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Aggie halts print edition, staff pay

By From page A1 | March 13, 2014

Today’s issue of The California Aggie will be the last, for a while.

Last month, students voted to tax themselves to keep the UC Davis student paper alive, but editor-in-chief Elizabeth Orpina said Wednesday she will suspend the weekly print edition and her staff will go without pay for the spring quarter.

The university administration’s review of the measure has taken long enough that The Aggie — already $51,000 in debt after the collapse of its ad revenue — will not be allocated fee money before March 19, the beginning of the quarter, she said.

“It’s frustrating. It’s so frustrating,” Orpina said. “It’s not been transparent, at all. We didn’t know where it was at (in the process).

“I’ve said I would be willing to cooperate, if they wanted to make changes, but they made it clear it was out of my hands and that no students would be involved with the process, which is kinda not cool.”

Now, The Aggie’s situation has grown murkier still after a ruling by a student court against the committee in charge of the election.

As seemingly approved in a four-day online election ending on Feb. 21, students would each pay a $3.88-per-quarter fee — $3.10 for The Aggie, 78 cents for student financial aid — that would generate an estimated $272,800 annually.

The ballot measure would have seen needed money begin to flow to the paper before the quarter began, but such student votes are advisory: The offices of the vice chancellor for student affairs, chancellor and president still must sign off on the language. They can make changes or throw the measure out, forcing a revote.

For now, the fee measure remains under review on campus and has not yet been forwarded to the Office of the President, according to a campus spokesperson.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday night, the court of the Associated Students of UC Davis found the chair of the student government’s elections committee, Eric Renslo, guilty of incorrectly proclaiming that the ballot measure had passed.

It did so for reasons that included using the wrong one out of a handful of varying official undergraduate head counts to determine voter turnout.

The turnout figure is key. To pass, the measure needed 60 percent approval, plus one vote, with a turnout of more than 20 percent of undergraduates. Renslo announced that 27 percent of students voted, with 73 percent backing the measure.

Petitioner Gloria Chen contended that only 19.26 percent of students voted on the fee measure because the rest abstained on the question.

Abstention, the court said while in ruling in Chen’s favor, should not have been an option.

The nine-judge court voted to void all ASUCD actions that took place as a result of the announcement, but said it would not deliver its full verdict until April 2.

It also demanded that a special election — a revote — be held by the end of the spring quarter. It’s unclear if that ruling is binding.

“The goal of the court is not to penalize the California Aggie for the procedural errors made by the ASUCD elections committee,” the preliminary ruling said.

The vote was controversial even before it took place.

Office of Student Affairs representatives called an emergency meeting with student senators to express concerns about details of the measure, but both campus and ASUCD policy prohibit changing the language less than a week before the vote.

The vote also took place without feedback from the UC president’s office.

Any new fee figures to receive close scrutiny at a time when the university is under pressure to hold down the costs paid by students. UCD has the highest student fees in the UC system: about $2,676 for 2014-15, without tacking on a fee for the newspaper.

Among the provisions that the administration may be mulling now are its permanence — an issue hotly debated between student leaders — and oversight.

On the final day of the election, three leaders of the student services and fees administrative advisory committee, co-chairs Adam Bolt and Alexis Richardson and vice chair Vidur Dewan, wrote to the vice chancellor of student affairs, Adela de la Torre, urging that a sunset clause be added to the fee.

“This would provide The California Aggie the short-term funding necessary remain solvent, while allowing the ASUCD adequate time to draft a more thorough referendum,” they wrote. “It is our hope that a referendum crafted with due care would include earlier discussion of the return-to-aid component, an outline of the paper’s business plan and consultation with the school’s general counsel.”

With debts to pay and no fee money in hand, Orpina said she was left with few options: attempt to pass a bill in the student senate, approach the administration for help to pay the staff ,while publishing online, or suspend the paper until the following quarter.

She and her staff weren’t up to going through the legislative process again, she said. After a time-consuming and emotional campaign, some quit to refocus on classwork.

Borrowing more money would be irresponsible, Orpina said. Continuing to print and paying staff salaries would cost the paper, which has about $17,000 in its reserves, about $30,000 for the quarter.

“I have to think like a businessperson now, instead of a journalist,” she said.

Orpina said she planned to break the news to her senior staff on Wednesday night. She expected tears.

“We’re basically all out of jobs,” she said.

At one point this year, The Aggie boasted a staff of about 80, about 20 of whom were paid. Now, those who wish to do so will continue writing stories and shooting photos for the paper’s website, but all as volunteers.

Orpina plans to spend the quarter huddling with business manager Ryan Hansen-Maffett over the finances and laying the groundwork for a “bigger, better” newspaper.

Should the fee eventually be approved, The Aggie plans to publish two days per week, instead of one, and during the summer session; hire two full-time employees to handle the business end of the operation; and expand into new media.

The Davis Enterprise prints The Aggie.

The student paper brought in $469,154 in ad revenue as recently as 2008, when it published 12,000 copies daily. Revenue plummeted to $236,169 in 2009-10, according to ASUCD’s budget website.

The 99-year-old paper’s reserve fund once totaled more than $500,000. Entering 2012-13, it had dwindled to $17,821. In response, the paper cut back to weekly publication.

— Reach Cory Golden at [email protected] or 530-747-8046. Follow him on Twitter at @cory_golden

Cory Golden

Cory Golden

The Enterprise's higher-education and congressional reporter. http://about.me/cory_golden

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