UC Davis newspaper struggles to resume print publication

The longer UC Davis’ student newspaper remains out of print, the more difficult it seems to revive the nearly century-old institution on paper.

The California Aggie stopped printing newspapers in March after years of financial mismanagement, and student leaders have looked for ways to resume circulation ever since. The Aggie’s latest attempt to partner with a local newspaper publisher has fallen flat, with none submitting proposals to print the Aggie twice weekly in exchange for advertising revenue.

The publication continues to post campus news online. But editor-in-chief Muna Sadek said the physical presence of the paper on campus news racks is what makes the institution valuable.

“People use the Aggie as a watchdog, and it serves as a voice for people,” she said. “It’s a public forum.”

Vacaville Reporter publisher Jim Gleim, who had previously taken interest in helping the Aggie, suggested last week that printing the paper is a less attractive proposition the longer students have gone without seeing it.

“When we were first contemplating it, they had just been out of print. Now you’ve got a whole class that’s come in who hasn’t read the Aggie,” he said. “There’s a little less opportunity than we had first read into it.”

The Aggie was heading toward insolvency in the spring, but editors thought they had an immediate fix in the form of a student fee that would subsidize the publication with $300,000 annually. Students approved that fee in February, but student government leaders invalidated the result after finding procedural problems with the election.

Most recently, in May, the Aggie was close to reaching a pact with the Vacaville Reporter in which the Digital First Media property would print the Aggie in exchange for all advertising revenue. But the Aggie stopped negotiations and decided to pursue an open bidding process at the suggestion of UC Davis officials, according to Sadek.

Sadek, working with university officials, last month put out a “request for proposal” for printing papers and selling advertising. The Aggie is betting that a local publisher will bail out the paper so it can resume printing twice a week by its centennial next year. But no bids have arrived, and the deadline has been extended to Jan. 26.

“I’m hopeful that we will get a handful of great offers,” said Sadek, adding that she had reached out personally to several local publishers, including the Vacaville Reporter and The Sacramento Bee.

Any deal would need to be approved by a special board of students, faculty and staff that has yet to be convened. Sadek said she plans to resume printing twice a week next March if a successful bidder is found.

Calling the Aggie’s demise a “tragedy,” Gleim, also a Davis resident, said it was a shame a world-class university couldn’t maintain a print newspaper. He expressed frustration with the hurdles of working with the university and characterized the situation as troubling.

“There was a general sense that some big business was going to take advantage of a student publication,” Gleim said, emphasizing that his desire to help the Aggie was born out of his affinity for college publications. “That just wasn’t the case.”

“As you’re trying to run a business, you want less bureaucracy involved so decisions can be made,” he added.

Gleim said he will take a careful look at the contract but won’t promise to bid. Sacramento Bee spokeswoman Pam Dinsmore had no comment on the prospect for bidding to publish the Aggie.

While the Aggie has ceased printing, staff members continue to update the publication’s website twice a week with new stories. But the problem with having an online-only presence, Sadek said, is that students are less likely to seek out the Aggie’s website because of the sheer amount of content available elsewhere online.

“In periods of big news like the fee hike, we got a lot of hits, but it really varies,” she said.

The Aggie’s debts continue to accumulate with infrastructure costs like telephone services. The paper, which receives free office space from the university, is now $60,000 in debt, according to Sadek.

Marc Cooper, a University of Southern California journalism professor who has been watching the Aggie’s struggles, said he wasn’t surprised publishers didn’t submit bids.

“Most newspapers are struggling to meet the bottom line with the properties they have,” Cooper said. “Newspapers are cutting back, not expanding.”

Cooper believes the Aggie would be better off channeling efforts toward revamping its website and mobile app, which he noted are the primary venues for news consumption among college students.

“It’s an exercise of nostalgia for the Aggie to go through so much acrobatics to try to put out a paper that won’t even be a daily,” he said.

Students interviewed had mixed opinions on the future of the Aggie. Yunan Song, an international student from Shanghai, said he often read the police blotter in the Aggie for entertainment.

“Davis is a small town so the police report was always funny,” he said while sitting on a bench at the UC Davis recreation center. “A university should have a newspaper.”

Elias Sanchez, president of the student veterans organization, said the Aggie provided a platform for veterans’ issues and suggested that a donor should pick up the tab.

“The articles shined a light on our issues,” Sanchez said. “We need to find a sustainable solution to support the paper.”

Freshman Ruby Nguyen for months did not know the Aggie even existed. He learned about it after meeting a friend who became a writer there.

“If there isn’t a physical paper, I won’t seek it out,” Nguyen said, noting that he often read his high school’s printed newspaper.

If the contract fails to garner any offers, the future of the Aggie could be in jeopardy, Sadek warned, though she remained optimistic about the prospects of finding a reliable partner.

“I really don’t think this will fail,” Sadek said. “Worst case scenario is we revisit the (student) referendum process.”

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