Every once in a while a story hits the pages of the University of Utah's Daily Utah Chronicle that miffs the administration, a professor or politician. The fallout from such stories often spark debate about how the 124-year-old newspaper should be monitored, advised and shepherded through the avenues of journalism.
The response from Chronicle journalists and editors is typically swift and pointed: the Chronicle, not unlike any other newspaper, is at its best as an independent entity charged with keeping power in check and informing the 32,000-strong student body of the business being done on its behalf.
A long line of proud editors and journalists have fought off efforts to rein in the paper's journalistic endeavors, preserving the Chronicle's tradition of independence.
Note: City Weekly's managing editor, Rachel Piper, was editor-in-chief of the Chronicle from 2009-2010, and mentors the Chronicle's copy desk once a week.
But in recent weeks, a campus-media oversight group, bolstered by the high costs of printing a newspaper, cutbacks to circulation and a stubborn budget deficit, has elevated its rhetoric and, some fear, has plans to drastically alter the face of the student newspaper.
A so-called “shark-tank exercise,” put on by the Student Media Council and Jake Sorensen, Director of Student Media, is scheduled for Feb. 21. In a flier announcing the “student media revolution,” Sorensen solicits suggestions from students to “envision an organization from the ground up.”
Talk of revolution makes Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Emily Andrews uneasy. The editor says she's open to discussing how the Chronicle can become a more nimble and financially viable entity, but not if it entails ripping it to pieces.
“I think the idea of having a shark-tank meeting in general is a good idea,” Andrews says. “I worry that it might end up being something where the Chronicle as we know it is eviscerated, or changed dramatically.”
The Chronicle, with its built-in readership base on campus, has not been immune to the ills impacting the newspaper business. Sorensen says the Chronicle's revenue in 2007 was around $700,000. This year the paper's budget is $370,000. The budget traces side-by-side with what the paper brings in through advertising revenue, Sorensen says.
Successive years of cutbacks have helped stop the hemorrhaging. Andrews says she cut the budget by 30 percent this year, slicing into editor stipends, cutting the travel budget and docking daily circulation from 12,000 papers Monday through Thursday to 8,000, and moving from 10,000 on Friday to 6,000.
In an effort to lure a digital audience, Andrews has launched apps for digital devices and requires that the staff must participate in social media—measures that mirror closely those of the broader newspaper world. Still, Andrews says, advertising revenue from the Chronicle's website, and the readers who go there, is minimal.
Talk of reforming campus media from the ground up arose recently, Andrews says, as the council discussed the Chronicle's budget deficit, which Sorensen notes is around $68,000.
Sorensen, who took his post in 2006, says it's time for the Chronicle, and other media at the U, to develop a long-term plan. “It's one thing to continuously conduct triage on a patient,” he says. “It's another thing to figure out a long-term plan of health for a patient.”
The Chronicle, though, and other media under the wing of the council, like the online radio station KUTE and Absolute Communication, an advertising and public relations agency, fulfill an educational purpose, the value of which cannot be tallied on a budget spreadsheet.
Dustin Gardiner, the city-hall reporter for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, Ariz., says his time as the Chronicle's editor-in-chief in 2008-09 provided an education in journalism that no amount of class time could duplicate.
“It provides hands-on experience in watchdog journalism,” he says. “I don't think you can learn to be a watchdog journalist in a classroom. I think you have to learn it in the field, in the newsroom.”
Gardiner says he, too, had to fend off efforts by Sorensen and the administration to quiet some of the paper's coverage.
Like Andrews, Gardiner says he supports efforts to make the paper more viable in a changing media landscape, but not if that means starting from the ground up. “It doesn't make sense for them to wipe out the foundation of a 120-year plus organization and start fresh,” he says. “Most publications aren't destroying the foundation to adapt to change.”
Sorensen says he intends to outline his vision for the future of the Chronicle during the council meeting. Although he declined to give any details, he says the Chronicle's circulation numbers have fallen, indicating to him that fewer people are reading the paper. He suggests that perhaps the Chronicle has lost touch with its audience.
“A media organization can't ignore their audience; they can't exist in a vacuum,” he says.
On preserving the paper's independence and efforts at watchdog journalism, which often produce stories about budgets and other factors that might not wow a mass college crowd, Sorensen believes future coverage could be altered.
“I think to some extent that's good,” he says of the paper's independence. “But there also has to be some kind of insight as to what the students want.”
Gardiner bristles at the suggestion that a newspaper should whittle its coverage to the whims of what's popular. And the paper, he notes, is run by student journalists who “know the news that needs to be covered.”
“For anyone to suggest that they should somehow remove that core watchdog coverage so they can, I guess, pick up some extra online hits—that's a pretty discouraging message to be sending to future journalists,” he says.
Andrews maintains that the paper is committed to strong coverage on an array of topics the student body is interested in. This week, the paper has covered stories about campus political races, crime, a fire, sports and the physics behind the Olympic slopestyle snowboarding event.
Ryan Bennett, student chair of the media council, says he plans to unveil his vision for the future of student media at the meeting. The main force that prompted the discussion, he says, is the Chronicle's deficit.
Bennett mentioned several possibilities for the future of the Chronicle, including publishing only three days instead of five days per week. He says the costs of printing the paper are “a little bit out of control.”
And if the way of the future isn't printed newspapers, he questions the educational aspect of training journalists to put the paper out. “What is the educational benefit of showing someone how to lay out a physical newspaper when the industry is moving away from that?” he asked.
Though Bennett, who works at KUTE, has strong opinions on this topic, he tempered his comments by saying he doesn't anticipate drastic change will happen unless Andrews and other Chronicle employees are on board.
In an editorial published Feb. 12 on the Chronicle's website, Andrews implores students to attend the meeting, and lays out just how fiercely she and generations of journalists who got their start at the Chronicle feel about the paper.
“The Chronicle has been a pillar of the U community since our founding in 1890—six years before Utah even became a state," she wrote. "Since then, every Sunday through Thursday night, a dedicated group of students has convened somewhere on campus to produce our newspaper. … Like every other student on this campus, they have full and busy lives outside of the newspaper. And despite hearing repeatedly, day in and day out, that their craft is dying, that they'll end up jobless, with useless skills in an unforgiving job market that isn't interested in creative types, they still dutifully report to this newsroom every day.”
The meeting, which is open to the public, is in the LNCO building, Room 1100, at 9 a.m. Feb. 21.