Two months after going out of print, the UC Davis student newspaper appears to be making a comeback.
The California Aggie is poised to sign a deal with the Vacaville Reporter, which would print the Aggie in exchange for the right to sell advertising.
Vacaville Reporter Publisher Jim Gleim said he believes the venture could be profitable for his company, Digital First Media, but added that the partnership was driven by his “affinity for college publications.”
“We have a sales organization already in the field. That’s been an obvious problem for the college paper,” Gleim said, referring to the Aggie’s staggering decline in advertising revenue over the past decade, which ultimately led to its collapse.
The nearly 100-year-old college paper stopped printing in March after running out of cash. Over the previous year, it had begun publishing weekly and had cut circulation by more than half. An attempt to impose a student fee of $11.64 to support the publication passed in February with nearly 73 percent of the vote. But the result was quickly invalidated by a student court, citing election irregularities.
Aggie editor-in-chief Elizabeth Orpina said the impending deal would preserve the printed paper for future student journalists.
“You come to this paper, it’s guaranteed to print,” Orpina said. “It’s a worthwhile venture.”
Under the agreement, which has yet to be finalized, the Aggie would retain its editorial independence. Student staff would no longer get paid, although the wages in recent years had been severely reduced and were limited to editors.
Gleim said his company has access to national, regional and local advertisers that would be interested in tapping the college market. Digital First Media, headquartered in New York, owns the San Jose Mercury News and Los Angeles Daily News, among other papers.
Orpina said the Aggie would feature 50 percent content and 50 percent advertising. She noted that the revenue from university ads would remain with students.
The idea of a private, general-circulation newspaper taking over the business operations of a college paper isn’t new. Most notably, USA Today publisher Gannett in 2012 agreed to pay Ohio State University nearly $900,000 a year for the right to sell ads in the Lantern student newspaper, which is under the College of Arts and Sciences.
Marc Cooper, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, called the Aggie deal “fairly unprecedented,” and raised significant questions about the legality of such a contract.
“You have essentially a commercial paper that’s not paying its staff,” he said. “This newspaper becomes dependent on the whims of an outside group that’s not accountable to the university. These people are in the worst of all positions – they are volunteers of a for-profit company.”
It’s unclear whether student staff have the authority to negotiate a pact with an outside publisher. The Aggie operates as a unit of the Associated Students of UC Davis, which in turn is a department of the university.
“I’m allowed to do it because we’re an independent unit of ASUCD so you can make those financial decisions,” Orpina said, adding that she planned to get the “blessing” of university administrators anyway.
University officials were in the dark Friday about the impending deal, which Orpina said could come as early as this week. Printing could resume in the summer.
Asked about ownership of the Aggie, UC Davis spokesman Keith Sterling said, “That’s a legal question that’s very complicated.”
In an interview, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi appeared to disagree, saying the paper in her mind was an “independent entity.”
“There’s no oversight and no connection with the administration,” she said. “That was by design. We don’t interfere with their decisions, we don’t step in unless they ask us to.”
The UC Regents in 1971 passed a policy giving the chancellor “responsibility and authority for conduct of student publications.” But the policy was revoked in 2005, according to Brooke Converse, a spokeswoman with the UC Office of the President.
Brian Nguyen, who is one of three candidates vying to replace Orpina as editor-in-chief next year, complained that students shouldn’t have to work for free.
“The idea that a company is making money from students’ labor and not giving any of it back leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” he said.
This isn’t the first time the Aggie has looked away from campus to support its operations. In 2013, when the Aggie was looking to cut publication days, it sought to strike a similar deal with the Davis Enterprise, said Janelle Bitker, who was editor-in-chief of the college paper at the time.
“I offered them a little bit of money, and I would cover all their expenses as far as printing,” said Enterprise Publisher Burt McNaughton.
He declined to disclose the financial terms, but noted that the paper would have kept printing for at least three years, the term of the contract.
McNaughton said the parties were “close” to a deal, but that Bitker walked away because she thought the Aggie could win a student fee referendum. Bitker said there were details on which the two sides couldn’t agree.
Asked her opinion on the Vacaville deal, Bitker said, “Any plan to save the Aggie is a good plan.”
“It seems really challenging to break away from ASUCD or UC Davis,” she said. “All this work could be for nothing.”
UC Davis does not have a journalism major. The school newspaper is the primary platform for students to gain experience in journalism and has been likened by its editors to a “living laboratory.” The partnership with the Reporter could include a mentorship program.
“If we’re not going to get staff pay, I think this is great deal,” Orpina said. “It’s really a learning experience.”