Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Funding cuts may silence The Penn

by SAM KUSIC skusic@indianagazette.net on March 30, 2011 3:00 AM

After 85 years of publishing, Indiana University of Pennsylvania's student newspaper is in danger of running out of ink -- or at least the money to pay for it.

An appropriations committee that oversees funding for student organizations is recommending that the newspaper be defunded next year on concerns about the newspaper's quality and its long-term financial health. If the recommendation wins final approval, it would be roughly a $52,000 loss to the twice-weekly newspaper, amounting to a 23 percent reduction of its projected operating funds.

Despite the results of the cut, The Penn already is failing IUP's students, said David Bivens, a member of the committee, an advisory panel under the Student Cooperative Association. Bivens also is the Student Government Association president.

"The Penn is embarrassing in how it works and what goes into it," said Bivens. "The students deserve a student paper, and I wish that we had one."

But Vaughn Johnson, The Penn's editor in chief, and Joe Lawley, the association's director of student publications, said the decision will just about guarantee that IUP doesn't have an independent, student-run newspaper. They said that while ad revenue covers most of the bills, it doesn't cover all of them. And ad revenue has been sliding, Lawley said, as it has with most other newspapers throughout the U.S.

"We've lost a nice chunk of revenue to Craigslist," said Lawley.

The cooperative association, a nonprofit corporation affiliated with, but independent of, the university, is in charge of disbursing student activity fee money. Each year, organizations seeking funding for the next year are required to apply for an appropriation through the committee, which is made up mostly of students. It then makes a recommendation to the cooperative association's board of directors, which must vote an appropriation up or down.

The Penn is printed by Gazette Printers, a sister company to The Indiana Gazette.

Johnson said criticism of the paper's quality really has nothing to do with how well it is put together. He said the criticism was fueled by coverage The Penn staff has provided about the Student Government Association, which took issue with it.

"It's a shame that people's egos get in the way of the greater purpose, and that's helping students," he said. "I don't see how getting rid of the student publication that's been here 85 years would help students."

Johnson said there are two specific articles that angered Bivens and the SGA.

One is an article written about an event sponsored by the SGA. In the article, the paper misidentified the event's sponsor, giving credit to an IUP office instead of the student government. The other was a column written by a Penn columnist last semester. The columnist called the SGA "dysfunctional."

As for the former, Johnson said the newspaper owned up to the mistake, corrected it and apologized. And as a further peace offering, it promised to fact-check each piece about the organization with members first. As for the latter, Johnson made no apologies, saying the columnist was entitled to his opinion.

"Who am I to stop his opinion?" he said.

Bivens, too, cited the mistake in the article about the SGA event as an example of lackadaisical editing and quality control. But he said there are many others. As another example, one article listed the date of the Pearl Harbor attack as taking place at the turn of the 20th century, not 1941, he said.

Bivens and other committee members also contend the newspaper doesn't run enough student-written stories and relies too heavily on wire pieces that have nothing to do with the university. And what student-written stories get published are poorly done, he said.

But aside from quality issues, they're also questioning The Penn's long-term financial viability, given a financial problem the cropped up earlier this year. About six weeks into the fall semester, the paper realized ad revenue wasn't keeping pace with projections. At the placement rate the staff was seeing, they surmised the paper would run out of money before the year was over.

So they turned to the finance committee, asking for a $30,000 supplemental appropriation. Some on the committee were reluctant, but they agreed, approving the funding on a 5-4 vote and on the condition that it provide a plan for moving forward.

Following through, The Penn, beginning in December, made some operational changes, which it outlines in a letter to the committee.

Among the changes:

It changed ad department managers, giving the position to a graduated student, IUP alumnus and Gazette staffer Mirza Zukic. (Gazette staffer and IUP alumna Margaret Harper is the paper's editorial adviser.) It also increased the number of ad sales representatives from three to five.

It introduced new places to advertise within the newspaper, such as on the front page; cut its press run from 6,000 to 5,000 copies and is negotiating a lower price for color printing; and launched an "advertising sale," cutting ad rates by 50 cents per column inch and by $50 for inserts.

Bivens said the plan didn't provide enough detail and offered no projections on what much the bottom line results of the changes.

"They didn't make a sufficient effort to show they wouldn't be $30,000 in the hole again," he said. "How do we know this won't happen again?"

But Lawley said the committee offered incomplete and inconsistent direction in what sort of plan it was seeking.

"There was no direction as far as what they expected to see," he said.

Lawley also said The Penn can't offer solid numbers because it can't predict what will happen. Advertisers are unpredictable, and certain costs vary with the level of advertising, such as commissions.

The board hasn't yet voted on the recommendation. The newspaper intends to appeal the committee's decision during a hearing Thursday afternoon. In the meantime, the staff is fighting back.

In response, The Penn ran two editorials and a story about the matter in Tuesday's edition. One editorial bore the headline, "A glimpse in the possible future." Below the headline was a blank space. And below that was a kicker headline that read, "Today's editorial brought to you by the Co-Op Board of Directors and the Finance Committee."

The Penn has also turned to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, the trade group for the state's college and professional newspapers. In a letter to the cooperative association, media law counsel Melissa Melewsky reminded members that the action raises legal issues that must not be overlooked.

Melewsky said the case law is clear: that as an agent for a public university, the board cannot take actions such as withdrawing or reducing funding or disciplining staff members of a student newspaper in an attempt to control, manipulate or punish past or future content.

"I am certainly not suggesting that student organizations like The Penn are under no obligation to adhere to student cooperative rules. … However, The Penn cannot be singled out for negative treatment based on the content of the newspaper and that seems to be an issue in this situation," Melewsky wrote.

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