Fighting for funding

The Torch budget is under scrutiny

You can find it in the newspaper racks in the IRC and on the tables at Cranker’s. It keeps you up-to-date on campus events, gives you the inside scoop on Bulldog athletics and sparks conversation on a variety of controversial topics.

It’s your campus student newspaper, The Torch, and it’s in financial trouble.

For many students, The Torch is as much a part of Ferris as Brutus the Bulldog and Wing Nite at Westview. However, decreasing advertising revenue combined with a new focus on the independent student newspaper’s budget has resulted in a murky future.

The Torch has generated advertising revenue as high as $97,000 in 2007-08, but that dipped with the national recession each of the last four years to a low of $56,000 last year. The College of Arts & Sciences traditionally pays the operating costs not covered by revenues to the tune of $30,000 to $45,000 during that same time period, but the recent budget scrutiny has cast a shadow of uncertainty on The Torch’s future.

In September, the Torch was challenged to analyze its business plan and current operations as well as prove its value to the university after receiving the strong message that it will not be funded at the same level as recent years.

The paper has been funded through the College of Arts & Sciences’ $21 million budget. It is the largest college at the university, with a total $192 million budget.

College of Arts & Sciences’ funding has covered the award-winning newspaper’s operating deficit each year with little question. It was a convoluted system of financial support that has been called a “bail out,” among other things, handled at the end of each academic year.

For more than a decade, The Torch staff has produced a print and online newspaper on a fraction of the budget when compared to many other similar student newspapers around the country. In recent years, The Torch has been recognized at its highest level in decades through awards.

Dave Clark, Editor-in-Chief of the local newspaper The Pioneer, values the role The Torch plays in the relationship between Ferris and the Big Rapids community.

“Without The Torch, community engagement would be harmed,” he said. “People wouldn’t know what’s going on at Ferris. No one would be at Entertainment Unlimited events, and speakers would be presenting to empty seats.”

A graduate of Central Michigan University with a degree in journalism, Clark moved to Big Rapids seven years ago. One of the first things he did was pick up The Torch.

He was curious about the student newspaper and was “pleasantly surprised” by what he read. In the years since he picked up his first copy, Clark has seen The Torch “get better and better every year.”

“The Torch is now attracting a higher caliber of student journalists,” he said. “Based on the awards the newspaper has won, other people agree.”

For its efforts during the 2011-12 academic year, The Torch earned 14 awards from the Michigan Collegiate Press Association. The awards ranged from honorable mention for an investigative story to first place for an original cartoon. The Torch received third place for “General Excellence,” marking the second consecutive year to be honored in the top three in that category as being among the state’s best overall newspapers.

In addition, the Torch received national recognition from the Associated Collegiate Press when a writer received honorable mention for Story of the Year in the Editorial/Opinion category.

Despite improvement and recognition, loss of funding still looms.

“I’m a fan of The Torch,” Clark said. “To extinguish that voice would be a crime. There’s no better outlet for student voices than a student newspaper.”

Clark wants to know what will replace The Torch as a platform for student voices and believes the administration is responsible for providing an alternative.

“Whatever the administration provides will not be as effective as what The Torch has been doing for nearly 100 years,” he said.

Since 1931, The Torch has been Ferris State University’s primary source for campus news. The registered student organization publishes a weekly 16-page newspaper during the academic year and has a circulation of approximately 4,300 free copies.

The Torch keeps students informed about and connected to campus events and community activities including entertainment, athletics, arts, enrichment and academics.

Dr. Katherine Harris, interim department head for the Languages and Literature Department, believes “The Torch is the perfect example of what is great about Ferris State University.”

“Torch staff members come from all majors to provide a diversity of opinions as well as excite campus conversation,” Harris said. “This makes for a more dynamic and meaningful university experience.”

Harris is among those advocating for more stable Torch funding. More than just a special educational opportunity, Harris recognizes how The Torch influences not only staff lives but the campus community and the greater community as well.

“We need to work together as a university community to maintain commitment to the newspaper and be responsible for the way we fund and support it,” she said.

Currently, The Torch employs 33 students ranging from editors and writers to page designers, advertising sales representatives and distribution staff. The paper prides itself on being student-led and student-run. Essentially, the independent student newspaper is a lab in which staff members are engaged in a constant learning experience.

Ferris alumnus and former Editor-in-Chief of The Torch Kelsey Schnell said his experience at the student newspaper gave him an edge over other applicants when he entered the work force after graduation. Schnell graduated in 2010 with a business administration degree and now works as the public relations and marketing officer for the Mackinac State Historic Parks.

“It allowed me a real-life working environment that far exceeded that of computer simulations, management models and group-work assignments,” Schnell said. “It provided an environment for the actual application of theory as taught in the classroom.”

According to Schnell, his Torch experience reflected university founder Woodbridge Ferris’ mantra of “Industry and Opportunity.” Schnell can think of few places which so fully realize the university’s purpose “to create, support and enhance the learner-centered environment that is central to the university mission of preparing students for successful careers, responsible citizenship, and lifelong learning in a rapidly changing global economy and society.”

Torch staff members work together to provide a public forum where student voices can be heard. Adhering to the journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy, The Torch provides a platform for students to talk and share ideas.

“[The Torch provided] a real-life work and education environment that prepared me for my career in countless ways. It is a mass communication delivery system that promotes varying ideas on any number of subjects and inspires conversation among its readers,” Schnell said. “What better example than a newspaper for the rapid change and yet fundamental importance lifelong learning plays in a ‘changing global economy and society?’”