Fundraise or Die: Northeastern University’s Newspaper Faces Staggering Debt and a Familiar Narrative

Student journalism is anything but a cash cow. Without subscriptions, consistent advertising revenue, and institutional support, many independent college publications are reliant on outside funding for financial viability.

In the wake of the economic recession of 2008, the Northeastern News made a commitment to journalistic independence and separated from the very institution it was tasked with covering. In shedding its affiliation with Northeastern University, the News also shed any possibility of maintaining a financial safety net.

After 82 years in operation, one of Boston’s oldest college newspapers opted for editorial independence over financial stability and incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. The newly independent outlet was rebranded as the Huntington News.

Eight years later, the Huntington News is facing the consequences of this choice. Staring down $30,000 of debt – an existential threat to any independent college publication – the newspaper must fundraise quickly or face its demise.

“The set-up that we had was overtaxed and unsustainable,” said Sam Haas, editor-in-chief of the Huntington News. “And so, it got to a point where the bills started to exceed the advertising revenue.”

Haas recognizes that this narrative is a familiar one not only for college newspapers but for the news industry at large.

“As a college paper, we don’t charge for the newspaper, we don’t do subscriptions, but that means we don’t have any money coming in from readers,” said Haas. “That’s the way the journalism industry as a whole has gone since 2008. Advertising revenue and print advertising revenue has been shrinking.”

Haas, a junior journalism student at Northeastern, turns 21 years old today. But, his mind is preoccupied by the fundraising effort that launched last week, one that will define his tenure as editor-in-chief.

In the past year, the News had led the campus dialogue on numerous hot-button issues, notably mental health, fossil fuel divestment, and a national story about University police arming with assault weapons that was featured on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah.

The News, guided by Haas and a board of directors of recent alumni working in media, has negotiated with Turley Publications, the paper’s printer and main creditor, to pay off some of its debt by December.

“We have ourselves set through the end of December, provided that we make $4,000 off the fundraiser by then,” said Haas. “Going forward after that, we’re looking to pay off that [$30,000] debt and raise an additional $10,000 so that we can really become the newspaper we want to become going forward.”

“Our publisher has been very gracious and flexible, but, ultimately, they have to run a business,” Haas added.

Gail Waterhouse is tackling the issue from a different perch. As a member of the News’ board of directors, she and her fellow board members provide a crucial industry perspective for Haas and the rest of the student staff.

“It’s a non-profit, but all the editorial is run by students, so it’s really difficult to come in and, as the editor, be expected to have not only the business sense but also the editorial sense and manage students who are all volunteers,” said Waterhouse, a former managing editor who graduated in 2013.

Waterhouse came to Northeastern as a freshman during the-then new Huntington News’ inaugural year. Now, after stints at the Boston Globe and Boston’s Fox affiliate, Waterhouse is back at Northeastern as a graduate student pursuing a master’s in sociology.

“The board had been pretty dormant,” said Waterhouse. “We have a new board of directors now. There’s four of us on the board, actively working to fundraise and get the paper in a better place.”

While the News launched a fundraising campaign last year that raised $2,845 and helped pay some crucial bills, this new fundraiser is different. The new effort is a result of a transition that started last December under the leadership of Liam Hofmeister, the previous editor-in-chief, who launched the initial fundraiser, brought on the new board, and set up Haas for success.

Haas, who took the reins in July, spent the summer working with his board to make financial changes to dig the News out of its financial hole. A recent press release touts financially responsible changes, meant to assure donors that the News is working actively to be sustainable. Among the change listed are a full audit, a change from printing weekly to biweekly, and a move from its previous office space on Huntington Avenue which saved $1,400 per month.

The narrative is all too familiar in college journalism, and the story of Boston University’s Daily Free Press presents a striking and recent parallel only blocks away.

In November 2014, the Daily Free Press launched a similar fundraising campaign when it faced a $70,000 debt to Turley Publications, the same publisher to which the News is indebted. The FreeP, as it is known, cut costs by 80 percent and print publication from twice weekly to weekly, but needed outside support to survive.

“Mine was the first semester of us being essentially a digital-first publication and a weekly print production, so my job was really to lay the foundation for future semesters,” said Kyle Plantz, the editor-in-chief for the fall 2014 semester, who led the FreeP Fund fundraising effort and an era of transition. Plantz graduated in May and is now a political reporter for Inside Sources and the New Hampshire Journal.

“We launched [the campaign] and did really well in the first day,” Plantz said. “My expectations were that we had this deadline of December 31st and I thought every single day until this deadline I would have to be tweeting and emailing and asking people for donations and getting the word out there. After the first day, I realized we got a lot of money, I thought we could actually do this.”

In reality, the FreeP’s deus ex machina came within 48 hours. In addition to countless alumni, friends, family, and faculty who made smaller donations, two primary donors ended the FreeP’s financial woes in breathtaking time.

Bill O’Reilly, the longtime Fox News host of “The O’Reilly Factor,” Boston University alumnus, and a former FreeP columnist, donated $10,000 after a call with Plantz and former board chairman Tyler Lay on the campaign’s very first day.

On the second day, automotive magnate and Boston mainstay Ernie Boch, Jr. called the FreeP and committed to donating $50,000. Boch had no connection to the University, to the FreeP, or to journalism at all. Yet, he ended the FreeP’s campaign – and its worries – with one check.

“To come to find out [the campaign] actually ended within two days, which was absolutely incredible, completely unexpected, very humbling, and very exciting that we were able to do that and continue to support student journalism here at BU,” added Plantz.

Plantz reached out to Haas on Friday to provide advice and support as the News continues into its second week of fundraising. In addition, numerous FreeP’s staff and alumni posted supportively on social media, urging peers to remember that not long ago, they too were in financial peril.

For the News, its leadership is hard at work. They have raised $1,890 so far – an amount they will surely be pleased with – but are still leagues away from their goal of $40,000. In the coming days, they will continue to make the case that the News – and student journalism – is essential to representing student voices and holding a powerful institution, such as Northeastern University, accountable.

“We’re looking for our Ernie Boch,” Waterhouse joked. She knows all too well that one benefactor could fix it all, and ultimately secure the Huntington News for years to come.

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