By Danielle Chemtob
Tyler Fleming’s nerves were racing as he proceeded to the podium. In front of him sat hundreds of journalists who had built the Daily Tar Heel, the student publication he was now in charge of.
All around him, the newspaper’s alumni traded stories full of truths and exaggerations from their time at the paper. Stories that, in many cases, shaped their careers as they went on to achieve national fame at some of the top news organizations in the country.
They were all gathered in the ballroom of the Carolina Inn for a historic occasion: to celebrate the Daily Tar Heel’s 125th anniversary. They proudly wore — and lived — the motto on the event’s buttons: print news and raise hell.
As the celebration ensued, Fleming, the paper’s current editor-in-chief, prepared to tell the crowd that despite the paper’s illustrious past achievements, the next 125 years of its survival were far more uncertain.
The paper has lost an average of $200,000 per year in recent years as the decline of print advertising revenue sweeping the industry has hit hard. In fiscal year 2016, its total revenue was less than a million dollars. It cut print publication from five days per week to four, and this year to three.
Nonetheless, Fleming began to describe his hope for the publication’s future to the 250 people seated in front of him.
“My editors have sat through meetings talking about what happens if the DTH doesn’t have any more money,” he said. “But if editors and young staffers can sit through a meeting and discuss what are we going do if we have literally no dollars left and still show up to work the next day excited to put out a paper, I think as far as internally goes, we have nothing to worry about.”
Staff enthusiasm alone can’t save the paper from financial peril, though. But the alumni in that room, a number of whom had generous pocketbooks, could certainly help.
This was Fleming’s chance to keep the lights on at the institution he loved.
A year of changes
The paper’s 125th celebration that weekend wasn’t the first time Fleming had detailed its financial woes.
In September, Fleming brought his management team to Starbucks, where he broke the news.
Prepare for the worst, he said. Print would be cut. Staff salaries, too.
They brainstormed ideas, but there was no simple answer. The same month, Fleming stood in front of his section editors and assistant editors after a typical budget meeting and had the same conversation.
“What are we going to do?” he asked.
One of the editors asked him what he planned to do.
“When you respond, ‘I don’t know,’ it really emphasizes how hard of a solution this is,” he said.
All along, Fleming fought for the student journalists on his staff as the paper’s board of directors — comprised of Fleming, students from the general campus community, alumni and professionals — ultimately decided its fate.
On some battles, he had to compromise, even when it hurt most. He drafted a resignation letter after the board began seriously considering cutting all student salaries.
“You go into journalism to try to hold people to ethical standards and sometimes you have to hold yourself to it,” he said.
Ultimately, the board adopted a plan shortly before the end of the fall semester that reduced student salaries by 40 percent and shrunk the size of the print product. The paper terminated their lease early on their office on Rosemary Street, moving into a smaller space on Franklin Street in February.
And as Fleming prepared to take the stage in front of the alumni at the headlining event of the 125th anniversary weekend, the decisions he had made over the past six months weighed heavily on him.
He spoke of the paper’s importance in the community, and speaker after speaker reflected on the Daily Tar Heel as a formative experience for their career.
“Not all fraternities are defined by Greek letters, some are defined by lead stories,” Rob Nelson, now a co-anchor at WABC-TV in New York, said in an impassioned speech to the crowd. “It’s about being part of something far bigger and far more lasting than yourself. Having a chance to write just one chapter of an extraordinary book. Feelings like that cannot be engraved on a Pacemaker plaque.”
The support kept coming as the paper kicked off its $25,000, one-month fundraising campaign. A week and a half after the event, it had raised more than $14,000.
While the fundraising alone is not enough to sustain the paper in the long run — or even for a month — the event was the start of changing tides. For the first time, alumni knew the full extent of the institution’s financial turmoil, and many were willing to do whatever it took to turn the situation around at the institution that built their career.
“This paper will not fold,” Nelson said to the fired up crowd. “Period.”
A multi-generational effort
The weekend wasn’t just about the monetary support from alumni. It was also about receiving guidance from the journalists who had been forced to grapple with the same crisis themselves.
In her opening remarks for Saturday morning’s panels and events, Daily Tar Heel alumnus Robyn Tomlin, the recently appointed executive editor at the News and Observer, offered a vision of hope for the transforming media landscape.
“In local news, it’s not about selling a product,” Tomlin said later in an interview. “The DTH is free. It’s about getting people to want to invest in a service. That’s part of what the Daily Tar Heel has to do, is to define, what is the service it provides to the community?”
Hugh Stevens, a 1965 graduate and former co-editor of the paper, has witnessed firsthand the financial strain placed on newspapers in North Carolina. Stevens, a North Carolina media lawyer who served as general counsel to the North Carolina Press Association, has represented the Daily Tar Heel, among other local media organizations, for decades.
Stevens continues to have faith in the newsroom he’s devoted his life to defending.
“In a town and with an institution like the university where there’s such an appetite for information, there ought to be a way to have a sustainable business model that involves collecting, editing and supplying info,” he said. “Exactly what that model is is what the DTH needs to try to figure out.”
Figuring it out
Last year, the publication began a venture that could quickly grow into a significant piece of that business model. The 1893 brand studio — modeled off of similar outposts of news organizations — provides marketing and branding services for local businesses and organizations. The team has grown to over 30 people working in graphic design, web development, photo and video, social media and event planning.
The 10 clients the studio serves are funding their own staffs, most of whom are paid as freelancers. But the studio’s costs are so low that it’s generating additional funds to help support the newsroom.
“I wish we could scale even faster,” said Madi Coffing, a senior public relations and economics student serving as managing director of the brand studio. “Once we get big enough, we could be a significant revenue stream.”
The brand studio is just one piece of the puzzle, and it alone won’t save the paper. Creating a sustained fundraising effort is another piece.
But even if all of these ideas fail, Fleming doesn’t seem worried that student journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill will be lost.
“I do think that worst case scenario, the DTH shuts down and packs up the bags,” Fleming said. “I have no doubt there’s going to be students who saw the value. They’ll keep the tradition of the DTH alive even if it’s by another name.”
It may not be print. It may not even be called the Daily Tar Heel. But whoever the young journalists to come may be, they will still achieve the most crucial part of the paper’s mission.
They’ll raise hell.
Edited by Allison Tate