For more than a century, The Daily Tar Heel student journalists have documented life at UNC-Chapel Hill and taken on the university on issues of free expression, integration, tuition, campus crime and big-time athletics.
This weekend, the independent student newspaper will celebrate its 125th anniversary with two days of events, including panel discussions and a gala dinner fundraiser for 250 people. Alumni who have gone on to distinguished journalism careers will return to Chapel Hill for the birthday party.
One question on their minds will be: What’s the future of the DTH? The proud publication has been searching for the answer, and so have college newspapers across the United States.
Student journalists toil long hours in newsrooms around the country as they try to balance their academic classes. Some are paid low salaries, and mostly survive on coffee and the adrenaline of covering the news. They also face the reality of a crumbling financial model – falling advertising revenue, increasing digital demands and the lack of a subscription revenue because campus publications are free.
“The reality is that college media isn’t immune to all the economic factors that are buffeting the professional world, and it’s really hard to make a go of it independently,” said Frank LoMonte, professor of journalism and director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida. “Your eggs are really in the basket of advertising. When that dries up, so does your business model.”
Most college papers have reduced their print editions. Last academic year, The Daily Tar Heel printed a paper four days a week. This year, it’s three days – Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It prints 10,000 copies, down from a peak of 22,000, said Erica Perel, general manager. The Duke Chronicle also prints three days a week, down from five days a week five years ago.
Technician, the paper at N.C. State University, printed four times a week until last year, when it changed to a twice-a-week, 16-page tabloid format. It now prints 5,000 copies, and Editor Jonathan Carter said only about half are picked up. Campus Echo, at N.C. Central University, moved from eight print editions a semester a few years ago to only one now.
Increasingly student journalists have turned their focus to their digital publications and new ways to tell stories with social media, using Facebook Live, Twitter and Instagram, for example. They’ve adapted their skills to mirror what’s going on in the professional journalism world.
“It is both exciting and very fun,” said Carter, a junior majoring in political science at NCSU. “I think we’re adapting very well, especially here at Technician, in moving away from that print mentality. ... It’s also challenging. It’s very difficult because now we have to know exactly how to meet our readership.”
The health of a campus media organization increasingly rests on its ability to bring in revenue from other sources such as fundraising or side business ventures. The Daily Tar Heel created the 1893 Brand Studio, an agency that charges clients fees for writing, video, photo, design and web production.
Financial stability also depends on how the organizations are set up. Some newspapers get funding from student fees or academic departments at their universities, and some get free space on campus.
For The Daily Tar Heel, its independence has come at a cost. It operates as a nonprofit with no financial support from the university. In 2010, it moved from cheap university-owned space to a large rented office space on Rosemary Street in downtown Chapel Hill. When ad revenue dropped in recent years, the rent payments became increasingly difficult to meet, Perel said.
“It’s been a big strain on our budget,” she said. “We had to lay off a lot of folks. Great, great employees.”
The Daily Tar Heel, like many campus media outlets, employ a small number of full-time employees as well as students.
Earlier this week, the paper relocated its offices to a smaller, cheaper space in the back of a building that faces Franklin Street. That will help the bottom line. “Getting this opportunity to move and hit the reset button on our operations is really, really helpful,” Perel said.
With a gap in internet service, the move required some ingenuity, said Tyler Fleming, editor and senior political science and history major from Randleman. The students had to drive their pages to the printer in Durham. After one long night earlier this week, a group of editors lounged in a room watching “High School Musical” after meeting a tough deadline.
“Fundamentally there will always be students who want to do student journalism,” Fleming said. “The DTH’s hours are crazy and the pay is low, and some of us don’t see our housemates for several days. But we love doing it. I think that love and that desire to ask good questions and hold the university we attend accountable, I think that will always be there.”
This weekend, Fleming will moderate a panel discussion on the paper’s long and colorful history. A recent book, “Print News and Raise Hell,” by Kenneth Joel Zogry, documents the newspaper’s impact on the university. The paper was an integral part of the debates that have been at the forefront of the modern university – free speech, political battles, academic freedom, racial and gender inclusion and the complicated role of athletics.
Past campus controversies are likely to be a topic this weekend among former DTH staffers, including the last three editors of The News & Observer – Melanie Sill, John Drescher and Robyn Tomlin.
LoMonte called The Daily Tar Heel “if not the undisputed best, then certainly right up there in the pantheon.” He counts five or six papers across the country that have similar quality.
“One of the things that makes them so excellent is their willingness to challenge authority,” he said. “They have taken the lead over and over again in pressing their own institution for more disclosure, and they are at an institution that is one of the most aggressively secret in America.”
But will the financial challenges hamper the watchdog role? Ironically, Perel said, the papers that are struggling the most are the ones that were strong enough to be independent in the first place.
LoMonte said the ideal solution would be for universities to financially support student journalism in the same way they pay for independent auditors. The money could be put in a “lockbox,” he said, and distributed by a national journalism organization to prevent universities from holding back money because of controversial stories.
“Colleges and universities have to recognize independent media coverage as a civic good and step up to the plate and pay what it’s worth,” he said.
University leaders like to talk about producing civically engaged students, he said, and journalism is a part of that. “It should not take long for people to realize that to create healthy news consumption habits, they have to financially support a robust, student-run press,” LoMonte said.
In the meantime, campus newspapers are experimenting and figuring out the financial model as they go along.
Bruce dePyssler, adviser to NCCU’s Campus Echo, said his students post one story a day online. The best stories are compiled for the once-a-semester print edition.
“We’re not cutting edge, but we’ve got a website we’re proud of,” he said, adding, “It’s kind of sad because students get jazzed when they see it in print.”
Fleming, who had an internship at the Charlotte Observer, said students are getting valuable training. “The constant flux that the media is in currently – that’s the only world I’ve known,” he said.
And even if the student journalists don’t go into media jobs, Perel said, they’ve gotten a great education.
“The number one thing that we teach is critical thinking and how to be a lifelong learner,” she said. “That’s incredibly valuable in journalism and out of journalism. I think it’s definitely going to see our students through. The ones who are living through this transition are the ones that are going to be a lot stronger for it in the end.”