By: Lucia Moses
A journalists’ group is the first to answer a call to help save a Denver college newspaper that was deep-sixed as a result of budget cuts.
The Capitol Reporter printed its last issue in May after Metropolitan State College decided it wasn’t cost-effective. Students and alumni have banded together to try to save the paper, which is the only one devoted exclusively to covering the Colorado Legislature. It was widely read by lawmakers, lobbyists, and bureaucrats.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Colorado chapter voted June 9 to give the paper $5,000 to start an endowment and hopes other donors will pitch in the rest of the money. The college says it cost $130,000 to produce the paper this past semester, but supporters of the paper say they can do it for around $50,000.
Deborah Hurley, a Metro State journalism professor and head of the SPJ chapter, says the paper provided a service to the public as well as being a training ground for aspiring journalists. “We’ll let the fund grow to the point where the Capitol Reporter will reap the benefits from the proceeds,” she says.
Gerald Grilly, president and publisher of The Denver Post, says the Post also is looking at how it can help.
Founded in 1990, the free weekly was published during the legislative session, which runs from January to May. The Reporter’s student journalists worked under paid editors and earned college credits.
“It’s the closest thing we cna really get to a real-world experience,” says Hurley.
Metro State spokeswoman Debbie Thomas says the paper cost $130,000 to operate last semester, too much considering the small number of students who benefitted from it. Supporters argue this figure is inflated.
Most of the money went to pay a full-time business manager, editor, and administrator and part-time assistant editor.
As many as 40 journalists have worked on it at one time, but the staff had dwindled to 12 this past session, says Doug Bell, who is copy desk chief at The Denver Post and was the Reporter’s longtime assistant editor. He blames a waning interest in print media among j-school students nationwide.
Metro State, with about 17,500 students, had to cut $1 million out of its budget because of a drop in enrollment last year, Thomas says. The cuts represent almost 1.5% of the college’s $70-million annual operating budget. Although enrollment has since stabilized, the current year’s state funding is based on enrollment in the previous fiscal year, which runs July 1 to June 30. The state provides about 60% of the college’s funding; the rest comes from tuition.
Other savings came from trimming eight administrative jobs, postponing computer purchases, and cutting the publications budget.
Supporters say the paper can be run for far less than $130,000 if salaries and student stipends are cut. During a recent recruiting trip to nearby colleges, Bell says, several students indicated an interest for next year.
Students at the Reporter worked under editors who hold them to professional standards, supporters say. In 1996, the Reporter fought successfully to get access to public officials’ e-mail messages. This year, it reported on the Columbine High School shootings’ impact on the Legislature.
“It’s a transforming experience,” Bell says. “I’d put these graduates up against ones from any journalism school in the country.”
More state money could come in next year, but, even then, Thomas says it would likely go to other programs that benefit a greater number of students. “The issue is, if it’s going to continue, it needs to be self-supporting,” she says.
That will be difficult. The Reporter had a hard time selling ads because of its short publication schedule and niche appeal. It raised a token amount from selling stories to Colorado weeklies, but abandoned that this year because too few students were staffing the paper, Bell says.
Former and current students also plan to seek outside funds and appeal to lawmakers, some of the paper’s biggest fans. “We’re going to look at other ways to fund it from outside,” Hurley says. “We really don’t want to let the Capitol Reporter die.”
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