As a generation of students raised on the Internet takes hold, UC Davis’ campus newspaper faces the real possibility of going extinct before its 100th anniversary next year.
The California Aggie has already gone from a daily to a weekly, eliminated staff positions and imposed across-the-board pay cuts. Now, in a desperate measure, it wants undergraduate students to finance its operation through an annual $9.30 campus fee.
“In a school that doesn’t have a journalism program, the Aggie is a learning laboratory for future photographers, writers and editors,” Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Orpina said Friday at her office in Lower Freeborn Hall.
As recently as 2008, the 99-year-old Aggie printed 12,000 copies a day, five days a week. The newspaper also used to pay every staff member. Reporters and editors once competed in national and regional competitions, Orpina said, as she sifted through a dusty bin of old awards.
The student paper has long relied on advertising revenue to sustain itself. On Thursday, Orpina asked the student government to support a student fee referendum that would generate nearly $300,000 annually. Ten student senators threw their weight behind the measure, placing it on a campus ballot in mid-February.
Miles Thomas, Senate president pro tempore at UC Davis, backed the student fees and described the Aggie as “one of the most critical institutions on campus.”
“They keep student government accountable and the administration of UC Davis accountable. Look at the pepper-spray incident,” Thomas said, referring to the 2011 event that gained international notoriety after campus police pepper-sprayed demonstrators protesting tuition hikes on the university quad.
“A fee referendum is the only way the Aggie could keep its integrity as a newspaper,” Thomas said.
Two senators abstained, noting that the bill was, in essence, a blank check.
“My biggest fear is that there’s no expiration date,” said Katherine Sherman, one of the two senators. “I’m not opposed to the idea of a fee, but there needs to be more oversight. Especially as they move to online media, those numbers need to be re-evaluated.”
The Aggie is following the path of other University of California campus papers that have asked students for money. The New University weekly student newspaper at UC Irvine began receiving a 99 cent per quarter fee from students this year, according to its editor, Jessica Pratt.
The UC Davis fee has a high bar to clear. At least 20 percent of undergraduates must vote in the election, and three-fifths of voters must approve the measure.
The New University, along with other publications, this week voiced support for the student fee. (The Sacramento Bee sent a letter Thursday in support of the referendum at the request of Aggie editors, asserting that a newspaper “plays an essential role in creating a connected community.”)
The precipitous decline of the publication began seven years ago as the Aggie struggled to cope with the digital age. Orpina and past editors said financial mismanagement, combined with slumping ad revenue and decreasing readership, forced the paper last year to slash print publication from four days a week to one day.
The paper has tried to cut costs in other ways. Writers and photographers are not paid for their work. Managers receive a stipend averaging $50 a week.
Marc Cooper, a professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, criticized the proposed student fee, suggesting it was primarily driven by nostalgia.
“When you’re dying at this rate, it’s like asking people to donate to keep you on life support,” Cooper said. “If you can’t sell enough ads to sustain one or two days of publication, what kind of force are you in the community?”
Adela de la Torre, vice chancellor of student affairs, declined to say whether the university would jump in and finance the Aggie if the fee referendum were to fail.
“Part of the concern is independence from the administration,” de la Torre said. “When you have the administration paying, it changes the perceived relationship.”
In 2005, the paper sat on a reserve fund of well over half a million dollars. After June, the fund will be down to about $1,000, according to business manager Ryan Hansen-Maffet.
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.
As recently as 2004-05, the Aggie had more than $500,000 in revenue. But that plummeted below $200,000 in 2008-09, and the paper ran a deficit of about $157,000 that year.
Last year, when the Aggie cut circulation to once a week, the Davis Enterprise offered to take over business functions, according to then-Editor-in -Chief Janelle Bitker. But the talks were scuttled over a disagreement in profit-sharing.
Budget cuts in recent years have crippled the Aggie’s newsgathering efforts, Orpina said. Without the ability to pay most of its staff, the Aggie has struggled to attract top talent. The move to publish once a week has shed costs but also resulted in lost advertising opportunities.
“There are national advertisers who want an entire week,” Hansen-Maffet said, “but all we can give them is one day.”
In the face of economic realities and the changing habits of student consumers, the Aggie has struggled to find its place on campus. Cooper said the money would be better spent on retooling the Aggie’s website, which could be maintained for very little compared with the cost of printing papers.
“There’s an inherent danger of falling behind the ecology of news,” Cooper said.