Student media thrives despite declining revenue

The University of Alaska has three student run publications at each of the main campuses. UA enrollment has been steadily decreasing and since UAS’s The Whalesong, UAF’s The Sun Star and UAA’s The Northern Light, are predominantly student fee funded, all papers have made decisions to either cut circulation or staff hours.

The Sun Star announced via Facebook on April 15, that they would no longer be producing print editions of the paper. This change came after announcing earlier in the spring semester that they were moving from weekly to biweekly circulation. Kyrie Long, editor in chief of Sun Star said she hopes to increase student engagement through an online platform.

“With dying lack of interest in print advertisements, we switched to a biweekly this spring semester,” Long said. “And then I made the decision with Publication Board to switch entirely over to digital by next year in order to one, do better student outreach because a lot of the student populations pay more attention to the stuff happening in digital and on their Facebook feeds and on their Twitter feeds, and two, to cut costs in an area where it would be most effective.”

Both The Sun Star and The Whalesong have small staffs of six and five members, respectively. The Whalesong is a biweekly publication, and managing editor Erin Laughlin said the publication is the only place at UAS that students can gain journalism training.

“My hope for the future is that it becomes a resource for students who are interested in journalism to be a part of, because UAS doesn’t have a journalism program nor communications program — major or minor — so we work without resources on how to do our jobs basically,” Laughlin said. “Everything is self-taught and grassroots which is fun but difficult, so my goal for the future is, in a perfect world, Whalesong becomes a class almost and that it becomes sustainable.”

The Northern Light is a weekly publication with a staff of 22 employees. The Northern Light won 11 awards at the Alaska Press Club awards ceremony on April 21, more than any other student media outlet. While The Northern Light is the biggest student newspaper in Alaska, both in circulation and in audience, the paper has not been immune to cuts. Declining funds from student fees have led the paper to cap some staff hours and to focus more on building online advertising.

Despite the setbacks, both The Sun Star and The Northern Light won more Alaska Press Club awards this year than last year. The Sun Star was recognized in four categories this April compared to one last year. The Whalesong did not have any submissions for the Alaska Press Club competition this year.

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“[Winning 11 awards] just makes me feel like you shouldn’t underestimate student journalists just because they are at a student run organization, that doesn’t mean they’re not going to produce quality content,” Samantha Davenport, executive editor of The Northern Light, said. “We’re competing with news organizations that print a weekly newspaper, that print a daily newspaper, that have way larger audiences than us. So to show that we have content that’s just as good as theirs, if not better, is really rewarding in showing that we have everything that other newspapers have.”

Davenport has been managing the paper as the media fee has decreased with enrollment. This past semester she made the decision to move the paper from 16 plus pages to a consistent 12 pages each week.

“Definitely student fees have had an impact on the paper but not to the point that we’ve had to cut staff or anything extremely severe,” Davenport said. “We’ve also had a few issues this year [like] making money in advertising revenue, which involves some staff transitions and also, people just not being as interested in advertising in print.”

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The Northern Light staff won 11 awards at the Alaska Press Club awards ceremony on April 21, 2018. The University of Alaska Fairbanks’ newspaper, The Sun Star, won four. Photo credit: Samantha Davenport

The Northern Light received 11 awards at the 2018 Alaska Press Club Conference.
First place — Vern McCorkle Award for best business reporting
First place — Best portrait
First place — Best illustration
First place — Best reporting on science
First place — Best arts reporting
Second place — Best weekly newspaper
Second place — Best media website
Second place — Best feature photo
Third place — Best sports photo
Third place — Suzan Nightingale Award for best columnist
Third place — Best sports or outdoor column