The Daily Cal: Berkeley’s student paper at a tipping point

The Daily Cal, which is to move out of its seismically unstable building, faces a $200,000 deficit this year. Photo: sillygwailo/Creative Commons

It’s a pivotal moment in the 141-year history of the Daily Californian, UC Berkeley’s student-run newspaper. The publication is in dire financial straits and unprecedented action is needed to save it, says its outgoing editor-in-chief Tomer Ovadia.

After several recent cost-cutting measures have proved insufficient, the publication, which is also being evicted from its offices in the seismically unstable Eshleman Hall, is calling on its student readership to help bail it out.

“We have a significant deficit and we are asking students to cover half that deficit,” said Ovadia.

The Daily Cal, which publishes a free print edition four days a week, as well as an online news site, has placed a fee referendum on the Associated Students of the University of California’s spring ballot, asking the student body to commit to a $2 per semester contribution. If passed, the fee would be automatically added to students’ fees for the next five years.


“We can’t afford to have it not pass,” said Ovadia. If voted in, the referendum would raise $93,800 for the publication which, in this fiscal year, is facing a budget deficit of $200,000.

The Daily Cal publishes 10,000 free papers four days a week, 70% of which are picked up, according to editor-in-chief Tomer Ovadia

The Daily Cal, one of the oldest college newspapers in the country, is facing the same market forces that most, if not all, media across the nation are struggling with: declining advertising revenues, in particular classified, and a fragmenting audience.

In 2007, the Daily Cal enjoyed revenues of $1,037,000 a year, the lion’s share of which came from national and regional advertising. But that number has been on a steady decline and is now down to around $650,000, according to Ovadia. Foundation money has also dried up and yet costs remain high.

The Daily Cal is distinctive from many college papers in being entirely independent of the educational institution it covers. It chose to take the independent route in 1971 after the UC Berkeley administration attempted to fire three editors because of a controversial editorial the paper ran on People’s Park.

This means the student-run organization has to stump up for payroll, pay printing and distribution costs, rent, and health insurance. The paper counts an editorial and sales staff of about 200, of which around 25 receive a stipend.  (See details on the Daily Cal’s Voice Initiative website and on its financial breakdown.)

“Independence came at a high price,” said Ovadia. “Our budget is predicated on a very volatile source of revenues.”

Ovadia adds, however, that giving up that independence in exchange for more financial security is not an option. “I don’t recall a single instance in which a discussion of compromising our independence has come up,” he said.

Last summer, the paper’s leadership considered, and then rejected, three drastic cost-cutting measures: eliminating the position of publisher, cutting two more days of printing, and not paying editors, who are the only editorial staff to be compensated.

Dropping the print edition entirely is problematic because, despite growing readership numbers on its website, the bulk of Daily Cal advertising is still channeled to the newspaper.

The Daily Cal's website has increased its readership in the past year

The ASUC elections run April 10-12 and Ovadia is fairly confident the $2 measure will pass. “We needed to collect 1,000 signatures for the ballot and we got 1,700. But I’m not complacent. We need to show we earn it.”

Not all students support the initiative. In an editorial in the Daily Cal today, Andrew David King of the Berkeley Poetry Review and Myles Moscato of CalTV call the ballot item “unethical” and say it does damage to the notion of a free and competitive publications market.

Meanwhile, the entire Daily Cal operation is in the final stages of lease negotiations to move into the old Copy Central space at Hearst and Euclid next semester, leaving behind Eshleman Hall which is slated for demolition.

And Stephanie Baer, a Cal junior who has recently been interning at the San Francisco Chronicle, is preparing to take over the editor-in-chief’s reins when Ovadia leaves at the end of this month to begin interning at Politico.com in Washington DC.

Ovadia’s tenure, overseeing one of the most tumultuous periods in the venerable student publication’s history, has been nothing if not educational. “I’ve certainly learned a lot,” he said.

[Full disclosure: Berkeleyside competes with the Daily Californian for online advertising.]

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