The worst act of terror in American history didn’t stop Sacramento State’s student newspaper from putting out a print edition the following day.
A frame on the wall of the State Hornet newsroom, nestled between plaques won in more recent years, shows the front cover of the Sept. 12, 2001 issue. The top story, written by staff, included a quote from Laura Labanieh, a UC Davis freshman whose sister escaped the second World Trade Center building shortly before its collapse. The paper also noted that classes had been canceled.
Both the world and journalism seem to have changed immeasurably in the 17 years since 9/11. Where terrorism once couldn’t stop the presses, a conflux of factors will see the 70-year-old State Hornet cease its print edition at the end of the 2018-19 school year and become a web-only operation.
“The message I personally want to send is that this is for the best,” says Stu VanAirsdale, faculty adviser to the paper. “This is the best thing for our students, it’s the best thing for our campus, it’s the best thing for our program.”
The question for the State Hornet — and for newspapers everywhere — is if this media operation can find new life as it navigates a major transition.
Finding a Different Way to Tell Stories
VanAirsdale has a saying, notes Claire Morgan, editor of the State Hornet and a fifth-year political science major with a concentration in journalism. The saying goes, as Morgan recounts, “Every story has a different way of being told.”
In recent years, State Hornet staffers have been looking increasingly toward the web to find new ways to tell stories. During the 2017-18 school year web traffic doubled from the previous academic year, hitting an average of roughly 18,000 new and 20,000 returning users per month.
VanAirsdale attests that the paper has become fairly digital-first and social-first. Each of the paper’s biggest stories this year, so far, have gotten initial traction via social media, he notes. VanAirsdale adds that “at least four of the 10 most-read stories this school year to date never appeared in print.”
Part of the increase in digital and social relevance for the State Hornet is due to The New York Times and other outlets linking to the paper’s coverage of protests following the March shooting death of Stephon Clark.
Meanwhile, veteran Sacramento Bee data journalist Phillip Reese has come onboard as full-time faculty to teach students what made him a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2014. “It just doesn’t make sense to have students learn a skill like designing a print newspaper when I can teach them to crunch data and create data visualization for the web,” Reese says. One example of this included a Google map embedded in a September story about housing projects near campus.
While the web edition has grown, the print version of the State Hornet, long a weekly paper, has become a beleaguered biweekly. VanAirsdale estimates that perhaps 3,000 people will pick up the paper in a good week. Where a decade ago, the staff might have ordered 8,000 to 9,000 copies to be distributed on campus, it now distributes 4,000 copies per issue, VanAirsdale says.
Three of four students Comstock’s spoke to on a recent school night say they’d yet to pick up a copy of the paper. “They’re just inconvenient,” says Natasha Deshevenko, a sophomore majoring in biology.
Morgan concedes that trying to get students to pick up the paper is a losing battle. “I think the way people look for news and interact with news now is less print-focused and obviously more online,” she says.
This is a trend seemingly everywhere in journalism these days. The New York Times, for one, reported in August that it has 2.9 million digital-only subscriptions, out of 3.8 million total.
Getting rid of Sac State’s paper wasn’t dictated by the university’s administration, says Sheree Meyer, dean of Sac State’s College of Arts & Letters. “I can honestly say that the administration did not direct the paper in one direction or the other,” Meyer says. “What the administration asked for … was a strong, five-year strategic plan. That’s where this came from.”
The call for a five-year strategic plan, as well as a business plan, came last year from Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen. State Hornet representatives consulted with the university’s MBA students on the plan. Nelsen sent a complimentary note after seeing the results.
“They made some hard decisions,” Nelsen says. “I’m not certain they would’ve been the decisions I would have made but they made some hard decisions. They based it upon real numbers… I think they were looking at the future of journalism from their eyes.”
VanAirsdale and other members of the newspaper’s board, a mix of students and faculty, voted unanimously to shutter the print edition. It’s not necessarily a question of economics, with the print edition commanding just $18,000 of the paper’s annual $200,000 budget. Approximately 60 percent of the paper’s total budget goes to scholarships and VanAirsdale’s salary, he notes. VanAirsdale adds that the paper projects a small deficit based on a restructuring of how his salary gets paid out, with the State Hornet covering 40 percent of his salary instead of 20 percent.
The State Hornet gets nearly 90 percent of its funding through student fees and the rest through a nominal amount of advertising. Meyer says, to her knowledge, the paper will keep receiving this funding.
To VanAirsdale and others, it simply didn’t make sense to keep committing resources to put out a paper edition of the State Hornet. “I think a lot of people that I’ve talked to initially assume that the State Hornet is contracting because it is imperiled and it needs to make some serious cuts,” VanAirsdale says. “And it’s not true.”
It’s simply a question, VanAirsdale and others close to the paper say, of how staffers can best be spending their time. Morgan, for one, has no qualms about the print edition going away.
“I think it’s a really good step for the State Hornet, especially in our 70th year,” Morgan says. “I think that it’s going to free up not only time but resources for us as editors to be able to teach staff members how to create interesting and interactive web pages for stories.”
Morgan, VanAirsdale and Reese are all bullish about the paper’s future beyond the impending demise of its print edition. Others like Mike Hiestand of the Washington D.C.-based Student Press Law Center, are more skeptical.
Hiestand says there’s been a broad trend toward student newspapers papers going fully digital, with mixed results. “The experience typically has been that once you’ve gone all-digital, you’re having a tough time making things go,” Hiestand says. “You seem to … potentially lose your relevance pretty quickly.” He describes it as “one of these ‘Out of sight, out of mind’ things.”
Larissa Mayevski, an undeclared freshman at Sac State, definitely has heard about the paper but has yet to read it. “I feel like it’s a little sad to have the paper version gone, but does save on trees and paper waste and everything,” Mayevski says.
Jesus Esquivel, a mechanical engineering freshman wonders about retaining less from a digital edition of the paper. “Digital, I feel like you get more distracted,” Esquivel says.
But other signs appear to show the State Hornet as far from a dying news operation. Morgan speaks proudly of getting Sac State administration to walk back a proposed policy that would have required permission to film videos on campus. “I think we’re incredibly relevant to the campus community,” Morgan says.
Stories this fall have included football coverage, a student petitioning to keep the school library open 24 hours a day and an 18-year-old woman being arrested after 30 car break-ins on campus.
President Nelsen says it’s important to Sac State’s administration to have independent journalism on campus. “I think that journalism in America needs to be independent, more now than anytime in the history,” Nelsen says. “I think journalism has been under attack and the last place you would want it to be under attack, no matter what an administrator may feel about an article, would be at a university.”
For now, students like Kevin Nguyen, a kinesiology sophomore, are willing to give a chance to the new version of the State Hornet. “I do like holding a paper,” Nguyen says. “I do feel like if it’s something that shows up in my inbox and it’s interesting, I’ll click on it.”
But he adds, “If not, I’ll discard it without a second thought.”