Nobody Reads the Papers, Anyway

J. Hadley Hooper

Journalists aren't that good at math.

That's why they choose to spend their careers writing instead of crunching numbers.

But math is as important to journalism as crisp prose. Without it, there wouldn't be a newspaper business, and as every good reporter knows, adding and subtracting numbers -- especially numbers involving dollars -- usually leads to a good story.

In this case, though, it led to a bad one.

The journalism department at Metropolitan State College didn't pay enough attention to its own dollar figures, says department chair Kenn Bisio, and that resulted in the demise of the Capitol Reporter -- a student-run weekly newspaper that covered the state legislature for four months every year.

"The spring semester of 1999 was its tenth year," says Bisio, who has chaired the department for a little over a year. "It was established so that the funding was supposed to get less every year, and eventually it was supposed to be self-sufficient. But that never happened. Why? I don't know. This might sound bad, but if we were good stewards of the money, maybe we could have avoided something like this."

According to Bisio, the paper was making more from subscriptions (about $5,300 a year) than it was from advertising revenue (about $3,200) -- a sure sign of a disappointing bottom line, since most newspapers rely on ad revenues to stay afloat. Since the Capitol Reporter usually published eighteen times a year, that translated to revenues of about $472 an issue, compared to the $7,222 an issue (or $130,000 annually) that Metro claims it was spending on the paper. "If I'm the president of the college and I see that, I'd have cut the thing, too," Bisio says. "Pragmatically, I can see it. Has it hurt? Yeah. Will we survive? Yeah."

The balance sheet didn't include a line item for the paper's value at the State Capitol, where it enjoyed a good reputation and was read by lawmakers, government employees and lobbyists alike. Nor did it take into account the publication's fans at Metro and at journalism departments across the country, as one of only two student publications nationwide to watchdog local lawmakers. But despite the Capitol Reporter's popularity, the real numbers crunchers in Metro's administration -- the ones who do pay attention -- decided last May that the paper had to go.

Debbie Thomas, a Metro spokeswoman, says the funding was denied because a temporary drop in enrollment forced the college to make cuts. "Our revenue sources come from two places," she explains, "the tuition and fees that students pay and the money we get from state government. Both are dependent on the number of students in enrollment. If we have a dip in enrollment, which we did a year ago this summer, we take a double hit." Because of that enrollment drop, Metro cut $1 million from its budget this year.

"What really became the issue at the Capitol Reporter -- which was a great publication and hopefully will be again -- is that it just didn't wash out," she adds. "We aren't driven by making a profit, and because of that, we are constantly looking at budgets, but there's not a tendency to cut programs unless you have to. We had to last year. The cost of putting out the publication had increased over time and, really, only a small number of students were benefiting from it." And then there was the fact that the Capitol Reporter had originally been slated to become self-sufficient by 1991.

Over the past two years, the number of students working on the paper had dropped from nearly thirty to only twelve, partially because the journalism department didn't do enough recruiting, Bisio says, and partially because Metro cut the number of full-time faculty in the department from five to three.

But the final decision to kill the Capitol Reporter, which was made in the office of college president Sheila Kaplan earlier this month, surprised many of the people involved with the newspaper. Not only was it the only program that was cut in its entirety, but a last-ditch effort to save it had been reported as having been successful.

When news of the Capitol Reporter's shaky status first surfaced this past spring, two local professional associations offered grants to keep it going. The state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists pledged a $5,000 endowment, but that meant the Capitol Reporter could use only the interest from that money; the Colorado Press Association offered another $5,000, but only if the Capitol Reporter continued to put out a printed version -- an impossibility this year, Bisio says.

He turned down both offers. They were made with "good heart," he says, but with too many strings attached.

Bisio would like to spend the next year devising a three- to five-year business plan for a new student-run newspaper and then present it to Metro's administration. "This was a great educational tool for the students," he says, "and I'll work on getting, if not the Capitol Reporter, then another newspaper back in the department. I'm an eternal optimist. Do I think it's dead and gone forever? No. I would like to see us come back in spring 2001 with a spring, summer and fall paper."

But Metro colleague James Brodell thinks Bisio's optimism is naive.

"I believe that this is the death knell for the Capitol Reporter," he says. "The situation was not as bleak as the administration thought it was. Maybe I'm saying that the administration killed it regardless of the possibility of salvaging it."

Brodell, an assistant professor of journalism, calls the elimination of the Capitol Reporter "just another step in the continuing reduction of resources in the journalism department" and adds that "the college should have taken steps long ago to get the finances in line."

The publication's main problem, he continues, was that none of the professors or staff members who worked with the students had any knowledge of how to garner advertising revenue. "The Capitol Reporter needed students who would pound for ads all year long, not just four months a year," Brodell says.

Run almost entirely by students but edited by professional journalists, the Capitol Reporter gave aspiring reporters the chance to cover complicated legislative issues during the Colorado General Assembly's four months in session every spring. In the process, the students gained real reporting experience and collected published articles to include in their resumés.

House speaker Russell George, who was often quoted in stories in the Capitol Reporter, liked the newspaper because with 500 to 600 bills on the floor during the 120-day legislative session, "it was watching what I couldn't watch," he says. "Any way we can find information about what's happening around us is important, because each of us focuses on our own bills and committees, and we don't always have a clear path of information.

"The other thing I liked is that these were generally younger people working there, and they had a different way of looking at things. We forget that the outside world may not understand what we are doing, and it's a constant struggle for politicians and keep in touch with the real world. They ferreted out lesser stories about bills that you wouldn't see in the other papers, and I liked that."

"What a grand experience," says Lois Wymore, a senior who wrote about education for the Capitol Reporter last spring. "It was great. It was the reason I chose Metro State." Wymore had planned to return to the paper next spring as its editor; she was disappointed when she found out there would be no paper to return to. "It doesn't make sense. It was the only program that was cut completely, and it's a program with so much potential."

"That's what was painful about it," says Bisio. "It wasn't anything we covered or didn't cover that brought it to its demise. They said it was purely budgetary reasons. I believe that. I was also told that if we could make the thing self-sufficient, then do it."

Senior Tim Fields was also planning to work for the Capitol Reporter this spring after completing a stint on The Metropolitan, the college's other newspaper. "I had heard so much about it. One of the highlights about the journalism department here is to finally get into the Capitol Reporter," he says. "It was kind of like the varsity. I'm bummed big-time. It is a big disappointment."

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