Friday, February 24, 2012

The Daily Illini in trouble

Posted By on 02.24.12 at 12:58 PM

Lil Levant
  • Lil Levant
There's a new normal in print journalism and college papers are not immune to it. I’ve just had a conversation with Lil Levant, publisher of the Daily Illini and general manager of Illini Media Company, the not-for-profit that controls the student-run newspaper and radio station (and other properties) at the University of Illinois.

The company’s in a lot of trouble. A month ago it owed the News-Gazette Inc., which prints the Daily Illini, about $250,000. It was an old, intractable debt, and because of declining ad revenues and a big mortgage on the new four-story headquarters that Illini Media built in the mid-2000s, when it was a lot flusher, it was a debt that threatened to shut down the 141-year-old student paper and put the company out of business.

Levant turned to Roger Ebert, a former editor of the Daily Illini. He replied immediately, composing an appeal for help that Levant sent to a couple of dozen other prominent alumni. “Many, including myself, would say that they owe their careers at least in part to their experiences at Illini Media,” Ebert wrote. “It’s now time to give back.”

“The intention was to kind of build a foundation for fund-raising,” Levant says.

The foundation has been built. Some alumni responded directly to Ebert’s letter. Thanks to Ebert’s tweeting and a Crain’s Chicago Business story about the appeal posted on February 16, the crisis became widely known. (Here’s the coverage in another Big Ten student paper, the Daily Nebraskan.)

“We’ve generated about $22,000 in donations from over 100 individuals,” Levant says. “Our alumni are very loyal to us.” On February 17 she was in Chicago meeting at the Sun-Times with a dozen Chicago alums, “all around the same age group, in their 30s, in traditional and nontraditional media, asking them for help.” The host was Paul Davia, the Sun-Times’s director of national advertising.

“They’ve committed to carry the ball to some extent,” says Levant. “They’re planning a fund-raiser in Chicago. That’s an aspect of our business that’s rather new.”

Meanwhile, back in Urbana-Champaign, the debt to News-Gazette Inc. has been slashed to about $150,000. Unfortunately, that’s because “we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” as Levant puts it. Now, she says, “we owe $100,000 to our other vendors.”

But the problem with the mortgage is being dealt with. The fourth floor is being rented out to the university, which has signed a long-term lease. A letter of intent has been received from a “solid retailer” for the first floor. “Once we do that we’ll be able to cover the mortgage,” Levant says. The radio station, WPGU, occupies the first floor now, but “we have plenty of room on the third floor,” she says.

And Illini Media has taken the enormous step of asking to be subsidized by the student body. In early March students will vote on whether or not to pay it a $3-a-student-a-semester fee. “Concerns over The Daily Illini’s financial and editorial independence are not unjustified,” the paper’s editorial board acknowledged. “For its 141-year existence, the DI has never received a student fee. Free since the 1990s, we have always staunchly promoted this independence as one of the primary reasons we are able to cover campus without administrative clout.”

The editorial continued:

This initiative has been crafted with the greatest care and concern for this newspaper’s independence, as well as the independence of all of our other media outlets. We would not be considering this, much less supporting this, if not for two things: our grave financial situation, and our strong belief that we have found a revenue source that will not compromise our integrity.

We are not naive enough to think that, with a student fee arrangement, we would never encounter a threat to our independence. But the DI’s tradition of editorial integrity runs deep, in all of those who have been here before and all of those who are here now. We will not bow to demands to pull or censor content. If, in the future, we need to make an ultimatum between collecting this fee and acting independently, we believe our choice is already abundantly clear. Our independence is too crucial, too vital a part of our identity to be destroyed.

But this language is more stirring than persuasive. If the Daily Illini’s traditions were inviolable it would not be asking for the student fee. As “worried student” commented online, “First of all, a revenue source and a handout are two different things, learn the difference. Second, you can’t predict the future and simply say ‘this won’t affect anything.’ Of course it will! You are now supported by the school and in the back of your boss’ boss’ mind, they know that. Tradition means nothing when the premise of existence completely changes.”

Jill Disis, the Daily Illini’s editor-in-chief, sounds a little more realistic in a comment to the Daily Nebraskan: “"I'm really not worried about the editorial independence of the paper. I really, strongly believe this is not the type of university that would (censor us)."

But it’s up to the university.

Welcome to the new normal—contraction and deals with the devil. A lot of journalists will envy Levant for the fund-raising she can do. Metro dailies have alumni too, but it's not the same. There are, for instance, hundreds of journalists around who used to work at the Sun-Times in much better days—I’m one of them. Now and then old hands get together to eat and drink and reminisce. But there's not enough residual affection for the Sun-Times, I’m afraid, to make it worthwhile for Ebert or Davia to show up and pass the hat.

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