Sacramento Bee file

UC Davis students might have kept their student newspaper, the California Aggie, alive after voting to tax themselves nearly $300,000 annually to support the publication. The vote must be approved by school and UC system administrators.

UC Davis students vote to tax themselves to keep campus newspaper alive

Published: Friday, Feb. 21, 2014 - 9:24 pm
Last Modified: Sunday, May. 4, 2014 - 10:41 am

UC Davis students gave their campus newspaper new life Friday, voting to tax themselves nearly $300,000 a year to support the operations of the California Aggie indefinitely.

The 99-year-old newspaper, on the brink of bankruptcy, would have ceased publication in June – the result of financial mismanagement and slumping advertising revenue.

Though supporters of the Aggie cheered the news, the vote was not binding. The fee still must be approved by Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi and UC President Janet Napolitano who could choose to make changes or scrap the fee altogether.

Of the 26,000 undergraduates eligible to vote, 27 percent participated in the referendum, the student election committee reported, with 72.92 percent voting in favor. The referendum required a 20 percent turnout and approval from three-fifths of voters.

The announcement follows a whirlwind week of campaigning and an election overshadowed by controversy. Students initially struggled to cast ballots because of a technical glitch that counted many votes as abstentions.

Elizabeth Orpina, editor-in-chief of the Aggie, said the vote cleared one hurdle, but that the paper was still far from being saved.

“You never know what to expect on this campus,” Orpina said, suggesting that school administrators could veto or reduce the fee.

Despite the lopsided margin of approval, Orpina said the victory didn’t come easily. In the days leading up to the vote, opponents of the Aggie – on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter – criticized the quality of the newspaper and its relevance.

At $1,703.66 a year, UC Davis has the highest campus fees of all 10 UC schools. The fees generally pay for student government, facilities and the bus system. By comparison, campus fees at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego total $1,015.50 and $1,078.59, respectively.

Miles Thomas, Senate president pro tempore of the UC Davis student government, said he considers about $12 a year a small price to pay for the Aggie. “You can’t have a university without a campus newspaper,” he said. “They keep the administration of UC Davis accountable.”

The proposed fee has attracted a vocal opposition, however. Political science student Alex Tavlian appeared on radio shows and wrote op-eds against the measure. On Friday, Tavlian decried the referendum as a blank check, saying its approval could open the floodgates to other campus organizations asking for subsidies.

“The watchdog doesn’t want to be watched himself,” he said. “This is more than a bailout, it’s a handout.”

Under the current fee structure, students will be billed $3.88 per quarter, with 78 cents allocated to a financial aid fund, which is customary for university fees. The Aggie will net nearly $300,000 a year and is expected to keep its office in the student union rent-free.

As recently as 2008, the Aggie printed 12,000 copies a day, five days a week, making its money solely from ad revenue. The newspaper once paid every staff member. But in recent years, with its reserves dwindling, the paper slashed salaries and cut publication to once a week.

In 2005, the Aggie sat on a reserve fund of well over half a million dollars, but after June the fund will be down to about $1,000, according to staff. Management overprojected the paper’s revenue from 2002-2012, according to financial data Aggie editors compiled last year. Rather than generate income, the publication lost money ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to nearly $200,000.

Milton Lang, associate vice chancellor of student affairs, said that although the university respects student governance, the fee would be given a hard look by officials.

“We need to let the process run its course. Student affairs will make recommendations to the chancellor,” he said, declining to offer specifics on what type of changes could be made.

Orpina acknowledged the controversies surrounding the referendum and said the Aggie was ready to offer concessions, which she declined to detail.

The Aggie is following the path of other UC newspapers, including those at Irvine and Los Angeles, which have asked students for money. If the UC Davis fee is eventually green-lighted, it would take effect at the end of March. Orpina said the Aggie would immediately add an additional day of print publication and purchase new equipment.

Marc Cooper, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, said money from the fee would be better spent on retooling the website and mobile app, rather than printing papers.

“When you have something that’s already failed, why would you pump tax money to keep it artificially alive at the cost of not moving forward?” he asked.

Newspapers print only because the paper product remains profitable, which isn’t the case for the Aggie, Cooper said.

Leaders of other campus media questioned the wisdom of a fee that supports a single news organization.

“We don’t want to see them go away,” said Kevin Pelstring, managing editor of the Davis Beat, a tabloid newspaper founded last year to compete with the Aggie. “But at the same time, it might lead to complacency. A better way would be to allocate the money for all student media.”

After the vote was announced Friday, it was back to work for the Aggie team. Orpina said she was feeling a little better, but still nervous. Gathering outside Wellman Hall, a group of 10 Aggie staffers cheered her on.

“Yay!” they said.

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

Read more articles by Richard Chang

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