Mixing Media

June 8, 2012

Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country and publisher of USA Today, may be cutting hundreds of newsroom jobs on a semi-regular basis. But, in Ohio at least, the company is looking to reclaim some of the devastating loss in advertising revenue it has faced with its latest foray into little-known but not unprecedented territory: the college newspaper business.

The Lantern, the student newspaper at Ohio State University, announced this week that Gannett will take over its business and advertising divisions under a three-year contract. Gannett’s Media Network of Central Ohio (MNCO) will pay Ohio State’s College of Arts and Sciences, which houses the student paper, about $28,000 each month (adding up to a grand total of $838,500) for unfettered access to the university’s 53,000 students -- and for all the ad revenue it can muster.

It’s a less dramatic entrée than Gannett’s other moves in the market, in which two of the company’s local Sunshine State papers purchased nearby student operations; in August 2006, the Tallahassee Democrat bought the FSView & Florida Flambeau at Florida State University, and six months later Florida Today bought the Central Florida Future at the University of Central Florida. Both student papers were independent from their respective universities.

In 2008, Gannett was in talks with The Rocky Mountain Collegian at Colorado State University about some sort of “partnership,” but amid much student protest, the discussion never got anywhere.

The deal with Ohio State is a departure for Gannett not just in its structure, but also in its substance. The two for-profit Florida student papers publish twice- and thrice-weekly, respectively; The Lantern publishes print editions Monday through Thursday and online Fridays. Its circulation of 15,000 is lower than the 20,000 figure at the FSView & Florida Flambeau, but the latter covers 13,000 fewer students.

And because The Lantern is nonprofit and not independent, it’s subsidized by the college. That, rather than an overall loss in revenue and in some cases descent into the red that is hitting some student newspapers, is what made this arrangement ideal for The Lantern, said Joe Steinmetz, executive dean of Ohio State’s College of Arts and Sciences.

Even as advertising has taken a hit everywhere, this past year was the first in about six that The Lantern finished production with a revenue surplus, Steinmetz said – a point that students made in citing their confusion with the new arrangement. But redirecting all the institutional subsidies to the paper’s editorial department, Steinmetz says, will better serve the students’ education.

“This is really not cost-cutting so much as it is trying to get as many resources as we can into the hands of the students,” Steinmetz said. “I think we’re more about the education that happens on the editorial side, and at some point, what this comes down to is having to subsidize that side of the operation.”

But David Swartzlander, president of the College Media Association, whose members are advisers to student media organizations, said the move has generated considerable discussion among newspaper advisers who are wondering whether this has implications for the future of student journalism generally.

Gannett declined to comment beyond a brief statement.

"If it is a trend, it will be because some of those larger college papers are facing the same financial issues, when you think about it, as the bigger papers."
--David Swartzlander

“This enables the school to focus on its core educational mission, while assuring that The Lantern remains a viable and vibrant journalism laboratory for Ohio State students to serve the needs of their audience,” it said. “The upside to MNCO is that it can leverage the printing and distribution networks it owns, while extending its professional sales operation leadership in The Lantern’s market.”

When Gannett was in talks with Colorado State, the company told The New York Times: “There is no grand Gannett strategy…. Gannett is not looking to buy college newspapers. We look at all sorts of things.”

Regardless of the broader meaning, Swartzlander speculated that the contract, which allows MNCO to renegotiate the terms “if the production of The Lantern does not generate a net profit during any 10-month period,” could create a conflict of interest for students.

“Perhaps some advertiser sees a story in the paper that the advertiser doesn’t like, and threatens to pull its ad. What happens then for The Lantern? Does the ad get pulled? Does the editorial philosophy change?” he said. “Maybe this is the best thing for them, but personally speaking, I wouldn’t want to do it.”

There are student positions in the business and advertising departments as well: 14, before the contract took effect. Those staff will now technically work for Gannett, but Gifford Weary, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the positions are not at risk.

“Individuals will come and go,” she said in an e-mail, “but the intent is to have the same level of our student sales staff.”

And working with Gannett could help those students with internships or jobs down the road, Steinmetz said.

But, the students who already work there have been told their jobs aren’t guaranteed, and they’ll have to re-interview for the positions, Lantern Editor-in-Chief Jami Jurich said. No students from any department were consulted about the partnership, which has been in the works for more than a year. (Gannett has been paid to print and distribute The Lantern for about six years.)

“I think as far as the students go, we were pretty blindsided,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that my initial reaction was, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a terrible deal,’ but it definitely caught me off-guard.”

Still, Jurich said she understood why the college would make the call by itself: educational decisions aren’t really within students’ jurisdiction. The main thing the students were initially worried about -- that Gannett could completely take over the paper and potentially fill it with ads, squeezing out content -- doesn’t seem to be an issue, she said.

“It sounds like our day-to-day operations really are just going to continue the way we’ve always done things,” Jurich said. “We’re not really too worried about it. Other than just being worried about our friends having jobs, we’re not super concerned about our editorial work being compromised.”

When Gannett took over the FSView & Florida Flambeau, the transition was so seamless that student staff probably wouldn’t even have noticed it if they hadn’t been given a heads-up, said Eliza LePorin, the paper’s general manager.

“I think that it was a hands-off approach for the students, as it is now,” LePorin said. “Nothing has been affected from the student side; if anything, they’ve gained more daily access to the Democrat.

Florida State doesn’t have a journalism program, so the professional mentorship that students can now get at the FSView & Florida Flambeau is extremely valuable, LePorin said. And having Gannett come in and streamline finances and business operations has allowed the staff to focus more on the creative side and on opportunities for students by, say, emphasizing their online presence. She added that some of the student sales staff have moved on to work for Gannett.

Not all of Gannett’s attempts to break into the market have worked out, though. In 2008, when Colorado State was exploring new organizational structure options for the daily Rocky Mountain Collegian, it approached the Gannett-owned Coloradoan about a possible partnership, said Larry Steward, director of the Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation.

But after considering what different options would mean for student editorial control and all the stakeholders’ best interests, the university ultimately decided that a transition to a nonprofit 501(c)3 model, one that’s widely used at student papers across the country, was the most viable option.

“I think the students were perhaps somewhat concerned about having a for-profit corporation in charge of the student newspaper here,” Steward said. “We’re certainly not immune to some of the difficulties that are happening in the economy, but we’ve been doing very well. I think for the students themselves, it’s been pretty seamless.”

If in time both The Lantern and Gannett benefit from their arrangement, Swartzlander said, it’s possible that other student papers will jump on board with the idea.

“If it is a trend, it will be because some of those larger college papers are facing the same financial issues, when you think about it, as the bigger papers. So because of that there’s more pressure on those larger schools and papers to produce some revenue,” he said. “I think if Gannett realizes that those places and Ohio State can produce some revenue for them, then, you know -- they’re all over the country. I wouldn’t be surprised and I wouldn’t be shocked.”

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