent Red and Black, goes further to say that college newspapers, when seen as a service provider to the university, may sometimes be entitled to compensation. Comparing the newspaper to the city bus system, Montevideo said student publications provide a vital resource to the campus community, and it would not be unrealistic for them to receive payment for their service.

"If the alternative is not staying in business, then something you might be reluctant to do becomes a possibility," Montevideo said, adding that publishers who once would have shunned the idea of running front-page advertisements or cutting production days have had to resort to those tactics.

Just last year when the Collegiate Readership Program ' which puts free copies of USA Today and other professional papers on campus at some cost to the university ' came to UGA, Montevideo said the Red and Black "toyed with the idea of asking the university for a similar deal."

The newspaper ultimately abandoned the idea to appeal for funding because they simply "didn't need the money," but Montevideo suggested those funds, had they asked for and received them, would not taint the paper as a sell-out.

Aside from the debate over whether asking for a bailout compromises a highly coveted independence, it is not necessarily the case that colleges would ' or could ' offer up any money anyway.

Thomas is finding this to be the case with UC-Berkeley.

"Our university is hurting hugely as well. It's not like we could get a huge bailout package from them anyway," he said. "We met with the chancellor and [other school officials], and they said that as much as they would like to help, they don't have the money laying around."

While Daily Cal editors pump a dry well in Berkeley, peer editors at a private school in Washington, D.C., are laboring for the opposite. Georgetown University's student newspaper, the Hoya,currently receives financial support from the school, but has been courting independence for at least a decade.

Despite tensions with the university regarding the split, not the least of which included trademark battles over the paper's name, Hoya Business Director Roshan Vora said the newspaper's financial independence is "closer now than ever."

In explaining the value of self-sufficiency, Vora listed several of the reasons fellow editors touted: the freedom to report accurately on the university without fear of retaliation, a sense of ownership within the organization, an increase in accountability that comes from dropping the university as a "buffer."

Another significant motivator for the Hoya to go independent is financial ' an about-face of the situation at other student papers vying for school funding.

"It would allow more control of our finances," Vora said. "Right now the vast majority of our profits go back to the university to be redistributed [among student activities]. We could reinvest that money into our paper ... to improve the quality."

With the Hoya's financial independence on the horizon, Vora echoed what other student journalists struggling to maintain autonomy overwhelmingly contend: "It's about putting out the best paper possible."

reports, Spring 2009