The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday May 31st

Budget articles tough to humanize

""UNC plans for cuts to funding.""

That was a Daily Tar Heel headline on March 22" 2002. But it could just as easily have been last week. After several years of a booming state economy and generous funding increases for higher education lean times are back.

And so are budget cut articles in the pages of the DTH.

Budget stories are to reporters what annotated bibliographies are to history majors. They are complicated research-intensive and unexciting" and there's a big risk of getting the details wrong.

They're also some of the most important articles in the paper.

""Budgets can be intimidating for any reporter" wrote journalism professor Jan Johnson Yopp. To write about financial cutbacks" journalists have to understand the budget components and then where the cuts are being made.""

That can be maddeningly difficult to figure out at a place like UNC" with a maze of different funding streams and a decentralized process for making cutbacks.

A single department might receive a chunk of funding from the state a little from endowments and gifts" some from tuition and another portion from research grants. Simply saying that state funding was cut by 5 percent does nothing to show what actually happened in that department.

""My goal is to take budget cuts — and the national economy in general — and show how students are affected"" wrote Andrew Dunn, DTH University editor.

With the downturn still in its early stages, that's difficult. And there's a tendency to focus on raw numbers and broad official pronouncements.

But the interesting part is in the details.

Did you know that UNC uses salaries from empty faculty positions to pay for everything from light bills to graduate stipends?

That means you can eliminate a half-dozen faculty positions without necessarily firing anyone, but some grad student in a research lab might have to take on thousands more in debt to make up for a lost stipend.

How that affects her life — did she miss a trip home, is she eating more mac 'n' cheese? — is the true story of the budget cut. You can't get that from the raw numbers.

Allison Nichols, DTH editor-in-chief, said she is committed to producing those kind of stories in the months ahead.

Almost by necessity" I think a lot of it has to be anecdotal" Nichols said. We tend to focus on it in a more qualitative way.""

It's still early"" but reporting on budget cuts so far has included some limited illustrations of tangible impact. In the Nov. 6 article ""Cuts force creative saving"" staff writer Brecken Branstrator reported that the economics department is cutting funding for visitors and speakers, and that the anthropology department has trimmed some recitations. But the article didn't say how many events might be cancelled, or how many students might be bumped from recitations.

Unfortunately for the economy, there's likely to be plenty of opportunity for those kind of feature stories.

These are extraordinary economic times" wrote Chancellor Holden Thorp in an e-mail to the entire campus last week. We're committed to getting through this rough period as smoothly as possible with your help" cooperation and patience. And we pledge to keep you informed.""

Ditto for the budding number-crunchers at the DTH.

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