Abby Miller is spending her summer working as a reporting intern at The News Tribune, Tacoma’s local newspaper. While she’s here in the Pacific Northwest, she’s also thinking about how to save the local free press 2,500 miles away in Athens, Ohio. She’s the editor in chief of The Post, Ohio University’s student newspaper.
The Athens NEWS recently reported that Ohio University will stop paying the salary of Andrea Lewis, The Post’s only full-time professional, after next school year. It had planned to cut the $45,000 worth of funding plus benefits this summer but announced a one-year reprieve.
Lewis is the newspaper’s business manager. She hires and trains the student advertising sales team and handles a lot of the bookkeeping and paperwork that satisfies university bureaucracy.
“The students work very hard to make sure that their revenue could cover everything that they do operationally,” Lewis said. They generate about $80,000 per year, which is the paper’s entire budget.
If her job disappears, it’s not clear how long The Post would survive, at least at its current size and scope. That would be a tremendous loss for local news on campus and in the community.
The Post has served Ohio University — not to be confused with the much-larger Ohio State University in Columbus — for more than 100 years. When I attended Ohio University as an undergraduate, I didn’t work for The Post. It probably won’t surprise some of my critics to learn that I wasn’t even a journalism major (mathematics and philosophy). But I read the paper every day.
Miller is talking to alumni, the community and the university about how to find a sustainable funding stream.
“Any time you face downsizing or threaten the existence of the student press, it means less accountability at the university and the local level,” Miller said. “We break news stories. We get scoops. We do investigations that other local media aren’t looking into.”
College newspapers train future professional journalists and businesspeople. At Ohio University, they call it “experiential learning.” The students who work at The Post gain experience and skills that make them attractive hires at top newspapers.
The value isn’t just for the few dozen students working at the paper, though. The entire campus community benefits from the existence of a strong student newspaper. They are hyperlocal free press.
Those of us who have been chronicling the decline of the local free press typically focus on newspapers that shed staff, get gobbled up by hedge funds or close entirely. We write about news deserts and loss of civic engagement. College newspapers are a critical but often overlooked part of the endangered media landscape.
College students who pick up a student newspaper know that most of the stories they read will be about things important to them because they are written by their peers.
Over time, those readers develop the habit of turning to a reliable local news source to stay informed. They become news consumers who see the value of the local free press. That’s a habit that will serve them well for a lifetime. If only there were more people like that, the current local journalism crisis might not be so bad.
Once the story got out, Ohio University officials insisted that The Post will survive.
“Ultimately, we will find a way to safeguard the continued success of The Post while protecting its editorial independence from the institution,” said President Hugh Sherman.
The only suggestion so far, however, is that The Post apply for money from a student-fees account that funds other campus clubs and organizations. Lewis’ salary alone would consume more than 10% of that fund. What other campus groups might lose out? And could The Post be confident that the student-government-run fund would take kindly to tough coverage?
Some student newspapers succeed with a similar model, including The Daily at the University of Washington. There, student fees fund more than half of the paper’s budget. The remainder comes from advertising.
“We’re here to inform the campus community about what’s going on on campus — students, faculty and staff,” said The Daily Publisher Diana Kramer, whose full-time job is similar to Lewis’. “Since the daily newspapers like The Seattle Times have cut back, we often break news about what’s happening on campus.”
It’s stunning that a major state university would risk the future of a treasured campus institution and the future of independent journalism over a mere $45,000.
If Sherman and the university are committed to The Post, this shouldn’t be so hard.
Ohio University allocates $20 million per year on intercollegiate athletics and expects to end the current fiscal year with a $14.5 million surplus. Surely there’s enough money in there to support the local free press.
Miller, the editor interning in Tacoma, remains optimistic. “The Post is going to stick around no matter what,” she said.