UCD student paper stops publishing amid fee controversy

The California Aggie, UC Davis’ student newspaper, has suspended print publication just shy of its 100th birthday.

After years of financial mismanagement and slumping advertising revenue, the Aggie appeared to have won a reprieve in February when students approved a fee measure that would generate nearly $300,000 annually to support the paper. But a student government court Wednesday invalidated the election results, saying the balloting was marred by procedural issues.

The fee proposal and the ruling have polarized campus leaders. Some have questioned the extent of the court’s authority, but the decision by nine student judges appears to be binding for now.

The paper had counted on the university imposing the fee in the spring quarter that begins March 27. Campus administrators said the vote did not occur in time for spring and have stopped their review process in light of the contested results.

“We are going to halt all print production,” said Aggie editor-in-chief Elizabeth Orpina. “We’re going to become a volunteer-based, all-digital newspaper.”

The decision by Aggie editors will make UC Davis the only UC undergraduate campus without a student newspaper in print.

The Aggie printed its last edition Thursday. Orpina hoped the fee would eventually be green-lighted and the newspaper could return in print form. But she acknowledged the grim situation, suggesting that the temporary decision to publish online only may become permanent.

Under the proposed fee – which had no sunset clause – students would be billed $3.88 per quarter, with 78 cents allocated to a financial aid fund, customary for university fees. The Aggie would net nearly $300,000 a year.

University of California, Davis, officials immediately halted review of the referendum, which like other campus fees must be approved by Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi and UC President Janet Napolitano.

“It’s in the students’ domain,” UC Davis spokesman Keith Sterling said. “The results are being questioned and contested. We’re in a wait-and-see mode.”

Sterling said the university’s lawyers are taking a close look to ensure the student court ruling is binding.

Even before the vote, the measure had generated controversy. A vocal opposition decried the fee as an unfair tax, but supporters of the Aggie said it was a small price to pay for student journalism. The vote passed with nearly 73 percent of the vote.

One opponent challenged the outcome, and the student government court determined that there were enough procedural problems to call for a new election. The court said the results were an “erroneous announcement,” but offered few details, noting that it would release a final verdict April 2.

The newspaper follows the lead of other UC campus papers that have asked students for cash. But elsewhere, the fees generally have been smaller and must be reconsidered every few years.

In 2005, the Aggie sat on a reserve fund of well over half a million dollars, but the fund is now down to $17,000, according to Orpina. Management overprojected the paper’s revenue from 2002-2012, according to financial data Aggie editors compiled last year. The publication lost money each year, ranging from tens of thousands of dollars to nearly $200,000.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee