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.
The independent student newspaper recently celebrated its 125th anniversary with two days of events, including panel discussions and a gala dinner fundraiser for 250 people. One question on their minds: 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.
Recently, 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, 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.”