As they finalized the Aug. 24 issue of the oldest continuously published university newspaper in Nebraska, many of the students working on the Doane Owl were blindsided by news that their organization's budget had been slashed — among many victims of the school's prioritization process.
"Basically, everything was done," said Abrianna Miller, the editor-in-chief of the paper, who learned along with her staff that there weren't funds available to pay the student journalists for the work they were already doing, much less a whole semester's worth of it.
"We had been working on things for six days," Miller continued. "And things were due in 2 1/2 days. Every story was in its final stages. Graphics had been made. Pictures had been taken."
That's when, Miller said, she and her staff found out Doane University had eliminated funding traditionally set aside to pay the student reporters, designers, photographers and editors at the liberal arts campus in Crete.
The Owl's faculty adviser, Eric Tucker, paid the staff that week out of his own pocket, and the students worked to make that week's online-only issue count. They published a story on the front page headlined "DSM budget cuts approved," with the acronym referring to Doane Student Media.
The article described the result of a muddled string of miscommunication between university decision-makers and student media representatives — one further complicated by an administrative shift at Doane. Roger Hughes took over June 1 as the 13th president in the private school's 149-year history, inheriting a reduced budget already approved by the Board of Trustees.
Miller, who wrote the front-page story, said administrators assured student media leaders in the spring that the Owl's funding would not be eliminated. But when it came time to produce a newspaper, the organization's account was inaccessible, Miller said.
"Unfortunately, this may be the only issue of the Owl if the university does not amend their stance on DSM's budget," wrote Miller, a junior who is studying abroad this semester in Spain. "If the budget for DSM is not renewed, the Owl and Doaneline (student news website) will most certainly be abandoned."
The account of what has transpired since that story ran is largely agreed upon between administrators, faculty and Miller.
Without a paycheck, most students weren't willing to work for the Owl, said Nathaniel Wilson, the co-chair of Doane's communications department, where media classes are housed. Just as Miller had predicted in her article, the state's oldest collegiate newspaper seemed in peril.
And the university — which never meant to defund the paper, Doane Communications Manager Liz McCue said — wasn't willing to let the Owl die.
"After that came out, I think it was pretty immediate that administrators were like, 'Wait a minute'," McCue said, referring to Miller's article on the Owl's budget. "'What? What happened?'"
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In the weeks since, a small team of administrators and stakeholders that included Hughes and Pedro Maligo, the dean of Doane's College of Arts and Sciences, began meeting to carve out a future for the Owl, identifying a temporary source of funding for the publication's payroll and promising to find a long-term solution, according to Miller, McCue and Wilson.
There are still kinks to iron out. But, at least for now, the publication's funding has been partially restored. The Owl published its second issue of the semester Oct. 5 — 42 days after Miller's front-page story suggested the end might be near.
It's what proceeded the Aug. 24 issue of the Owl — the answer to "What happened?" — that seems to still be up for debate.
Miller said the staff and department leaders were blindsided by the paper's defunding. And the university insists the budget slash wasn't purposeful.
"It was never the intention to fully remove funding from Doane Student Media," McCue told the Journal Star. "I think it came as a surprise to most everyone that there wasn't funding there."
But the Board of Trustees voted nearly a year beforehand to approve $3.6 million in budget cuts recommended during the university's spending prioritization process in 2020. Listed on the 18th page of then-President Jacque Carter's recommended outline for cuts was Doane Student Media.
In the document, Carter suggested Doane continue to cover student media costs relating to production, distribution and website hosting, but recommended students "no longer be compensated by the university" and that the Owl and Doaneline should reduce their operating costs by $5,000 per year starting July 1.
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In a follow-up email to the Journal Star, McCue clarified that it was never the university's intention to cut the Owl's budget "in full," but eliminating student pay and reducing costs by $5,000 had always been the university's plan, as outlined in the November 2020 document, which the student media outlet reported on.
It's unclear why the funding decrease served as a revelation to anyone.
"In terms of when we initially found out about it, it was last fall," Wilson said, indicating that a change in Owl leadership between fall 2020 and spring 2021 may have resulted in the miscommunication.
"But I do know that when students met at the beginning of this year with Eric (Tucker, the Owl's adviser), and he explained the situation with pay for students, that it did come as a surprise to some of those students."
Tucker, whom the university plans to reimburse for paying students out of his own pocket, deferred interview requests to Wilson, citing the sensitive nature of the funding issue.
McCue said the university deemed it inequitable to pay the staff with funds from student fees, noting The Owl was the only student organization allowed to pay its members with student-generated revenue.
But compensation seemed to be the jumping-off point for much of the student media staff, both Wilson and Miller said.
Miller, who hadn't yet left for Spain, called a staff meeting at her house in Crete, she said. The initial reaction from students was anger, she said. They felt as if they'd been wronged, robbed of their jobs as student journalists, evicted from the publication they had helped build.
"I was mad," Miller said. "It seemed like all of my efforts were made in vain."
And it seemed that the newspaper might go dark, both Miller and Wilson said.
"We may be looking at the end of the Owl," Wilson recalled saying in August.
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Instead, Wilson watched the private university's new administration fight for the voice of its students, temporarily restoring funding and vowing to find a more permanent solution to finance the Owl, McCue said — a promise in which Wilson said he has full confidence.
The staff learned of the refunding late in September, Miller said. By Sept. 26, staffers were meeting to plan content for the second issue of the Owl.
"We just got to work," Miller said.
In the days in between, Miller fielded responses from students, seeking input via a Google Survey on what readers might want to see in the Oct. 5 issue. And she celebrated, she said. She had to.
After a month of uncertainty and ambiguity, the newspaper she was chosen to lead was up and running again, its budget restored and its staff reenergized.
"It's rare that there's good news for student journalists," Wilson said.
But at Doane, this fall, there was.