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Aug. 24, 2016, noon

Business realities are impacting all college newspapers. But what happens when they’re for-profit?

Gannett owns two college newspapers in Florida — it’s closed one and cutting costs at the other.

The Central Florida Future, the student newspaper at the University of Central Florida founded in 1968, published its last issue August 4. But the decision to close it down came from an unusual source: Florida Today, the Gannett paper based in Brevard County, which had bought the Future in 2007.

“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.

Most college papers are either independent nonprofits or are supported by their university — but the Future was one of the handful of papers throughout the United States that was owned by a for-profit entity.

There’s no official tally for how many college outlets are owned by for-profits, but Gannett owns at least one other student paper, The FSView & Florida Flambeau, the newspaper at Florida State University, which is run through the company’s Tallahassee Democrat. It’s also struck deals with college papers to run their business operations.

Other examples of for-profit outlets include the Saginaw Valley Journal, a startup paper launched in 2009 to cover Michigan’s Saginaw Valley State University. At the University of Colorado Boulder, the campus newspaper is The Colorado Daily, a professionally staffed paper that’s owned by Digital First Media and often repurposes coverage from Digital First’s Boulder Daily Camera.

It’s easy to understand why, in years past, newspaper companies would have wanted to invest in college papers: They have a built-in audience of young readers — a group professional papers have long struggled to reach — with disposable income. The costs of running a college publication are minimal compared to a professional outlet though: Student staffers are often volunteers or paid only nominal salaries, and they don’t receive benefits or pensions.

But, of course, student publications haven’t been immune to the business challenges facing the news industry as a whole. And there is concern that for-profit college papers prioritize revenue generation over the outlets’ educational responsibilities to their student staff and the campuses they cover.

FSView at Florida State has been beset by budget cuts and cost-saving measures, and that’s one of the reasons why Colorado State University rejected a bid from Gannett to take over its student paper in 2008, said Jeffrey Browne, the former director of student media at Colorado State.

“That was my concern, that was the concern of all the students, that was the concern of almost all of the faculty, and everyone in student media at the time,” said Browne, now a journalism instructor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

The Future is the past

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 ago 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.”

Though he wouldn’t provide specifics, Kiel said the paper wasn’t a “significant part” of Florida Today’s “overall business.” The Future’s full-time employees are being transferred to work for Florida Today.

Florida Today has had conversations with potential buyers about selling the Future, but Kiel said he hadn’t received any serious offers. He said the company was still figuring out what to do with the paper’s archives.

“The emotion that caused people to reach out stopped at the thought of running it as a business,” Kiel said. “There’s a different level between ‘Gosh, I’m really sad to see it go,’ and ‘Hey, I’d like to step up and buy the business or make an offer.’”

Last month, a former Future staffer published an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel advocating that the paper become a nonprofit. In its last issue, the Future reported that the paper’s student staffers were “exploring options to ensure that UCF retains a source of independent, student-run news.”

The paper’s former staffers are attempting to launch the Central Florida Focus, an independent online news site. They’re running a crowdfunding campaign now to try and get it off the ground.

UCF already has two other online-only student outlets — the independent Knight News and Nicholson Student Media, which is run out of the university’s school of communications and launched earlier this year.

Students in the UCF journalism school are required to write a certain number of news stories in order to graduate, and the Future’s demise will give them one fewer venue in which to publish those stories. The university was aware of the Future’s business challenges and it launched Nicholson Student Media to ensure that students had enough opportunities to actually do journalism.

“They’re doing all the traditional things a newsroom would do,” journalism instructor Lance Speere, who oversees NSM, said. “We didn’t have that before. All that is new. Those are the things we started preparing for to make sure that, if and when Central Florida Future ceased to exist…we wanted to make sure that we still had a place for them to publish to get clips, get experience, and that as they’re going out and doing interviews it’s all real, it’s not just for class.”

Reducing costs at Florida State

While Florida Today decided to close the Future, Gannett’s Tallahassee Democrat has focused on reducing costs with its student paper, FSView.

FSView editor-in-chief Perry Kostidakis told me he has worked for the paper for four years and in that time the paper’s newsroom has moved three times — first from its own off-campus building into a building owned by the university, and then in August 2014, to the Democrat’s newsroom, which is about a 10-minute drive from campus.

FSView publishes one print edition per week, and the production night is really the only time the staff uses the newsroom, Kostidakis said.

“That’s pretty much our only in-office time,” he said. “We used to do staff meetings on campus, but the core of the staff now meets just at the Democrat…but most of the work is done remotely.”

FSView uses Gannett’s CMS and its website uses the same templates and design that Gannett features across its network. The two papers will occasionally share stories or cross-promote their work on social media. A few FSView stories have even been picked up by the national USA Today Network.

The Democrat’s advertising staff also sells ads for FSView, and they work with the student editorial staff to coordinate special projects, like a Best of Tallahassee Issue and a back-to-school guide.

This summer, the Democrat switched FSView to a tabloid format. And when FSView moved into the Democrat’s office, it outsourced its page design and production responsibilities to Gannett’s Nashville-based design studio, which handles production for the company’s papers in the southeast.

“It was an interesting transition — we did everything on our own. It was a completely new process for us. We still have designers who come in and do Photoshop illustrations, but there’s nobody designing full pages anymore. That’s a bit of a lost opportunity for kids who wanted to do that.”

FSView has a staff of nine student editors and about 30 or so writers, Kostidakis said. The paper did have a professional advisor, but when the advisor took another job, the Democrat never filled the position and a lot of their responsibilities fell on the editor-in-chief.

Kostidakis said he didn’t know how much the paper was making, but in the most recent quarter, he said the editorial staff had a budget of $29,000. All staffers are paid, with salaries starting at $8 an hour, Kostidakis said. As editor-in-chief, Kostidakis can work up to 32 paid hours each week; other editors must work at least seven hours per week and can work up to 20 hours weekly, though they typically work many more hours than that.

Despite the cost cutting, Kostidakis said the Democrat and Gannett are still supporting the paper and have given the students complete editorial independence to cover the campus.

“They don’t give us really any guidelines or boundaries,” he said. “We kind of function on our own. That kind of leaves us in the dark a little bit about what’s going on on the business side, the financial side. They’ll spring those kind of changes on us and we’ll adjust accordingly, but they don’t bother us about the content.”

Other partnerships

Aside from outright ownership of college papers, Gannett has also partnered with at least one student paper to assume its business operations.

In 2012 the company’s Media Network of Central Ohio signed a deal with The Lantern, the student newspaper at Ohio State University, to run the paper’s ad sales, billings, and collections. MNCO already printed and distributed the Lantern.

Gannett took over selling ads from one full-time Lantern salesperson and a handful of part-time student employees.

The 2012 agreement was a three-year deal, and when it expired last year Ohio State decided to sign a contract with MediaMate, one of a host of private companies that works with college newspapers, to run its business and printing operations.

The switch to MediaMate came after “a fairly steep drop-off in sales,” Ohio State professor Daniel McDonald, director of the School of Communications, told me in an email. “At the same time, it was clear that we needed to find another printer, as printing costs continued to rise,” he said.

“I guess you would say these have all been business-driven decisions that we have attempted to make, keeping in mind that our primary responsibility is to training our students to be strong journalists,” McDonald said.

“The business side of things becomes a precondition for the paper to operate, but we have tried to shield journalism students from worrying about that aspect of things as much as we can. They do learn some of the business aspects of operating a newspaper in supplemental coursework, but our thought is that they should be learning to be journalists first.”

When I asked Gannett whether it had business arrangements with any other college newspapers, a company spokeswoman sent me a statement attributed to a Gannett executive highlighting paid internships it offers to students at Arizona State University. FSView and the Future are and were operated by the Democrat and Florida Today, and Kiel, the Florida Today president, said there is no Gannett-wide strategy when it comes to the college papers.

Gannett also wouldn’t tell me whether it has plans to work with other publications. But it has made previous attempts to strike deals with college papers.

A few years ago, the company reached out to Iowa State’s student newspaper, the Iowa State Daily, about taking over its business operations — Gannett owns the nearby Des Moines Register — but the Daily rebuffed the offer.

Gannett also made a highly publicized bid for Colorado State’s Rocky Mountain Collegian in 2008.

Browne, the former Colorado State student media director, said he was on vacation in January 2008 when he received an email from the editor of the Gannett-owned Fort Collins Coloradoan asking to talk. The day he got back from vacation, the editor called him and said the Coloradoan was meeting with the university president that day to discuss taking over the paper.

Browne recalled asking questions, and “one of them was: How would this be run? Who would manage it? What’s the revenue model? Would you run it as a not-for-profit. He said: No, it would be a full on Gannett entity and, of course, our investors expect a return on investment, so we will run it to make money.”

The Collegian’s staff protested the move, other student newspapers across the country editorialized against the takeover attempt, and The New York Times even covered the controversy.

Gannett’s offer was ultimately rejected, and Browne said the Collegian was turned into an independent nonprofit.

The media business, both on-campus and off-campus, has continued to evolve since 2008. While the Central Florida Future fell victim to the difficult business environment, other papers are trying to adapt and survive.

It’s unclear whether Gannett — or any other publisher — will make other attempts at owning or working with college papers, but even as print advertising and readership declines, student outlets have an opportunity to try new business models, experiment with innovative ways to reach readers, and educate the next generation of journalists.

“FSU has no journalism program,” Kostidakis said. “We’ve been the journalism school for as long as possible. They’ve allowed us the opportunities to go to music festivals, to travel a lot and cover things. That’s more accessible because we’re part of Gannett. But it’s a double-edged sword.”

POSTED     Aug. 24, 2016, noon
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