Budget cuts considered at UM paper

Staffers say firm's plans would hurt Diamondback

April 30, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Scott Goldstein has two more days left as editor in chief of the University of Maryland's student newspaper, The Diamondback. "I thought I would be savoring the end," said the junior.

But instead of concentrating on his last edition, Goldstein is struggling with the newspaper's board over money. The Diamondback's parent company said it may lose up to $70,000 next year and is considering cutting the paper's budget -- even though the company has nearly $4.5 million in savings, according to 2002 tax documents.

"We have a deficit ... and some cuts are going to have to come from The Diamondback," said student Julia Kimani, a broadcast journalism and marketing major who serves on Maryland Media Inc.'s board.

The board has discussed cutting the number of pages, and reducing the staff's travel budget and the number of color photographs for the university's largest student publication and an important training ground for the school's well-known journalism program.

Staffers say the cuts would be particularly devastating because they could undercut recent improvements at The Diamondback, which observers say has improved over the past several years.

"They're doing a better job and I really think it's one of the better [college] newspapers in the country," said Thomas Kunkel, dean of the university's Philip Merrill College of Journalism. "I personally would hate to see it cut back."

The board is scheduled to vote on next year's budget tomorrow.

The spat is the latest in a long line of conflicts between The Diamondback and its parent company. The two have sparred over the newspaper's nearly $1 million annual budget, its quality and the salary of the paper's general manager, a nonstudent who makes nearly $150,000 a year.

Maryland Media "has a lot of money that it doesn't spend on students, and that's been a historic problem," said Adrianne Flynn, a faculty member who is also the bureau chief of the Capital News Service program in Annapolis.

The Diamondback is not affiliated with the University of Maryland, but most on the staff are students in the journalism school.

Even though it is a nonprofit company, Maryland Media has banked significant assets and paid its top managers high salaries for several years.

Michael Fribush, the general manager, has been criticized for not putting more of the company's profit back into student publications.

Journalism school deans were so concerned that they sent letters and e-mails to the board in 2001, questioning the company's finances. The board responded by accusing the school of trying to influence the newspaper.

Since then, the quality of The Diamondback has improved, many say. In 2002, the paper added two pages and boosted the ratio of ads to news. "I feel like the paper was just getting paid attention to more," Kunkel said. "They're breaking news almost every day."

But this year, Fribrush and other board members are warning Diamondback editors that cuts are probable. Fribrush suggested cutting two pages out of each edition and scaling back on sports travel and color photographs in an April 13 memo to the board.

Fribush declined to comment yesterday.

Diamondback editors said that the proposals could hurt their ability to hire staff because they would have less space for news and fewer opportunities to cover sporting events. "When you have people doing less work, they have less incentive to stay around," said Jay Parsons, a former editor in chief and Sun intern.

Current staff members agree that the moves would hurt the paper. Sam Sessa, the editor of the Diversions page, said he was concerned that his section and entertainment news could be cut back. "If I got a blockbuster [movie] weekend I can barely cover it now," he said. "The changes they're considering are just shocking and appalling."

Many students said that Maryland Media should dip into its savings to help fund The Diamondback, but board members said they need to protect that fund in case of unforeseen expenses such as libel suits.

Board President Ivan Penn, a Sun reporter, said: "The board is not going to do anything detrimental to the students or the publication."

Kimani said she believed The Diamondback could still be a "great" publication even with cutbacks, but said any changes would be temporary until the economy improves.

Kimani added that a smaller format could even help students learn to write shorter stories. "That will help in the future in learning how to be succinct," she said.

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