Yes, Even College Journalists Needs to Make Money

Photo via Nieman Lab

Before last week, I had no idea that Gannett — America’s largest newspaper publisher by circulation — owned two college news outlets in Florida. Or at least it used to: The Central Florida Future, the longest-running student news operation at University of Central Florida, ceased operating on Aug. 4.

Usually I describe these operations as “student-run media,” but that’s not really how it worked at The Future. According to a post-mortem from Nieman Lab, The Future’s business operations were handled from the front office of Florida Today, an hour away in Brevard County:

“It wasn’t a knee-jerk [decision] or anything that didn’t happen over time. We’ve been trying to work through this for awhile because there really is no connectivity between it and our core market,” Florida Today president Jeff Kiel told me, saying it no longer made sense for Florida Today to operate a paper at the university’s campus in Orlando, about an hour east of its headquarters. […]
The Future had long been privately run by local owners until Gannett purchased the paper in 2007. At the time, Kiel said the paper saw it as a natural extension of its market.
“Eight or ten years everybody defined their market more broadly,” he said. “Heck, I’ve been in the business a long time. I started my career in Miami, and we had circulation throughout the state of Florida. We defined our market differently. Today, if you’re in Miami, you define your market as Miami.”

Listen: Jeff Kiel’s doing his job. Local markets make up the skeletal remains of the once-muscular model for print newspapers. They’re a big reason a lot of colleges and universities, with their small, interwoven communities, still have newspapers at all. Contraction makes sense for for-profit operations like Florida Today or the Tallahassee Democrat (which oversees the FSView & Florida Flambeau at Florida State University, where Gannett has, probably not coincidentally, recently slashed costs). In fact, even with a massive population 63,000 students, UCF might be an oversaturated local market: The university retains the independent Knight News and program-affiliated Nicholson Student Media. (Both are non-profits.) And hey, silver lining: At least the cautionary tale of Gannett’s student-media floundering has proven instructive for schools like Colorado State University, which resisted a Gannett takeover bid in 2008 after observing the chain’s cuts at FSU.

Nevertheless, while Gannett’s whittling of its student media portfolio exposes one economic reality, it also masks another: There is money to be made in student media. Maybe not a lot of it (hence Gannett’s gradual exit from the market), but definitely enough to sustain any student news operation that prioritizes making money. And student news operations should prioritize it. Even college journalists need to make money.

This concept is not just ancillary to a student-run publication’s journalistic priorities — its integrity, ethics or mission. It’s integral to them. It gets to our culture’s glacially slow acknowledgement of journalism as the product of journalists’ labor. It answers the media and advertising industries’ demands to reach the demographic that our student publications serve across platforms on a daily basis. It reflects the practical necessities of covering obvious costs like printing as well as not-so-obvious costs like rent.

It reflects the ways all of this stuff adds up, and how student media is very much a business to everyone from front-office guys like Jeff Kiel to penny-pinching university administrators. Take the aforementioned rent, for example: Last year, the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily was saved from imminent doom after a fundraising drive helped settle a $55,000 back-rent debt. At The State Hornet, the student-run news organization at Sacramento State University, where I teach and serve as The Hornet’s faculty adviser, we’ve budgeted $21,000 this year for our 900-square-foot newsroom’s rent at the University Union — which, not for nothing, is remodeling next year and intends to reduce The Hornet’s space (at a higher cost per square foot) even further if we opt to stay. By comparison, that’s more annual rent than I pay for a two-bedroom house in Sacramento, and it’s nearly two-thirds as much as it costs annually to print the damn paper. Seriously: If anyone knows there’s money to be made in student media, it’s a landlord.

The concept that student journalists need to make money also reflects the (somehow) oft-overlooked fact that journalism is a trade, one we invite aspiring journalists to learn at our colleges, universities and J-schools. The idea is that students develop skills, portfolios and contacts that reinforce their marketability as journalists after graduation.

But knowing one’s value is another crucial element of marketability, and that’s where most journalism programs could do a lot better. This year at The State Hornet, we reintroduced a wage structure for staff editors and a commission structure for advertising representatives. Staff reporters can receive class credit for up to three semesters. This represents just one way of acknowledging journalists’ value to their publications. It’s not an uncommon model, but it’s hardly the standard: Some giant publications, like the wholly independent Indiana Daily Student, have scores of students on their payroll each year. Hundreds of others rely on unpredictable sources of university funding (e.g. Instructionally Related Activities grants, etc.) for their operations. Staffers working at those outlets often don’t make a cent or earn class credit.

In any case, no one is getting rich working for a student publication. The primary commodities here remain clips and experience. But to the extent we are training and urging student journalists to recognize news and metabolize reporting into awesome clips, we should also train and urge them to recognize that they aren’t just working for what follows graduation. They are working for an audience — they are working for now.

That’s where a thriving student media outlet comes in. Or at least that’s where it should come in. A student publication is a laboratory for experimenting with every part of the media model, and it’s the perfect setting for everyone involved to flourish (and, yes, make money): You’ve got the built-in local market, defined right down to the campus borders (and hopefully a few key distribution points beyond campus). You have advertisers clamoring to reach the young demographic of readers in that market who still like picking up a paper’s free print editions in dorms and class buildings. (One media buyer’s research measures this preference at 60 percent of readers.) You have the kinds of potent e-commerce opportunities that has girded media empires like BuzzFeed and Gawker. You have the challenge of whether or not to integrate native ads and sponsored social media. You have the opportunities for notoriously insular student media operations to smash their silo walls and invite students from other disciplines — business and marketing, computer science, art and design for starters—to collaborate on all of these initiatives and other prospects for developing new revenue.

As it stands, the formulas for survival increasingly involve messy, fluid amalgams of student fees, advertising revenue and alumni largesse. And way too often, they ultimately involve justifying the news organization’s existence to some on- or off-campus benefactor(s) who don’t have any idea what journalists actually do. (At least not the way those benefactors know what the business or law or criminal justice or performing arts or, in the most obvious cases, athletics programs do.) And way, way too often, the formulas must be figured out when it’s almost too late — in crisis modes like when an institution like the Cavalier Daily is about to be thrown out on its ass.

The point is: Student media is worth something to people, and none of it holds up without a foundation of news. The private sector calls this “the product,” but student publications aren’t professional news organizations, and journalism programs should shield students from the types of for-profit cataclysms that Gannett is experiencing in Florida. By the same token, we do young journalists a disservice by downplaying their roles in this ecosystem — by shielding them entirely from the motives, pressures and practices that keep the lights on at professional news organizations. Again, this is happening now, concurrent with their studies and training.

We can lament the closure of The Future, but I think Gannett did journalism students at UCF and elsewhere a favor by reminding us that the media truths that we tend to hold as self-evident — the theory and history and ethical orthodoxy we learn and teach in class — won’t alone carry the day with an audience. And experimental, radical thinking alone in the classroom won’t alone carry the day with audiences, employers and/or advertisers. Sustainable student media is rooted in values — the human glimmers and dimensions that an audience finds reflected in stories. The sooner we recognize those values with college journalists, the sooner we can — and must — recognize their value for college journalists.

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