This is the first half of a two-part series on the financial challenges facing college newspapers, and what they can do to embrace the future.

There was an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education today about the financial state of student newspapers. This is a topic of particular interest for me (I was briefly quoted in the story) and an issue my News Challenge project is trying to tackle directly. As the Editor in Chief of the Daily Bruin at UCLA, entering my fourth year working for the paper, I have seen first hand some of the financial hardships a collegiate newsroom can endure.

I have to disagree with the premise of the article in the Chronicle, though. It presents a relatively optimistic outlook for the future of student publications, citing strong ad sales at many of the schools interviewed, and a mostly free or cheap workforce to sell ads and write stories. While these things are true, the author presented recent cuts in publication at UC Berkeley’s Daily Cal and Syracuse’s Daily Orange as outliers — blips that don’t necessarily illustrate a trend.

To provide some background, the papers at Berkeley and Syracuse are well known among collegiate editors. They are typically looked to as good or excellent examples of financially independent student publications, and recently they have had some budget troubles. Both papers have made the decision to reduce their publication from five days a week to four. I would argue that two strong, independent student publications taking drastic cost cutting initiatives in the midst of a budget crisis should be seen as a canary in the coal mine. If other papers aren’t careful, and don’t take preemptive action, they could be caught in this mess very quickly.

At the Daily Bruin we’re getting closer and closer to that precipice every year. When I was a freshman at UCLA the Bruin was in the midst of a budget crisis. That year, in lieu of pursuing a student fee referendum for additional revenue, our department made several hard budget decisions — including reducing the money available for staff stipends from more than $200,000 to $130,000. We also reduced our travel budget, equipment budget, and cut our circulation by several thousand.

Other papers around the country are looking at a similar story, and they’re not advertising it. Over the past couple of weeks and months I’ve had the opportunity to speak candidly with more than a dozen other collegiate newspaper editors and what we’re experiencing at UCLA isn’t unique. College newspapers are desperate for a plan to bolster their circulations, increase their ad revenue, and better their websites. In the next few years their lives could depend on it.

And the independent papers aren’t the only ones that have to worry. There are relatively few student newspapers that can claim “independence” and it’s a coveted title in our industry. The Bruin, and only a handful of other collegiate papers, aren’t supported by a university department, receive no financial help from the university, and usually pay rent for office space. But many of those papers that have the benefit of departmental and other financial support from a university still sell ads for a significant portion of their revenue. These papers won’t be able to escape the broader industry trends for long, and more than ever they are going to have to adapt if they want to stay relevant to their readers and make money.

Tomorrow I will explain how I think they can do that.