Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: WSU should keep printing the Evergreen student newspaper each day despite campuswide cutbacks

UPDATED: Tue., Dec. 19, 2017

Washington State University officials are considering cutting back the number of days the Daily Evergreen is printed from five to two. (Rachel Sun / Special to The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State University officials are considering cutting back the number of days the Daily Evergreen is printed from five to two. (Rachel Sun / Special to The Spokesman-Review)

For decades, the Daily Evergreen has been more than “just” a student newspaper.

In addition to campus news, Evergreen staffers cover Pullman city government, local elections, crime and courts. This fall, it has been a unique, irreplaceable resource for independent coverage of the university-wide budget cuts. At a time when WSU employs an army of public relations and marketing staffers, the Evergreen remains an independent source of news and an invaluable source of learning for dozens of journalism students doing real journalism.

“It is by no means just a kind of student club newsletter,” said Jacob Jones, the faculty content advisor.

Unfortunately, things are getting even realer at the Evergreen.

The university managers of the newspaper are considering cutting the Evergreen’s publication schedule from five days a week to two, as a way to address a budget deficit that has deepened as campuswide belt-tightening has largely eliminated one key source of revenue: Advertisements purchased by colleges and departments.

The reasons for the change are the same ones deployed in shrinking newsrooms across the nation – vanishing ad sales, technological revolution, a changing world.

But Evergreen staffers say they were promised a chance to try and find new sources of revenue during the upcoming semester, such as proposing a student fee to support the paper, before university officials abruptly decided to cut the publication schedule when students return from winter break, said Madison Jackson, the newspaper’s editor in chief.

“It’s been very unilateral,” she said.

WSU’s director of publications, Richard Miller, said that if the newspaper doesn’t cut spending, it may not survive. It is looking at cutting between one and three days of publication as one of several steps to close a “yawning deficit that exceeds our reserves,” he wrote in an email message this week.

This comes after a series of cuts already made to try and save money, and would probably be necessary even if students voted to assess themselves a new fee to support the paper, he said.

He emphasized that the Evergreen will still publish online, and that digital reporting skills are important for journalists entering the workforce now.

“If we don’t take some fast and fiscally prudent action, we may have to shut down,” wrote Miller, a former Spokesman-Review editor. “I’m not thrilled with reducing print frequency, but we’ve cut just about everything else.”

These competing forces reflect precisely the current state of the American newspaper, of course. Shrinkage – of staffs, of days of publications, of pages – has been the hallmark of the era, and the forces driving those changes seem as steady and irrevocable as a glacier carving a new valley. This has been as true for college papers as for the rest of us.

But there is more to consider in the Evergreen crisis: how university actions unintentionally deepened the problem and how the university could – but almost certainly will not – take steps to preserve five-day publication.

One development that has pushed the newspaper deeply into the red has been WSU’s budget cuts of 2.5 percent. A large part of the paper’s ad revenue has come from separate colleges and departments buying ads for upcoming events and other reasons; as departments look to find savings, they’re eliminating those ads.

Jackson said ad revenues are down 60 percent from this time last year, and the biggest dropoff came after the news that each university department would have to scale back its spending.

“Ever since April, we’ve seen a major reduction in ad sales,” she said.

So that speeded up the problem. As it now stands, the Evergreen is running a deficit of about $150,000, with reserves of roughly $130,000. Cutting publication days is just one of the options being considered, with others including cutting the pay for student staffers and changing the paper from a broadsheet to a tabloid format.

A final decision on all of this will be made in early January by a 19-member student media board.

One option that seems not to be on the table is additional university support. The Evergreen is self-sustaining, which is an important part of its educational value. But another important part of its education value is that it presents student journalists with the inescapable challenge of producing a daily newspaper.

Would it be so crazy that the university subsidize this longstanding and invaluable educational venture? Would it be so silly to notice that the size of the newspaper’s financial crisis looks incredibly tiny compared to the university’s vast public-relations network, which overspent its budget by a half-million dollars last year? Or, next to the latest multi-million-dollar investment in football coaches?

Probably so.

It’s true that journalism is more and more a digital realm, but there are journalistic and educational advantages to what we now call, dispiritingly, the “print product.” It gives the journalists a daily challenge to meet. It has a strong campus presence, and the ubiquity of Evergreen racks at WSU puts the work of the journalists in front of the campus community in a way that a web site can’t.

And it serves as an independent chronicle of the campus and community, a daily record that is compiled by people who are learning to seek the truth – young people learning to question, to challenge, to represent the authority of the citizen.

“From sit-ins in the 1970s to the sit-ins last year, having that print newspaper on record with our archives is an important part of university history,” Jones said. “Nobody else is doing that work.”

The paper, which was established in 1895, has published five days a week since 1980. Around 150 students work for the paper, with a newsroom staff of 50 to 60. The paper has survived a number of changes over the years – and will survive this one in some form.

But the university should give it a chance to do more than survive.

More from this author