The student newspaper at George Washington University may soon move from off-campus to university-provided housing, according to an email sent by the GW Hatchet's Board of Directors, potentially threatening the future independence of the operation.
According to the email, which was sent to "supporters and alumni" on Tuesday, the potential move comes amid a financial crisis for the 113-year-old organization, prompted by "a collapsing classifieds market, as well as a near-complete retreat of national advertisers from college media."
A former student editor confirmed the potential move to Poynter, adding that advertisements at the newspaper have starkly decreased in the past year. Between 2011 and 2017, Hatchet Publications, Inc., the nonprofit corporation that produces the publication, went from a $500,000 operating budget to a quarter of that size — despite maintaining a million-dollar newsroom, according to the email.
The Hatchet Editor Lillianna Byington also published a letter to readers Friday outlining the challenges facing the student newspaper:
"...We ultimately have one duty: to guarantee the long-term financial and editorial security of The GW Hatchet," the note reads. "And if that means course-correcting by selling our assets or renegotiating on-campus space with the University, then the Board will do so without hesitation."
The Hatchet is presently located in a townhouse on F Street, N.W. in Washington, D.C. just south of campus, where it has been since the board purchased the property in 2011. According to the email, the newspaper must raise $100,000 by the end of the semester in order to keep the space for another year, and $750,000 to secure the townhouse permanently. Otherwise, the Hatchet will likely move into a university-provided space, which could threaten its future independence, according to the former student editor.
"Our dilemma will come as a grave disappointment to many — including to us," the email reads. "The student staff of The Hatchet understands that an eleventh-hour donation of six figures is highly improbable, and that they will most likely be leaving their townhouse."
Once the Hatchet is reliant on housing from the university, it may be susceptible to pressure from the administration, according to the former student editor. But Byington said the newspaper intends to remain independent regardless of its housing situation.
"Our independence allows us to do real journalism," she said. "I don't see that changing no matter where the space is — it won't affect our journalism."
Byington, a rising senior at GW, said the Hatchet's board members met with the administration and stressed the importance of maintaining the editorial independence of the newspaper, which she said school officials understood. Still, the prospect of leaving the newspaper's home on F Street was tough to process.
"It wasn't exactly the news I wanted to hear, but then I started to think about what I really love about the Hatchet," she said. "I realized that it wasn't the townhouse that made this experience — it was the Hatchet itself. That's what I wanted to portray to the staff when I had to tell them."
This isn't the first time the Hatchet has faced financial pressure. The newspaper became a weekly in 2013 amid falling advertising revenue and rising print costs, despite seeing a corresponding growth in website visits and mobile traffic, according to The New York Times. A $2 million fundraising push by the organization, which included several $50,000 donations from alumni, to fund its then-new townhouse would later turn up short.
“We are exploring all options to ensure that The GW Hatchet remains an independent source of news for the GW community and an extraordinary educational opportunity for our students," said Matthew Berger, a former student editor and Hatchet Publications, Inc. board member, in an email to Poynter. "While we are disappointed at the prospect of potentially selling the townhouse, we know our students will continue to produce award-winning journalism wherever they work."
Here is the email from the Hatchet's Board of Directors in full:
Dear Supporters and Alumni,
Despite continued journalistic success, The Hatchet is in grave danger of financial insolvency. It should come as no surprise that a collapsing classifieds market, as well as a near-complete retreat of national advertisers from college media, have made some of our worst fears a reality. Today we write to you about a very difficult situation: The Hatchet will leave its F Street townhouse and secure University space if it is unable to raise $100,000 by the end of this summer.
First, some context. In 2011, The Hatchet’s Board of Directors decided to purchase the F Street townhouse for several reasons: Our subsidized lease with the University was about to expire and Foggy Bottom market-rate rents were not affordable. Low interest rates, a recovering housing market, and early donations helped members of the Board feel confident about the investment.
But national advertisers began a precipitous pull from college media, revenue loss meant The Hatchet could no longer afford a full-time business manager, and our nascent fundraising arm was unable to raise the sheer sums required to sustain a million-dollar newsroom. The Hatchet, in just a few years, went from overseeing a $500,000 operating budget to one just one-quarter that size.
These financial pitfalls have not only placed immense pressure on The Hatchet’s Board, but have seriously injured the morale of the student staff — a fact that breaks the hearts of so many alumni who remember their time at The Hatchet with pride and fondness. For student editors to recall a Hatchet experience riddled with finance-related anxiety, instead of the experience we know to be socially and journalistically enriching, is unacceptable to us.
We have worked hard with donors, the University, and the staff of previous volumes to make this townhouse a reality for future generations of Hatchet staff. But here’s the truth: We’ve been unable — either through advertising or fundraising revenue — to bear the costs of this townhouse. That’s why we are making one final call to our alumni and supporter community. We need $100,000 to buy one more year in the townhouse, and $750,000 to secure it permanently. If we aren’t able to raise those sums, we will sell the townhouse and move to University-provided space.
Our dilemma will come as a grave disappointment to many — including to us. But this Board ultimately has one duty, which we take extremely seriously: To guarantee the long-term financial and editorial security of The GW Hatchet. And if this means course-correcting by selling our assets or renegotiating on-campus space with the University, then we will do so without hesitation.
The student staff of The Hatchet understands that an eleventh-hour donation of six figures is highly improbable, and that they will most likely be leaving their townhouse. But they also know that we have several reasons to feel optimistic if it comes down to that. First, our work on the townhouse has helped us build a brand-new fundraising operation and forge lasting relationships with our alumni — efforts that will continue regardless of where The Hatchet calls home. Second, a new student-built website allows The Hatchet to maximize digital advertising revenues in ways it once was not able to do.
And, finally, our commitment to powerful and independent student journalism is uncompromising. Regardless of the end outcome, the Board guarantees the editorial independence of the newspaper, in perpetuity. While financial matters are urgent, preserving the editorial and journalistic mission of the organization, is, and will always remain, our mission and priority.
We want to thank everybody who has donated their time, services, and money to this effort and we want to apologize for the disappointing situation we currently are in. The Board is working closer than ever with alumni, the University, student staff, and business leaders to ensure the Hatchet remains editorially and financially successful. If you have any questions about the state of affairs, please reach out to us at email@example.com.
Sincerely yours,Board of Directors
The GW Hatchet