As was widely reported late last week, and has been known locally for years, the Illini Media Company (IMC) is in dire financial straits. They currently owe at least $250,000 to the News-Gazette (for printing costs) and are late on their mortgage payments. The Daily Illini has been a part of the Champaign-Urbana community for over 141 years. Throughout these years, it has proven a worthy training ground for many great journalists, including Roger Ebert, Hugh Hefner, Will Leitch, and many others who have influenced society and literally changed what journalists can accomplish. So it’s frustrating and disappointing to see such a wonderful, and once financially sound, local institution fall on such hard times.
Some in this community (both alumni and not) have said that The DI, Buzz, and WPGU deserve this. They say the writing is amateurish and hard to read. To which we say, of course it is. It’s a college newspaper; it’s supposed to be a training ground on which future journalists make mistakes and hone their craft. To those of us on the outside, seeing a journalist develop over time, from the poorly written slop of their first articles to informed and well-sourced articles at the end, is actually quite satisfying. So let’s not use the current financial situation as another opportunity to question the consistency of an enterprise that is best served by people who are willing to try, even if they sometimes fail.
Instead, it’s time to focus on the people in charge. As the recent article in Crain’s Chicago Business makes abundantly clear, this situation cannot be cynically written off as just another newspaper in crisis. Poor management must be blamed. We can start with the wholly irresponsible decision in 2006 to build a $4.5 million building on Green Street. By the early 2000s, it was already very clear that advertising streams for media were tenuous at best. Choosing that moment as the time to clear out the cash box and mortgage the future was short-sighted, to say the least. Looking back, it’s shocking to see such unbridled optimism for the venture. This is just the most stark example of reckless management, but certainly not the only one.
We realize that the current situation is a deep hole to dig out of, and new publisher Lil Levant has a very difficult job. But the plan so far to save The DI and IMC has been disappointing. Consolidating space and opening up their building to more tenants seems like a very good step (though we wonder what took so long), but the other attempts at generating revenue are worrisome. In the Crain’s article, Levant cites an iPad app as one of the ways back to profitability. Then there is the hoped-for bailout from moneyed alumni, for which The DI has recruited revered alumnus Roger Ebert to lead the charge.
It’s sad enough to see Ebert reduced to charitable pitchman for the IMC, having to rescue an already-sunken ship, while the captain who hit the iceberg — longtime Publisher and general manager, Mary Cory — is long gone to California. But where this plan goes completely off the rails is their petition asking for a nonrefundable $3 fee from every student, per semester, at the University. As a media enterprise, we are not unopposed in principle, but it does seem a little astounding that The Daily Illini would spend so much time priding itself in its independence from the University and then require every U of I student to fund its operations. Contrast this to the fee students pay to help fund Krannert, the University-owned, internationally recognized arts center that seems stronger than ever. Their fee is refundable.
We don’t want to lose The Daily Illini, Buzz, or WPGU. They serve the community of students and represent one of the strongest University-based media traditions in the country. And we believe that some of the steps being taken are difficult-but-necessary decisions that can lead to eventual financial solvency. But overall, there needs to be a better plan — one that doesn’t give the impression of throwing things against the wall to see what sticks. Rather, the IMC needs a plan that respects the history and tradition of such a long-standing local institution, while finally adapting to the present and preparing for the future.
The Smile Politely Editorial Board is made up of SP editors appointed by their peers. Its opinions are meant to represent a general consensus among the editors on an important issue. This editorial should not be construed as representing the opinions of individual editors or writers, many of whom may disagree with some or all of this editorial.