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Newspaper on a mission

The Daily Californian has won a slew of awards — but has also cut back its publication schedule and stopped paying contributors. In those ways it's more like a mainstream paper than many suppose

| 11 March 2009

Bryan Thomas, editor-in-chief at the Daily CalDaily Californian editor-in-chief Bryan Thomas isn't struggling under the weight of all the awards the paper has won lately — but the Cal itself is exerting great efforts to improve its financial condition and keep growing, not just going. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Like newspapers all over the country, The Daily Californian, Berkeley's independent student newspaper, is skating on the brink of financial disaster.

In response, it's made a few moves familiar to observers of the newspaper industry these days: It cut staff pay to the bone, and stopped printing a newspaper on Wednesdays (though new content still goes up on its website).

And, in a move other papers might want to take a look at, the Daily Cal has taken a radical step: It's mounted a full-on campaign to improve itself.

This year's editor-in-chief, Bryan Thomas, says that may just be the reason that the Daily Cal captured a phenomenal 30 awards from the California College Media Association at its recent convention at UC San Diego. That's almost twice the number (16) won by its closest competitor, Fresno State's Collegian. The Daily Cal won nine framed first-place certificates, including one for best website. And it swept three categories — sports column, headlines, and best cartoon.

The paper also picked up three national college newspaper awards from the Associated College Press during the same late-February event.

"We've had to cut back everywhere. It's been a tough year," Thomas says from the Daily Cal's busy newsroom on the sixth floor of Eshleman Hall. "For us, the point is that now is the time when we have to be better than ever.

"We have to demonstrate to the community — to the students, faculty, and staff, and the residents of Berkeley — that we're worth fighting for. These awards, I hope, are going to help send that message."

The perils of independence

Because of its total independence, financially and operationally, from UC Berkeley (it even pays rent for its campus office), the Daily Cal is especially susceptible to downturns in the newspaper industry and in the economy, both of which have hit historic depths over the last year.

When the paper's finances tanked last year, the Daily Cal was the first college paper in the country to cut one day's print publication, though six others, including those at New York University and UC Davis, have since followed suit.

As Thomas tells the story, the paper's staff of 140, all fulltime students, banded together and agreed to forego, for all but the main editors, even the small payments they'd earned for stories, photos, and editing shifts.

"That's been a bit liberating, knowing we have this hugely supportive staff willing to work long hours," says Thomas.

The changes continue. The Daily Cal website got a redesign — a move reflected in the first-place award from the CCMA and a second place for best in show in the national awards. Readership is up both in print and online, according to Thomas — something almost no other paper in the country can say right now. Meanwhile, managers set a course to build an endowment, based on alumni donations, intended to put the paper on a more secure long-term financial footing and keep it independent.

And they went on a mission.

"We said, everyone out there now is going to be looking at the Daily Cal and asking if is this something we should be saving," Thomas says. "Everything we screw up, every correction we have to write, delegitimizes us in my view."

Thomas himself puts in at least 60-hour weeks to keep things running. He's been involved with the Daily Cal since the spring semester of his freshman year, and has served as editor in chief since May 2008. Somehow over the past five years he's also managed to complete his bachelor's degree in business administration and the political economy of industrial societies. He'll graduate in May, when he steps down as Daily Cal editor.

His focus now is positioning the paper for the future. In addition to building the endowment, boosting coverage, and moving to a more continuous news cycle online, the Daily Cal is making moves to establish itself as the paper of record for the city of Berkeley.

"You're going to be seeing growth in that," Thomas says. "We need to invest in the right areas."

At the same time, he adds, the paper keeps asking itself the same questions facing newspapers everywhere: "What is our mission? How can we keep people interested? How do we need to reshape ourselves for the future of journalism?"

If the answers are revealed, there are a lot of other newspapers in this era of media contraction that would dearly love to hear about it.