150th Anniversary Issue

‘A hallmark of our paper’: How independence is a double-edged sword

Though The Daily Californian’s independence has given the paper more freedom in what it publishes, the lack of consistent funding impedes everyday operations and allows for small stipends for only editors and managers. (William Webster / Staff)

While many members of The Daily Californian’s current and former upper management consider the paper’s independence from UC Berkeley to be a blessing, it is undeniably a double-edged sword.

When the Daily Cal earned its independence in 1971, it was afforded a series of benefits, including the ability to publish a wide variety of written and visual content without fear of censorship and university influence. However, the publication also took on a series of burdens, especially with respect to finances, that it continues to struggle with today.

“With any kind of journalism, you want to be able to hold (institutions) to account,” said Sarah Harris, the Daily Cal’s current editor in chief and president. “To do that freely has been a hallmark of our paper.”

How the Daily Cal became independent

The story of the Daily Cal’s independence is often regarded among staff as a moment of pride within the organization’s history.

One hundred years after its founding in 1871, a tie-breaking decision was made to publish a controversial editorial titled “Let’s Go Down And Take The Park—Again.” Following its publication and a subsequent clash at People’s Park, UC Berkeley administration attempted to fire the three editors who voted in favor of publishing the editorial.

These students faced additional backlash from UC Berkeley administration, which claimed they committed six counts of violations to campus policy. Meanwhile, the Alameda County district attorney launched an investigation into any potential conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor.

Although citations and charges were eventually dropped, the Daily Cal decided to make its formal break from campus.

Challenges with independence

Since the Daily Cal gained its independence from campus, it has faced a variety of unique challenges, many of which are economic.

Currently, the Daily Cal earns its revenue from sales, donations and the campus Ink Initiative, which gives the paper $2.50 per student. But these combined efforts aren’t enough to prevent the Daily Cal from being strapped financially.

As a result of not receiving campus funding, the Daily Cal can only afford to pay its editors and managers, who earn a couple of dollars an hour, if that.

Not being able to compensate every member of its several-hundred-person staff was one of the greatest struggles Josh Yuen, former Daily Cal editor in chief and president, faced, and it poses ongoing challenges for Harris.

“We would want to pay everyone (and) increase pay for editors and managers,” Harris said. “It’s not equitable to have this training ground be unpaid, especially when there is no journalism major for undergrads.”

Harris and Yuen both noted that the lack of compensation particularly impacts students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who cannot afford to spend as much unpaid time in the newsroom.

In addition to not being able to pay its staff members, the Daily Cal has also struggled to afford sending reporters to cover events.

“I would see reporters from other papers travel for their newspaper,” said Sakura Cannestra, the Daily Cal’s former managing editor. “We couldn’t.”

From a visual standpoint, the Daily Cal has been unable to pay for licenses to use certain design features, including fonts that can be costly, according to Alexander Hong, the Daily Cal’s current creative director. Hong added that independence places additional responsibility on student leaders from a legal perspective, as the paper is not shielded by campus.

Benefits of independence

Despite the challenges associated with independence, current and former upper management members have agreed that they would not change the paper’s status for anything.

As a result of the Daily Cal’s independence, the paper is able to publish a wide array of content without fear of censorship or influence from campus — an ability several feel contributes to the Daily Cal’s credibility.

“The whole point of the organization is to represent the governed and not the government,” Yuen said. “(Independence) gives us the privilege to hold certain groups accountable.”

Several former and present members of upper management added that the Daily Cal would likely not have been able to publish some of its editorials if it had remained part of campus, particularly those focused on housing and People’s Park.

These editorials, according to Harris, enable Daily Cal staff members to not only serve as a “mouthpiece” for others but also have their own voices heard.

Cannestra also questioned whether the paper would cover the city of Berkeley as extensively as it does if it remained under the purview of campus administration.

“We are also the city of Berkeley’s paper of record, so I don’t know how much of our city coverage relates to our independence,” Cannestra said. “I have a hunch we would have been incentivized to cover more university topics.”

In addition to serving the city of Berkeley, the Daily Cal is also a training ground for undergraduate students seeking to enter journalism and other professions.

Unlike other student newspapers where a faculty member may oversee operations, the Daily Cal’s independence has enabled students to dive straight into the field and learn through experience.

“At your first workday as a (general assignment reporter), you just get sent a story assignment,” Cannestra said. “I don’t think it gets any closer to hitting the ground running than that.”

Within the newsroom, independence also impacts leadership.

At the Daily Cal, the editor in chief and president — along with other select positions — are voted upon by the staff, placing student voices at the forefront of the organization.

“The fact that we are such a separate entity is embedded in our newspaper’s culture,” Hong said. “At every level, it’s students making the choices.”