The Evolution of the Minnesota Daily
The U of M student paper transforms itself in a digital world.
Throughout its 122-year history, the U of M student newspaper, The Minnesota Daily, has unified the Twin Cities University community as an important source of campus news and a watchdog over ongoing administrations. “Once you leave the U, you forget about the Daily,” says Greg Breining (B.A. ’74) who wrote for the paper from 1972-74. “But when you’re there, it’s the hub that holds the spokes together.”
However, the paper, which has covered important events from the occupation of Morrill Hall in 1969 to safety issues in Dinkytown, faced extinction in recent years. Dwindling advertising revenue, felt by newspapers nationwide and a significant contributor to the paper’s operating budget, reduced the number of issues printed and the frequency of publication. The former “daily” went from printing five issues a week to four in 2008-09, then down to two a week in May 2016.
Even with the savings in printing costs, the Daily’s financial situation remained perilous, in part because of regular turnover from semester to semester of students running the business side of the paper. The Daily’s board of directors decided to hire a full-time professional general manager in the summer of 2015 to oversee payroll, purchasing, budgeting, ad sales, and fundraising, in addition to training students. Although the board stipulated the general manager would have no say in editorial decisions, the move met resistance from students and Daily alumni who objected to what they perceived as adult intrusion into the student-run paper.
Gayle Golden, an instructor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication since 1997 and chair of the board of directors at the time, defended the move. “When the financial realities became so difficult and the margins so thin, it became untenable to allow the students to do it on their own,” Golden says. “There needed to be a sustainable solution.”
But that solution came not only in the hiring of a general manager and adding a part-time professional controller in 2017; it also required a way to rescue the paper from near irrelevance. The Daily’s own research showed that more than 80 percent of the campus didn’t know the paper existed. Nearly half of the 5,000 papers the Daily had been printing on Mondays and Thursdays remained on racks around campus. Generation Z students weren’t picking it up; they were consuming news on their phone.
The Daily had been one of the first student papers in the country to go online 20 years earlier. As the pandemic lockdown cleared out campus classrooms, the Daily pivoted from print to digital publication in March 2020. When the Board of Regents allowed them access to the University’s student directory, in September 2021 the Daily began digital morning delivery of the publication to 75,000 umn.edu addresses Monday through Friday. The paper experienced a renaissance—readership went up, and so did ad revenue.
According to Charlie Weaver, the Daily general manager for the past five years,between 47 to 50 percent of those emails get opened: far higher than the national rate for email newsletters. That’s allowed the newspaper’s ad sales force to entice potential advertisers with a larger target market, and it boosted ad revenue from $90,000 last fiscal year (September 1-August 31) to $80,000 in the first quarter alone of this fiscal year. “We’ve reinvigorated our audience and the ability to sell our audience to our clients,” Weaver says.
It's not the first time the Daily has had to adjust.
Back in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the Daily was a highly visible presence on campus with print runs of as many as 40,000 copies displayed in ubiquitous racks in seemingly every building on campus. Robust staffs turned out lengthy stories, like Greg Breining’s 20,000-word profile of a bank robber on trial for attempted murder in 1974. “One of the benefits for the students working at the Daily, because it strayed so far outside the confines of a normal newspaper, was that it allowed you to get involved in a lot of different kinds of journalism,” Breining says.
That hands-on experience is part of the paper’s mission: to train students in the ways of journalism.
“The Daily gives you real-world reporting experience you can’t get in journalism classes,” says Ryan Faircloth (B.A. ’18), a Daily reporter from 2016-18 and now a Star Tribune reporter. “Like being outside the governor’s mansion during the protests over the Philando Castile shooting or at Ihlan Omar’s campaign headquarters when she was elected as the first Somali woman to Congress.”
Though the Daily pays its staff of about 150 students every academic year out of its $1.1 million operating budget, working for the paper is not easy money. “There may not be a harder working group on campus,” says Chris Ison (B.A. ’83), 1982-83 Daily editor-in-chief and a journalism school instructor from 1991-2021. “You can’t do enough as a reporter because there are constantly stories popping up and not always at a convenient time, but you have to cover them.”
A Few Notable Minnesota Daily Alumni
Brian J. Coyle (B.S. ’67), community leader, elected official, and gay activist
Keith Ellison (J.D. ’90), Minnesota attorney general, former member of Congress
Henry Fonda, Academy Award-winning actor
Maud Hart Lovelace Author of the Betsy-Tacy book series
Dick Guindon, cartoonist
Harry Reasoner (B.A. ’89), founder of 60 Minutes
Steve Sack, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist
Eric Sevareid (B.A. ’35), renowned author and CBS journalist who believed he was denied the editor-in chief spot at the Daily by university administration following a controversial column in 1934
Ka Vang, Hmong playwright, fiction writer, and poet
William Wade (B.A. ’39), American war correspondent during World War II
Roy Wilkins (B.A. ’23), Civil Rights activist and the first Black journalist at the Daily
The grind can result in burnout, bad grades, and fond memories. “Most people at The Daily had bad grades,” Garrison Keillor (B.A. ’66), who worked on the publication’s literary magazine the Ivory Tower from 1962-65, had reminisced at one point in his blog. “We spent most of our time there and skipped class with carefree abandon: it was our way of being an adult.”
Working for the Daily has at times also embroiled students in controversy. In the late 1960s, under the editorial tenure of Paul Gruchow, who went on to become a popular essayist, the Daily ran a front-page photo of a female student carrying an explicit placard protesting the English department’s puritanical standards. The choice words excited a strong reaction among some readers, which prompted an investigation. The ensuing report issued by a special commission appointed within the University asserted it was best for the administration not to intrude upon the students’ editorial decisions.
Perhaps the Daily’s biggest controversy was triggered by a June 1979 humor issue. The newspaper featured the banner headline “Christ Speaks!,” promoting an “exclusive interview” with Jesus, described as “probably the best-known Jew in history next to Bob Dylan.” It went on in a similar vein, including calling Christ “a minor cult hero,” among other disparaging remarks.
The Archbishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis objected. The governor called the issue “extremely vulgar and insulting.” The state legislature investigated. Then-University President C. Peter Magrath chastised the Daily’s staff for not knowing the difference “between freedom of the press and its abuse,” and convinced the Board of Regents to offer partial refunds of the mandatory student services fee that funded the paper.
Initially, the staff apologized. Then they sued.
In Stanley v. Magrath, four editors who had not been involved in the parody issue—led by Kate Stanley, the 1979-80 editor-in-chief and later Star Tribune editorial writer—asked for $12,000 in lost revenue from the rescinded student fees and reinstatement of the full funding fee. They claimed a state university cannot act against a publication on the grounds of being offended.
Attorney Marshall Tanick (B.A. ’69), a former Daily reporter himself, represented the students. Harrison Salisbury (B.A. ’30), another former Daily reporter who would win the Pulitzer Prize as a New York Times journalist, testified on their behalf.
A district court judge initially ruled in the administration’s favor. The students appealed, and the Eighth Circuit Court ultimately upheld their protection of free speech under the First Amendment.
The Minnesota Daily Alumni Association Network
The Alumni Association supports a number of alumni-led affinity networks, which allow individuals with common interests to meet, network, and connect. One of the more recently launched networks is for current and former Minnesota Daily-affiliated alumni. You can learn more or sign up for updates on this group by visiting UMNalumni.org.