An independent Daily Texan

AddThis

Editor’s note: A 30 column is a chance for departing permanent staff to say farewell and reflect on their time spent in The Daily Texan’s basement office. The term comes from the old typesetting mark (-30-) to denote the end of a line.

The Daily Texan should be independent from the University of Texas at Austin. Today, it is not.

In February, facing severely diminished advertising revenues and a budget shortfall, the Texas Student Media Board of Trustees considered a plan to curtail The Daily Texan’s five-day-per-week print schedule and weekly paper in the summer.

In an industry short on optimism, there was a bright spot. Daily Texan alumni rallied to support the careful charting of a course forward for the Texan. In doing so, they gave hope that this institution’s success in fatter times may have produced a human legacy that will help it reconfigure in leaner, more uncertain ones. Hundreds of alumni spoke up. Many attended a March Texas Student Media Board meeting, not out of nostalgia, but out of a sharp awareness of what the Texan has accomplished in the past and present, and most importantly what it is capable of accomplishing in the future.

Based on the calculation that print advertising remains 95 percent of the Texan’s revenue, we argued successfully, alongside the alumni, against the proposed curtailment. Yet, the financial realities and structural forces that caused Texas Student Media to entertain a print-schedule cut in the first place persist. In the face of an eroding reserve fund, student journalists equipped with fighting words cannot alone will a healthy future for newspapers, the Texan included. Protest accomplished — we now need a plan.

Decades of battles over the students’ right to free speech resulted in an arrangement that puts total control over words and pictures in the hands of the student staff in the basement. Yet responsibility for the day-to-day management of the Texan’s finances, distribution methods (in print and online) and advertising rests effectively in the hands of the administration. Students must lead the efforts to revise the conceptual architecture of this news organization—that is the educational experience the Texan has to offer. The current structure of Texas Student Media, by virtue of the fixed division between the student-controlled content and administration-controlled business affairs, resists that change.

 This is no easy task, and at a college daily where staff turnover is eye-popping, professional advice is paramount. But the students in the basement must have executive control over the development of that model if it will succeed.

 In the aftermath of the March board meeting, which made very public the mismanagement that some of us have known about for a long time, the students in the basement began to devise a plan. Quickly, we grasped there exists no single solution to the challenges of engagement with screen-consumed readers and financial backing news organizations face. The Web department in particular proposed highly specific changes to the newsroom and delivery of the Texan online that aim to “make this whole newspaper a web department.” I queried writers, editors, photographers and videographers — all college students — they submitted ideas about how to make the newspaper consequential to their roommates, how to siphon from the ocean of ideas floating on this campus, how to greatly enlarge our contributor base by exploiting the fact that undergraduates are earnest, searching for groups to belong to and stories to believe in, and are byline-hungry.

But when at the TSM board’s most recent meeting a member raised the idea of formally soliciting a plan for the Texan from the student staff the UT administration’s representative loudly objected to the proposal on the basis that she believed the plan would be impractical.

 Total independence alone in no way guarantees the Texan’s solvency, but it may be a means to executing one when the current structure stands in the way.

What must happen at The Daily Texan in the next year, five years and decade is an experiment with no promise of success. The Texan must change not only to address a broken revenue model, but to use the Internet to grow into a bigger role in UT students’ daily lives, students who are screen-consumed and whose news consumption happens in a trickle throughout the day rather than over one meal with the paper. In this sense, the unlimited, free space of the Internet is not a burden but an opportunity to become something bigger and more present in students’ lives.

 Walk into The Daily Texan’s basement offices and you will find not just journalism students but a comprehensive representation of the many courses of study UT offers. Not all college papers are like this. The Texan has long been a bastion for those interested in thinking big, who graduate and pursue non-journalism careers but champion the independent-mindedness they formed during their years at the newspaper. We must defend this tradition.

Austin has become a journalism town in some measure because Texan graduates longed for their basement days and created professional organizations in the hopes of recreating them. Former Texan staffers fill the pages (online and print) of the Austin Chronicle, Texas Monthly, The Texas Observer, the Austin-American Statesman and The Texas Tribune.

In 1971, during a heated political battle between the UT regents and the Texas Student Publications board about the Texan charter which ultimately vested the control of the Texan’s finances in the hands of the administration, Daily Texan giant Walter Cronkite said, “It would be a disaster if, in the heat of present-day politics, an institution that has been eminently successful for 50 years, is allowed to die. Once undone, things like that are hard to piece back together.”

Jacob is a history senior from Dallas.