University newspaper in New York crowdfunds to keep its independence



NEW YORK — The Torch, the award-winning student newspaper at St. John’s University in Queens, New York is using crowdfunding to pay off debts rather than give up its decades-long status as an independent publication.

Journalism as an industry (and print newspapers in particular) has been struggling for years to find a way to be financially successful in the digital age. The pressures are equally high for student newspapers that have to either rely on school funding and risk budget cuts and even censorship at the will of administrators, or remain independent and try to keep the doors open without funding from their schools.

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The costs of running The Torch independently are relatively low — the staff of The Torch do not get paid for their work, and the space they work in is provided by St. John’s. But costs of printing, delivery, hosting a website and equipment like computers and cameras build up. For The Torch, it has resulted in $5,000 in debts. This limited the paper’s options going forward: either find a way to pay those debts themselves, or relinquish independent status by asking the university administration for funding.

They decided to crowdfund the money. The gofundme listing explains that, “over time, we’ve seen student news organizations crippled when their budgets are downsized or cut off by their administration or student government over stories they weren’t fond of — and while we wouldn’t expect that to happen at St. John’s, it’s better for us to maintain complete financial independence. “

But crowdfunding only goes so far, and the students at The Torch know it’s only a temporary solution, saying, “We don’t expect to sustain ourselves by crowdfunding, but we are eager to pay off our debts so that we can start fresh.”

So how will they prevent more debts from building up?

That process has already begun, according to Editor-in-Chief Suzanne Ciechalski. When ad revenue fell through two years ago, The Torch staff and their adviser began a subscription service and worked to rebuild their ad money by “building relationships” with advertisers. The paper also reduced the number of copies printed for each issue: they cut back to 500 — the lowest number their printer will accept. The hope is that this combination is enough to keep the paper afloat, assuming of course they can raise enough money to eliminate their debt.

“We don’t want to leave the new editorial board who will come in in April with this debt like we were left, Ciechalski said. “It’s just so limiting in terms of what we’re able to do.”

So far things seem hopeful. Seven days into their crowdfunding campaign, The Torch has already raised more than $3,000 of its $5,000 goal. The money has been donated by 59 people whom Ciechalski says are primarily friends, family and alumni of the paper, but also some unexpected figures.

“One person who donated said that their dad graduated from St. John’s in 1939 and then in 1941 with their master’s,” Ciechalski said. “It’s been overwhelming.”

In a follow up email, Ciechalski described tearing up from all the support and messages she’s received from people who care about the future of The Torch. “I think this support we've received really underscores just how important journalism still is to people, she said. “... Campus newspapers are the learning ground for so many young journalists, and I think we're seeing now, more than ever, just how important it is for us to learn the craft, and learn it well.”

The campaign will remain open until the end of September. If they exceed their goal, Ciechalski says they’ll save the money or use it to buy newer computers and software. If they don’t meet the $5,000 mark, they’ll have to reevaluate their options.

SPLC staff writer Danielle Dieterich can be reached by email or (202) 833-4614.

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