Fact of life: The First Amendment does not protect a college newspaper’s bottom line.
The staff of Driftwood, the 45-year-old student weekly at the University of New Orleans, learned that bitter lesson the hard way in December when Chancellor Tim Ryan ordered the newspaper closed — not for offensive content, but because of an ocean of red ink.
Ryan’s draconian action raised eyebrows among college newspaper advisers, but those eyebrows went even higher when Ryan explained the reason: an operating deficit that had escalated to $128,000.
Ryan has appointed a task force of 11 faculty and staff members and one student to determine how Driftwood ran up such massive losses and how to get it publishing again.
“We’re really hoping to get the paper up and running before next fall, but I don’t know if that’s possible,” said Gabrielle Gautreaux, assistant vice chancellor for academic and student affairs and a member of the task force. “We have a plan to have an online edition by mid-April.”
Gautreaux said the culprit appears to be mismanagement rather than wrongdoing.
“Bookkeeping was poor to nonexistent,” she said. “My hunch is it’s mismanagement and a lack of experience running the business end of it. I’m reluctant to blame our students for this; they just weren’t equipped.”
She said the task force has learned that invoices were not even being sent to advertisers.
“We learned about that anecdotally when advertisers read about it (the paper’s closing) and called us to say, ‘We know we owe the Driftwood some money but we don’t know how much.’”
However, she said the task force has been unable to locate necessary financial records.
Gautreaux explained that Driftwood’s annual operating budget was $87,000, of which $29,000 came from student fees and the remainder from advertising revenue.
Driftwood, which began publication in 1959 when the school was still Louisiana State University at New Orleans, is published under the aegis of the English department rather than the department of drama and communication. From 1996-2003, the faculty adviser was Don Lee Keith, a veteran of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans who was twice nominated for a Pulitzer. He died of a heart attack in July 2003 at age 62. The paper won dozens of awards during his tenure.
An English professor, Peter Busowski, was named to succeed him.
Gautreaux said Busowski was “thrown in and didn’t have a mentor. He understood his role was a pretty minor one.”
Last spring, she said, it was discovered the paper was running an $80,000 deficit, and Busowski was told to direct the staff to tighten expenses and to earmark funds to pay off the shortfall.
“I don’t think he ever bargained for having fiscal responsibility, but he was forced to go in and tell the staff they had to address (the deficit),” Gautreaux said.
Yet, by December, the deficit had mushroomed to $128,000, and Ryan closed the paper.
“This was a last-resort decision made by the chancellor,” she said. “It was done very reluctantly. We were kind of horrified at the idea of shutting down a newspaper, but we just couldn’t afford it.”
Busowski resigned as faculty adviser shortly after the closure, and no replacement has been named. He and the paper’s editor in chief, Meredith Bailey, declined comment.
The managing editor, Caleb Frey, conceded that the business end of the paper may have been mismanaged, but argued that closing the paper was too drastic a measure.
“The invoices were being done incorrectly, but they still have to be there somewhere,” he said. “I can’t see any reason to shut the paper down instead of correcting the problem. We were trying to make it up as best we could.”
Deborah Mortellaro, who served as Driftwood editor from 1996-98, said she and Keith inherited a $40,000 deficit and were forced to cut staff and expenses and reduce the size of the paper. In two years, she said, they had a $5,000 surplus, even with earmarking some revenue to pay off the shortfall.
“I think it was a mistake for the chancellor to shut down the newspaper,” said Mortellaro, who after graduation served as an unpaid adviser to three Driftwood editors. “My first and foremost objection is that I feel it is the university’s responsibility to have a published newspaper to inform its community. I also object to the paper being shut down so hastily without the students or someone from the financial end of administration being able to bill and secure outstanding money owed to Driftwood. In addition, by closing the paper down, I am concerned about the message this sends to previous and future advertisers, that is, if the paper is struggling, it may be shut down without notice.
“I am also concerned that because of this very public action by the chancellor, former advertisers may not pay their bills, sinking Driftwood further into debt.”
Gautreaux said the university’s accountant is on the task force, which meets once a week, as are several professors from different disciplines who have some journalism background.
How did the deficit from a 6,000-circulation weekly reach such an astronomical figure?
“Printing the paper every week cost between $2,500 and $3,000,” Frey said. “I know we pulled in enough revenue to pay the people in there.”
Frey said staffers were paid a maximum of $8 an hour for a 20-hour work week, while contributing writers were paid 4 cents a word.
“There could have been more ad revenue on our part,” Frey acknowledged, “but it doesn’t make sense how the deficit piled up so fast when we didn’t have any authority to spend anything.”
Gautreaux admitted the task force is at a loss for answers, too.
“We don’t really know,” she said. “We have some ideas, but we’re not sure yet.”
Also unclear is how the new Driftwood will be structured. Gautreaux said they have been unable even to find the paper’s original charter.
Reaction to the closing within SPJ and elsewhere has been guarded.
“Thus far, no one has indicated to us that there is evidence that this closure was related to the content of the publication and thus implicates the students’ First Amendment rights,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “It’s a sad situation for everyone involved.”
“Consistent deficits of this size on a weekly paper just do not make sense,” observed SPJ Past President Mac McKerral. “I advised a 4,000- circulation (student) weekly for 10 years, a pretty good one that won close to 40 (Mark of Excellence) awards in that 10 years on a budget half of what this paper was losing.”
“Seems to me that the critical question is solvency, which is a critical lesson in running a newspaper in the United States,” noted Casey Bukro of the Chicago Tribune, a Wells Key recipient. “It’s a business, and if it collapsed as a business, then that’s a good lesson for students to learn. A deficit of $128,000 after warnings? Sounds like the students wanted a free ride. Somebody ought to explain budgets to this group, and operating within a budget.
“The motto at the Chicago Tribune these days, and for several years, is ‘doing more with less.’ That’s journalism these days. Chancellor Ryan said he hopes the student newspaper resumes operation no later than fall 2005, but that its operations must be reorganized. Sounds logical.”
Robert Buckman, Ph.D., is the SPJ faculty adviser at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He is co-chairman of the SPJ International Journalism Committee and a member of the Ethics Committee.