UC Davis newspaper thrives after students approve media fee

10_13_Jay_Gelvezon.jpg

In his four years with The California Aggie at University of California, Davis, Scott Dresser had a front-row seat on the student newspaper’s roller coaster ride. He was there when The Aggie hit bottom and was forced to halt print production and stop paying staffers. And, as editor-in-chief for two years, he helped lead the effort to return the newspaper to financial viability and resume print publication.

In an age of falling advertising revenue and hard decisions about print publication, his experiences offer some important lessons for 21st century student media operations.

The Aggie’s troubles became evident to Dresser in the spring of 2014, soon after he was named campus news editor. But the newspaper had actually been losing money for five straight years due to falling advertising revenue and financial mismanagement. As College Media Matters reported at the time, The Aggie’s budget reserves had plummeted from a half million dollars to less than $20,000.

In the winter of 2014 the newspaper staff launched a “Save the Aggie” campaign and tried to get the student body to approve a $3.10-per-quarter student fee that would have raised an estimated $272,800 annually for the newspaper, according to The Davis Enterprise. But too few students voted and the measure failed, compelling the leadership of the newspaper to halt printing and move to an online-only format.

“The mood was pretty grim,” Dresser recalled. “I was incredibly disappointed when we transitioned out of print. I understood the financial necessity but I grew up reading print newspapers, and I felt it was a disservice to the campus not to have a print paper.”

scotty_op-min.jpg

Former California Aggie editor Scott Dresser led the effort to once again start printing the UC Davis student newspaper.

Over the next year the staff looked for new ways to bring in revenue. At one point, a local newspaper, The Vacaville Reporter, agreed to print the Aggie in exchange for the right to sell advertising, but that deal fell through, according to Dresser and news reports.

When Dresser became editor-in-chief in the spring of 2015 he vowed to make The Aggie financially viable again – and, if possible, to bring back the print newspaper. He worked with student government leaders and university administrators to craft a new fee initiative and mobilized the newspaper staff to convince students to approve it.

“We were speaking in classrooms daily, speaking at student organization meetings, tabling on the quad,” Dresser said of the 2016 “Print the Aggie” campaign. “We wanted to empower our staff to feel like they had skin in the game. We encouraged them to find innovative ways they could contribute to the campaign.”

A couple of weeks before the vote, The Aggie printed a special 100th-anniversary edition to “show students what they were missing,” Dresser said. In a letter from the editor in the print issue, Dresser noted that UC Davis was the only school in the 10-campus University of California system that didn’t have a print newspaper. “We pointed out that students were missing out on a service that students across the UC system had,” Dresser said. “That was pretty effective.”

A staff editorial hammered home the plea for print.

“Print journalism is important, especially on a college campus,” the editorial said. “In addition to increasing transparency of local issues and keeping an official record of UC Davis history, an on-campus print newspaper gives student groups more visibility for their events and allows for a higher level of accountability for ASUCD and the administration.”

The Aggie’s efforts paid off. About 21 percent of students voted on the initiative (a little more than what was needed to meet the 20 percent voter participation requirement) and of those, 61 percent agreed to charge themselves $3.73 per quarter to fund the Aggie. According to the initiative, of the money raised, 80 percent of the funds, about $230,000 per year, goes to the newspaper, and 20 percent covers the fee increase for those who can’t afford it.

The fee is scheduled to last for four more years and could be renewed with another election.

On Sept. 22, 2016, The Aggie started to print weekly once again. But the staff didn’t just use the fee money for printing. With the new revenue, the newspaper was able to hire a business development director who revitalized the advertising department and provided continuity for the student-run newspaper.

With money from the student fee and new advertising revenue coming in, The Aggie now has a healthy annual budget of $350,000, up from just $4,000 two years ago, Dresser said. The newspaper has been able to invest in new equipment and once again pay its staffers. “This year alone, we put over $100,000 into our reserves,” Dresser wrote in his final Letter from the Editor earlier this month.

Dresser said the paper is now a modern media enterprise that takes advantage of both print and online. The print newspaper reaches students where they live and study. “If they see a print copy outside a lecture hall or an on-campus coffee shop, we’re able to reach a wider audience,” Dresser said. “By getting back to print we’ve really increased our presence in the community. A lot of people in the community didn’t know we were still around.”

Meanwhile, the website features breaking news and multimedia content, which The Aggie promotes through social media.

“We fully understand that the future of journalism is digital,” Dresser said. “We have worked to get back into print, but we understand our digital product is as important if not more important than the print product.”

While Dresser thought it was vital for The Aggie to return to print, he understands that for other college newspapers digital-only publishing is the best way to serve their communities.

“I don’t think college newspapers should print just to keep printing,” he said. “Those decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.”

And not all campuses would support a student newspaper or media fee. But for those having financial troubles, it’s certainly worth considering. The Daily Californian at UC Berkeley, The Daily Nexus at UC Santa Barbara and The Daily Bruin at UCLA are among student newspapers that benefit from student media fees.

After years of fighting to save and then revitalize The Aggie Dresser is ready for his next challenge. He graduated with degrees in economics and political science last week and plans to take a break and travel before looking for a job in politics or journalism.

The Aggie was my life for four years so it’s really sad to be leaving,” Dresser said. “But I’m confident next year’s staff has the ability to continue this legacy.”

Comments are closed.