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The Hilltop Struggles with Changes in News Industry

UNITED STATES – JANUARY 01: Editorial staff of the “Hill Top”, the student paper at Howard University. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

By Jaylin Paschal, Editor-in-Chief, Donovan Thomas, Campus News Editor and Yasha Washington, Staff Reporter

The Hilltop, Howard University’s student newspaper, was effectively shut down for the first half of the fall 2019 semester after a nearly $280,000 budget deficit was reported at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. The financial problems and resulting publication suspension came as a surprise to the staff and advisors. 

The editor-in-chief was not authorized to hire any editors or staff members until two weeks ago, six weeks into the semester. This is the first time since 1965 that The Hilltop has not published at the start of the school year, according to digitized records provided by the Moorland-Springarn Research Center. The newspaper, which had been printed at least weekly during the school year for the last 89 years, published its first edition today, Oct. 10. 

Despite struggles, news stories were published online at over the last few weeks and The Hilltop has been active on social media in an effort to keep the campus informed. Student editors have volunteered their time while budget issues were sorted out. Current administration plans are to move the paper to a primarily digital publication, with a handful of special print editions each year.

It is unclear when this current deficit of over a quarter of a million dollars began to accumulate. The debt is mostly attributed to rising printing costs, uncollected advertising sales and uncollected funds from the Student Life and Activities fee (SAFEC). 

“It really is a combination of things,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Kenneth Holmes about the cause of the deficit. “This year it just got really sort of tight. I think what was also happening was more and more reliance on student activity fees and less reliance on raising money. That’s something that the policy board has to address.”

Each semester, The Hilltop has requested $50,000 in SAFEC fees in order to operate during the term. Just last school year, there were two SAFEC fee checks that were not deposited in The Hilltop’s account when they were supposed to be. Several employees in the Accounting Department and Student Life and Activities have since left the university and no one currently on staff can explain how this slipped through the cracks.

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When Caprice King, the current administrative assistant for Student Life and Activities, arrived at Howard in January of this year, The Hilltop was one of the first tasks she was assigned. She was puzzled by the debt issue she discovered.

“I have no idea. I wasn’t here. I was confused last semester how [The Hilltop] was already in debt when I got here. Y’all [The Hilltop] had like $70,000 in debt, but by the end of the semester it was at 280 [$280,000]. So, I was confused as to how it went from 77 [$77,000] to 280 [$280,000],” said King. 

It still remains unclear as to how The Hilltop accumulated such a large deficit so quickly, given that operating costs for the entire year typically are less than $120,000.

King said VP Holmes has been working with the finance staff to straighten things out, but she emphasized that The Hilltop is not bringing in enough money to continue printing.

King also suggested that to continue to print on a weekly basis in the future, The Hilltop would have to produce $60,000 in ad revenue annually to cover printing costs. 

“If you’re not generating enough revenue and you keep printing and printing, it’s going to cut down.   You can’t just go off the Student Activities fee. It’s not enough money to operate off of when it comes to stipends, when it comes to printing, all those things. It’s just not enough,” said King. 

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With the current publication schedule of fewer print issues and less opportunities for print ad sales, the paper would have to bring in revenue from digital ad sales, which are less lucrative, to return to a weekly print edition.

While The Hilltop has sold ads, the problem arises when it is time for payment. Last year alone, more than $18,212 in ad sales were not paid by various internal and external clients. Additionally, The Hilltop was dealt another blow when Robin Thornhill, the longtime business advisor, was unexpectedly laid off on Aug. 30, 2018, following budget cuts in the Cathy Hughes School of Communications. She was replaced by Assistant Chair in the Department of Strategic, Legal and Management Communications, Sheryl Ross-Johnson. Account and advertising information was lost in the abrupt transition.

Each year, the financial status of The Hilltop is to be reviewed and cleared in order for a policy board to approve the recommended budget. However, the current deficit suggests years of operating in the red, as the estimated $280,000 deficit is more than double the $116,280 total The Hilltop requested to run as a weekly paper during the 2018-2019 academic year. The Hilltop’s policy board is composed of the Editor-in-Chief of The Hilltop, the Business Manager of The Hilltop, the Vice President for Student Affairs, the Director of Student Life and Activities, the President of the Howard University Student Association, the Chairman of the Department of Journalism, the Assistant Vice President for Communications and one full-time student from each of the university’s schools and colleges.There are also several non-voting members of the board.

  • The financial review responsibilities held by the policy board include:
  • Recommending to the editor-in-chief an annual budget for the operation of The Hilltop
  • Approve major changes within the authorized budget
  • Ensure that the financial operation of The Hilltop is in compliance with established University policies and procedures
  • Review and approve The Hilltop staff positions and stipends recommended by the editor-in-chief

Three policy board meetings are required each semester. The board may vote on the aforementioned financial oversight decisions at these meetings. In order to hold a vote, a quorum of nine voting members, with a minimum of two students and two administrators, must be met at each meeting. Meeting quorum has proven increasingly difficult as student representative positions typically remain unfilled. While members of the board may be represented by a proxy, the low attendance and engagement of the board can slow the progression of approval on all of the monetary decisions needed to operate The Hilltop.

Due to the current financial standing, Student Life and Activities has proposed that The Hilltop go digital only. The history of The Hilltop is one of a print publication. While most of its life it has published on a weekly schedule, it also published biweekly in the early 2000s and even daily in 2005. It was the first HBCU newspaper to print daily. In 2002, The Hilltop’s website was launched, helping to connect the Howard community beyond its print circulation of 7,000 copies weekly. Since then, The Hilltop’s digital presence has been characterized by and various social media profiles. The Hilltop has over 16,000 Twitter followers and over a thousand followers on Instagram and Facebook.

This transition to digital is indicative of trends in the journalism industry. Many publications, especially student-led publications, have pivoted to a digital-first strategy. The University of Maryland announced in late September that it will stop printing its century-old weekly newspaper in March of 2020. September also brought news of  the termination of The Washington Post’s daily commuter paper, Express.

“The Hilltop is incredibly important to Howard University,” said Vice President Holmes. “I think that like a lot of iconic newspapers, the form of it changes. A lot more papers are printing far less and having more of an online presence.”

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Students have noticed The Hilltop’s physical absence and made note of the changing publication.

“As an archivist, I believe there’s still a community of people who admire and revere the physical prints of The Hilltop,” said Kofi Young, senior graphic design major and photographer. “I believe that the digital transition will adhere to the younger generation that is tech savvy and influenced by the internet. I don’t see an issue with that, but disregarding that smaller community completely isn’t fair.”

The continuation of print is also important to the development of student journalists. Manotti Jenkins, a graduate of the Class of 1986 and former Howard University Student Association Vice President, served as editorial editor for The Hilltop during his senior year from 1985-86. Under his HUSA administration, Afro-American studies became a requirement to graduate.

“Print media represents the foundation of great journalism. Experience with that medium will continue to be the basis of what journalism employers look for at the next level, as well as the basis of the skills students need if they decide to become freelance journalists,” said Jenkins. 

This is not the first time instability has threatened the future of The Hilltop. Another notable stretch of uncertainty came in 2008, when the paper stopped publishing between March and the following fall semester due to low advertising revenue. More recently, The Hilltop’s office was relocated from the Howard Plaza Towers to the Harriet Tubman Quadrangle to the Mary McLeod Bethune Annex over the course of just 24 months. The current temporary newsroom in the Annex is not large enough to host staff meetings, only to house the newspaper’s equipment and senior editors. The tight budget not only affects printing abilities, but it also leaves little resources for basic tools for news coverage, staff development or business materials (such as travel for local coverage and business cards). The staff has been reduced from an average of 13 editors to the current team of eight. The editorial staff relinquished two positions to the business team, hiring more members to sell advertising.

Despite these recent changes, The Hilltop has worked in the spirit upon which it was founded; dedicated to serving as the student voice of Howard University. The paper has been awarded Best Student Newspaper by HBCU Digest for the last two years and collected several individual awards for reporters and articles. Founded by Zora Neale Hurston and Louis Eugene King, The Hilltop has continued to act as training grounds for the nation’s next generation of journalists and storytellers. Since 1924, the paper has been an archival record of life on campus, documenting Howard’s progress and problems. Its past editors have gone on to become decorated journalists at the nation’s top news organizations, and include White House correspondents, magazine editors and even Pulitzer Prize winners. 

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But with the challenges compounding, will the paper survive to celebrate its centennial?

“Nothing will happen to The Hilltop,” said Vice President Holmes. “The university will always be here to make sure that we support the Hilltop. But I think as a policy board and as an editorial board, we’re going to have to decide what the Hilltop will become, because we certainly need to sell more ads. But the short answer is The Hilltop isn’t going anywhere. It’s here.”


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