Wednesdays are slow news days this year at the University of California at Berkeley. Or at least that's how it might seem to students and community members looking for copies of the university's independent student newspaper, the Daily Californian.
Faced with waning ad revenue and fearing "falling into the red," the Daily Cal decided in late August to stop publishing a print edition of the paper on Wednesdays, said Editor-in-Chief Bryan Thomas. Though the paper still publishes content online, the change has been "a slow adjustment" for the paper's staff and the university in general. Thomas said students still stop him around campus on Wednesdays asking where the papers are.
Newspaper ad revenue has been declining for commercial papers for the past several years. The downturn in the real estate market has caused an especially large drop in real estate ads, and as advertising continues to move online, newspapers have been feeling the pinch in their budgets.
In 2007, newspaper ad revenue fell 7.9 percent, with revenue from print advertisements falling 9.4 percent - the largest drop since 1950, according to the Newspaper Association of America. Papers like the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times and USA Today have downsized significantly, switching to smaller page sizes, running fewer articles, and cutting jobs, according to a Feb. 7 article in the New York Times. The Baltimore Sun, for example, recently closed its last foreign bureau.
The Providence Journal cut its entire part-time news staff and five full-time employees last week, the Providence News Guild reported Sept. 24.
But despite the grim outlook for the future of commercial newspapers, college papers have always been more resilient. As niche publications, most without subscription fees, college papers have been steadily attracting advertisers who want to reach the student community. At least until now.
"College papers are only now starting to see ad revenue dwindle," said Logan Aimone, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association. "But they are suffering from a shortfall in advertising revenue. If people aren't advertising in local papers, they're not advertising in college papers either."
The shift from print to online advertising has "definitely affected" some college papers, Thomas said. But it is the combination of this shift and a general economic slump that has led to recent declines in ad revenue - and budgets - for a number of student newspapers, he said.
At the Daily Bruin, the student newspaper at the University of California at Los Angeles, waning ad revenue is largely due to budget cuts within the University of California system, said Editor-in-Chief Anthony Pesce.
Over the past six years, the Daily Bruin has seen a decrease of several hundred thousand dollars in ads taken out by the university. And Pesce expects university advertising to decline much more drastically this year. As the UC system gears up for a 10 percent budget cut, academic departments are making cuts, and things like advertising in the Daily Bruin are "taking a backseat," Pesce said.
Though Pesce said budget cuts and the state of the economy could "very well do a lot of damage to our budget this year," he added that the paper does not plan to cut a day of publication, calling that strategy a "huge mistake."
But for other college papers faced with tight budgets, cutting a day of publication is one of the only ways to stay afloat. The Daily Orange, the independent student newspaper at Syracuse University, decided in August to stop publishing the Friday print edition because of budget problems. Fridays have always been a financial loss for the paper, since few students take classes on Fridays and readership is low, said Editor-in-Chief Stephen Dockery.
"Advertisers don't want to advertise when they know students aren't going to read," Dockery said. "We could no longer handle that loss, and we had to make a decision that would put us in the black for next semester."
But Dockery said the cutbacks at the Orange are not part of the larger trend affecting commercial papers. Rather, he said the paper's budget woes were due to unexpected production costs. Ad revenue has been fairly constant, Dockery said, adding that on the days it still goes to print, the Orange has just as many local and national ads as it used to.
"College newspapers are very different," Dockery said. "They're like a bubble. People are always on campus, always near a newspaper. We have a real target demographic that online advertising (can't reach)."
Indeed, not all college papers are hurting. The revenue stream at the Harvard Crimson is "strong," and the paper has no plans to cut content, said Managing Editor Paras Bhayani. Ad revenue for the Crimson has actually increased over the past few years, he said.
Bhayani added, however, that attracting advertisers might be more challenging this year, since a large portion of ad revenue comes from Wall Street firms recruiting students.
At the Daily Cal, Thomas acknowledged that college papers are different from commercial papers, noting that advertising for college papers is "generally strong," while metropolitan papers are "dying all over the place." For this reason, he said he is not concerned about revenue for the Daily Cal in the long term.
Still, Thomas said, college newspapers have been steadily losing money. The Daily Cal has seen a five-year trend away from print advertising, especially from national advertisers. The publication cuts this year, which came along with salary cuts for editors and staff members, are a "one-year fix," Thomas said, meant to give the paper time to come up with a 10-year plan to shelter it from fluctuations in the market.
Though Aimone said the Daily Orange and the Daily Cal are the only college papers he's heard of that have made "dramatic, visual" cuts, a number of papers have been "trimming things internally," he said. Papers are cutting travel budgets, hiring fewer writers and paying staffers less. The NSPA holds an annual convention in October, and Aimone said several schools have mentioned that they are planning to send fewer people than in previous years.
"I think if I had to bet, I'd say college publications will stay around in print longer than commercial newspapers," Aimone said. "But they're ultimately going to have to find a way to make it work financially, just like commercial papers."
And at least some are doing just that. The Daily Bruin received a $275,000 grant from the Knight Foundation in May for online development. The project, which will "build a new online way to deliver the news," will hopefully allow the paper do better financially, Pesce said. The Daily Bruin plans to use the grant to incorporate social networking devices into its Web site, making the site a "news hub for everything on campus, even if it's not something we'd traditionally cover," Pesce said. The Daily Bruin also plans to provide Web site hosting and development for student groups.
"If you're extremely relevant to your readers, you're going to be able to sell ads," Pesce said. "There's still a market for ads out there."
But the existence of such a market doesn't mean college papers are in the clear.
"Every college paper out there has to be worried," Pesce said. "Papers cutting back should be seen as a canary in a coal mine, not something out of the ordinary. Eventually, everybody's going to have a problem, and if they're not proactive they're going to end up in the same boat."