URBANA — Students at the University of Illinois have agreed to subsidize their student newspaper with a $3-a-semester fee.
Students voted 1,809 to 1,212 this week to adopt the new fee to help The Daily Illini, the 141-year-old independent campus newspaper, and other student media owned by Illini Media.
Students also approved annual increases in their transportation fee over the next three years to sustain campus transit services through the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District and expand the SafeRides program.
And they selected the current student body president, UI junior David Pileski, as the next student trustee from the Urbana campus.
The new student media fee is expected to generate more than $120,000 a semester, or about 12 percent of Illini Media's 2011-12 operating budget. The nonprofit corporation was established in 1911 to operate the Daily Illini, Illio yearbook, Technograph magazine and later WPGU-FM, Buzz magazine and associated websites.
Unlike most student publications at similar-size universities, Illini Media and the Daily Illini currently receive no funding from the UI. Illini Media is considered an "allied agency" that contributes to university programs.
But with a changing media landscape, Illini Media says it can no longer rely on advertising revenue to cover expenses. The newspaper's page count has been shrinking, student editors are paid very little and earlier this year, it owed $250,000 to creditors.
A fundraising campaign launched in January enlisted help from movie critic Roger Ebert. He said in a letter to fellow Daily Illini alumni that many journalists — including him — "would say that they owe their careers at least in part to their experience" at the Daily Illini, adding, "It's now time to give back."
Daily Illini Publisher Lil Levant said Ebert's letter generated about $30,000 from more than 100 different donors, which helped the company pay down some of its bills.
But it still faces a longer-term debt, said Levant, who was appointed in October.
The new fee is seen as a stable long-term source of revenue for the company, which also plans to lease out space in its Campustown building to generate more income.
"The student fee is really about forging our future," Levant said.
"I'm absolutely thrilled by the outcome of the vote. All I can think about is what this means for the students who work here, they put their heart and soul into Illini Media and, of course, the campus community who relies on us as an independent voice."
Just as advertising revenues were falling, Illini Media spent down its financial reserves in 2006 to build a four-story building at 512 E. Green St., C. The new headquarters allowed Illini Media to put all of its units under one roof for the first time.
"It was a great opportunity. No one could have foreseen what would have happened in 2008, and what has happened with the economy and advertising dollars," Levant said.
She said Illini Media has a new tenant for part of the fourth floor and is in negotiations with a possible first-floor tenant. Most of its operations are on the first three floors, including the Illini Media Tech Center store.
"If we can do that, then we'll be in a much better financial position," Levant said.
Money from the new fee will help cover general operating expenses, including printing and delivering the 13,000-circulation free newspaper around campus, maintaining websites, paying radio licenses and fees, and printing the yearbook, she said.
She said students on Illini Media's board led the effort to get the fee question on the ballot for this week's two-day online student election, which ended at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.
The student-run newspaper has always prized its editorial independence from the university, and Levant doesn't expect that to change.
"The university certainly understands we've been around for 140 years," she said.
Students approved the increase in the $50-a-semester student transportation fee by a 2,050-943 vote.
It will rise by $2 next year, by $4 in 2013-14 and by $3 in 2014-15.
The money will be used to sustain campus bus service at current levels and expand MTD's Safe-Rides service on Thursday to Saturday nights and during fall, spring and winter breaks, officials said.
A campus transportation committee had supported the increases, saying bus service would have to be cut without it, and students had requested broader SafeRides coverage. The service provides rides to individuals off regular bus routes, mostly during night-time hours.