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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.]

Berkeleyside publishes dozens of articles every week. To find ones you may have missed, check out All the News.

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  • VintageVNVet

    Great independent newspaper, in which tons of people learn tons of good ways to help grow themselves as “journalistas” and others as human beings..

    me own self included, as Cal grad,,  after VN service

  • Porky

    If the Daily Cal collects a $2 fee through university billing, then it is no longer independent. 

  • Zorgina

    The money is collected from the students and not the university so it is still independent as it is not funded directly by Cal/State/Chancellor. Saying that good luck getting those same students who on a weekly basis ask everyone else to pay more taxes to fund their education to self tax themselves on this issue. I doubt it will pass.

  • http://www.twitter.com/minju_lee Min Ju

    The $2/semester covers for not even half of the deficit, though. I’m down to pay $5/sem to cover for all of it. The Daily Cal is great; please don’t let the finances put a strain on its quality.

  • blah

    The Daily Cal has 200 employees?!  That sounds ludicrous.  If these people were smart and resourceful, they’d walk over to Haas and ask for a team of MBA candidates to review their situation and propose a solution.  As an MBA student myself, I think that would be a great school project.  As a local small business owner, I’ve always thought the price of advertising was too high for the poor results we garner.

  • Anonymous

    The article seems to say that 25 people actually receive any direct payment at all from the Daily Cal. 200 was the total number of people involved. I doubt the student writers get paid.

  • Michael Johnson

    As an employee of the Daily Cal in the ’70s, I would argue for any solution that will save the paper (even if it moves entirely online, as perhaps it should), except giving up independence. For many young writers and editors, the Daily Cal offers a chance to understand that words affect other people and that opinions need to be bolstered by facts, but most of all that—if you screw up—it’s on you. Not the school. Not the board. You, in public. That’s education.

  • Guest

    As a former student writer for a UC newspaper, I can assure you that student writers are paid for their work. It’s not much, but they usually get some kind of per-word or per-article payment.

  • http://profiles.google.com/amber.gregory Amber Gregory

    I admit that, as a former Daily Cal reporter and editor (2004), I may be biased. But as a journalist and as an avid reader of news and consumer of bay area newspapers, I have to say that the Daily Cal has more integrity than any other paper I know, teaching students about REAL, old school, objective journalism that seems to have gone by the wayside these days (ahem, SF Chronicle). I am devastated to hear that all of this is going on; the Daily Cal is so important, an impartial voice in an area where only the most progressive voices are usually heard, and that they have to fight so hard to retain their independence and their solvency is unfortunate.

    I learned so much about journalism–real world experience–and made lifelong friends at the Daily Cal. The ability to not have our opinions controlled by the university (who you may have noticed, likes to control that!) is steeped in the history of our university, and to go back on that, or not have a paper at all, would be perhaps the final indication that UCB no longer has ANY of the spirit our free-speech loving forebears had. 

  • guest

    As a former Daily Cal writer, I can assure you non-editors stopped getting paid in 2008.

  • guest

    that explains a lot about the content

  • Guest

     Are you serious? Are you saying students are supposed to fund their own education? Is education not a public good that everyone should have the right to regardless of their financial situation? And if others do pay for a student’s education while they are in school, they will themselves pay for someone’s education later on.

  • guest

    Making fun of college students… so brave.

  • SFC415

    Can’t get a better newspaper industry learning experience, really.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/2NZ34H4R2PVPGADOVR2LERSNTI *

    There are a few questions in this article that would be nice to discuss:

    Isn’t the paper run by professionals, whose pay eats up about $400,000
    dollars of their budget?  Calling it “student-run” isn’t entirely true. 

    Also, let’s not confuse the journalistic quality of the paper today with
    its history.  The Daily Cal today is not even a shadow of what it once
    was in terms of journalistic integrity or quality.  And it hasn’t been
    for some time. 

    Why should they get the privilege of more funding PER SEMESTER than 41
    other (actually student-run) publications on campus share for an entire
    year?  And none of the people working for those publications are paid. 
    Without paying professionals to work for the paper, wouldn’t that shore
    up their deficit?

    The Daily Cal wanted to be an independent organization unaffiliated with
    the university, which meant sacrificing its status as a student
    publication and the university funding that comes with it.  Severing
    that tie also meant it must rely on generating ad revenue to run the
    paper, with no reliance on student fee money.  How is it now fair that they don’t want to be accountable to the
    students who would be forced to give money to an independent newspaper,
    even those covering the same news for other publications?