BY SHELLEY HENDRICKS, Northern Star student adviser
I have a scrap of paper from a fortune cookie on my desk at Northern Illinois University that I just can’t seem to throw out. It reads, “You will be free of the heavy burdens you have been carrying.”
The prophecy came with the combination fried rice I ordered when I decided to work through my lunch on a Friday in October. The timing of the fortune was so uncanny it gave me the creeps. I had just learned my long-awaited chance to make a case for university funding for the Northern Star was set for 8 a.m. the next Monday.
The moment in front of the fee review board was at least three years in the making, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. The paper was reaching a financial crisis, and it wouldn’t survive without university support.
The Northern Star faces the same financial challenges as any other newspaper. It operates just like a real newspaper because it is a real newspaper. For years it survived on advertising sales and asked little from the university.
In addition to serving its community like any other newspaper, it has the added responsibility of training the next generation. Students sell advertising, design ads, shoot photos, copy edit, report, design papers and write stories and editorials. They make all editorial decisions and learn how to stand by them.
The Northern Star’s financial troubles aren’t unique. Many college newspapers are trying to find a financial model that is sustainable. Like many professional newspapers, they’ve cut staff, printing frequency and training opportunities. The desperate search for additional funding is a constant companion.
According to a 2014 survey of 379 members of the College Media Association, to which the Northern Star belongs, 97 percent of college student newspapers make money selling ads. Of those papers, however, 36 percent receive more than half their revenue from this source, down from 48 percent in 2009.
In fact, only 7 percent are totally supported by advertising revenue, down from 10 percent four years ago, according to the survey.
This leaves most student newspapers to depend financially on institutions on which they report. However fraught a situation that is, I can hear my colleagues in professional media point out that at least college newspapers have help available. (College newspapers — like the Northern Star — that are considered nonprofit by definition couldn’t carry a profit, so they were unable to squirrel away money in higher times.)
In December, the NIU Board of Trustees approved a new student fee — 29 cents per student per credit hour — to support the continued operation of the Northern Star. The student newspaper will receive $85,000 annually to make up the gap between what we bring in and what we spend.
I was relieved the paper got the funding, but it was something else that made me happy. I was told the students at the fee review board were among the strongest supporters of funding for the Northern Star. They value news enough to pay for it.
I’ve heard many times about how this generation of journalism students will be the one to figure out how to make the news business viable. However, I never realized that our paper was training the next generation of news consumers. Ultimately it was our readers who helped lift that burden.
- Shelley Hendricks is adviser to the Northern Star and adjunct journalism faculty at Northern Illinois University.