The Vidette, a standard-bearer of student journalism, stops presses

NORMAL, Illinois – Each week, John Plevka sits down with his blue gel pen and critiques the weekly edition of The Vidette.

It used to be daily. He felt like it found its sweet spot in 2015, when financial realities forced the paper to go down to twice weekly, before the screws tightened in August 2019 and it became a weekly.

On April 27, the last physical edition of the 132-year-old Vidette will be printed.

“My blue ink is going to be pretty blurry. There’s going to be a bunch of tears,” said Plevka, a former Peoria Journal-Star executive editor who’s served as general manager of The Vidette since 2012. 

Plevka said student managers are forming a plan to print a special commemorative edition in late April or early May. The Vidette will report exclusively on its digital platforms – its website, social media channels, newsletters and app.

Plevka said financial strains were bearing down long before COVID-19 gripped the nation.

“I’ve been sounding these sirens for several years,” he said. “We didn’t just find out we had a financial problem.”

The university gave Plevka and Business Manager Madeline Jean-Charles non-renewal notices in June.

(photo by The Vidette)

As of July 1, 2021, the traditional advertising department, run by students and a part-time professional business adviser, will be eliminated. ISU’s NPR affiliate WGLT, led by General Manager R.C. McBride and also part of the communications program, will take over business and administrative oversight.

All that’s etched in stone right now is that printing operations will cease. Stephen Hunt, executive director of the School of Communications, said an adviser will be retained to oversee The Vidette, and it will be determined in spring whether that’s Plevka – who’s leaning toward accepting a potential offer to stay on.

“There are going to be some hellish growth pains,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of talented kids coming back. I’d like to kind of hold their hand through that next year.”

A committee made up of Plevka, Hunt, an administrator from the College of Arts and Sciences, McBride, faculty members, journalism professors, and others, formed in August and began laying out the plan for The Vidette’s future.

“They have done an incredible amount of thoughtful work in a short period of time to produce an excellent plan moving forward,” said Diane Zosky, interim dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Vidette was actually folded into the communications department in 2011, but The Vidette still paid its own bills, Plevka said. His chief concern is that as the newsroom is tied more closely to communications curriculum, it’s going to lose access to talent.

Previously, all that was required to work for The Vidette was taking six credits at ISU. While details are being ironed out, students will be required to take communications courses.

He’s optimistic the university will find workarounds for English majors to work for The Vidette, given how closely the major dovetails with journalism. He’s more concerned about losing the poli-sci, and even the biology majors who have played important roles at the paper previously. Many of them have even shifted gears and carved out careers in journalism, Plevka said.

“With those courses being elective for them, they’ll have to ask themselves the question, can they afford to do that?” he said. “Those kind of folks are probably going to be disappearing. The Vidette has prided itself on being a big tent, and inviting to everyone.”

Hunt addressed those concerns in an email Dec. 8, stating the program can manage enrollment in key production courses by removing course blocks, which would allow English majors, for example, to continue to participate in the Vidette.

The university’s student-run news broadcast, TV-10, is entirely run through the School of Communications curriculum, but it has a registered student organization, Student Television Workshop, that is open to all majors across campus. “We’re thinking of something similar for the Vidette,” Hunt said.

When Plevka transitioned to ISU in 2012, the Vidette’s budget was $1 million. It’s now around $250,000. He’s cut an IT position, reduced Jean-Charles’ hours, and pared down the number of paid student employees. The once five-day-a-week newspaper dropped its Friday edition in 2013 and went down to two days in 2015, becoming a weekly in August 2019. It’s still a weekly – for this school year, at least, and as long as campus remains open.

The last fiscal year The Vidette finished in the black was 2013. It’s projected to finish more than $200,000 in the red when the calendar flips to July next summer.

“Looking back, I do feel we could have been a little more proactive on this, potentially as far back as 4 or 5 years ago,” Plevka said.

The Vidette is hardly on an island, as financial hardships led by advertising decline, exacerbated of course by the pandemic, have resulted in student newspapers throughout the Midwest reining in their print frequency.

The Daily Northwestern at Northwestern University went from printing five days a week to reporting online-only, at least for the time being. The Courier at Western Illinois University has committed to going online-only not just this school year, but for good.

The Vidette has won General Excellence in the Illinois College Press Association competition 2 out of the past 3 years.

Plevka said he’s hopeful the university will grandfather in current Vidette staff next fall, for them to not be required to take communications courses. He’s also “pushing hard” for the university to continue paying a staff of at least a half-dozen students. Currently, about a dozen are on the payroll. 

“If they’re not going to reward those folks, that’s when the thing will really come unglued,” he said. “I don’t want to be around to see that. Then it becomes a class, and some students will be half-assing it. It’s a shitload of work to be an editor. It’s a great experience, and there’s value in doing it. You can’t have a student adviser as editor-in-chief. It takes away from the learning experience.”

Christopher Heimerman is a former editor of the Daily Chronicle in DeKalb, Illinois, and freelance journalist covering media practices in the Midwest. He wrote the memoir “40,000 Steps” which details his war with alcoholism and the marathon he ran after rehab. He lives in DeKalb. Follow him on Twitter @RunTopherRun.

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