Student Media, Inc.

Amid changes in the economy and mass media, college publications are adopting creative strategies to stay afloat. One of the most popular has been to privatize portions of student media, particularly the business and sales departments, replacing students with professional teams.

And while this may be financially beneficial, college media organizations are concerned it could restrict the autonomy of the students, and, in turn, damage the publications.

The most recent example is Ohio State University’s student newspaper, The Lantern, which had its business operations sold by OSU to Gannett Company at the end of the spring semester.

The Media Network of Central Ohio, a subsidiary of Gannett, has printed and distributed the publication for six years, but as of July 1 its contract with The Lantern was extended for another three years and now includes oversight of the newspaper’s web hosting, email distribution, advertising sales, billing and collection services.

MNCO will pay OSU a monthly fee, totaling $838,550 over the three-year contract term, according to the agreement. MNCO will keep all of the advertising sales dollars it generates.

Gifford Weary, dean of the social and behavioral sciences, which includes the School of Communication, said the money from Gannett will be funneled to the editorial staff and to “journalism training.”

“Basically, Gannett will be contacting advertisers, selling the ads, collecting revenues and managing a student sales force,” Weary said. “They will keep the revenue, and, in return, reimburse us for the costs involved in production. Whatever money we can save through them, we can reinvest.”

Joseph Steinmetz, executive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said the main source of support for the newspaper came from advertising revenue and the college’s general fund budget. He said “the sole reason for doing this was to put The Lantern on a good financial foundation.”

The deal, Steinmetz said, will help student journalists focus their attention on improving the brand of The Lantern and its website, which hosts the online edition of the paper on Fridays. The print edition, which has a circulation of 15,000, is on stands Monday through Thursday.

The newspaper staff announced the partnership on The Lantern’s website just days after it heard of the deal for the first time, said student administrative assistant Alyssa Pupino.

But conversations about the deal with Gannett were ongoing for months prior, Weary said.

Weary said talks began at the end of 2011 and the deal was finalized at the end of the spring semester. According to emails acquired through a public records request, however, discussions with Gannett began earlier than June 2011.

Weary said following a bidding process – which appears from public records to have been a single email inquiry to The Columbus Dispatch – the university signed a confidentiality agreement with Gannett, making the school unable to tell student staff members the details of the contract until the deal closed.

As a result, Lantern employees felt “blindsided,” said former editor-in-chief Jami Jurich. She said the main concern among staff members was the fate of the newspaper, as major media companies have “a reputation of turning college newspapers into independent publications.”

“All I wanted to know was, ‘Is The Lantern going to be here in five years?’” she said. “I want to maintain the journalistic integrity of the paper.”

Jurich also wanted answers regarding the impact it would have on the student-run business department.

Weary said MNCO will hire a “student sales force” to work alongside company representatives, but it remains unclear how many students will be rehired. In the spring semester, there were 14 business staff employees, 12 of which planned to return in the fall, according to The Lantern’s announcement.

“The MNCO is looking forward to having The Lantern’s student sales staff join us as employees of MNCO,” said Laura Dalton, a spokeswoman for Gannett, in an email. “We hope they, too, will enjoy having the opportunity to work for and learn from a Fortune 500 company as they help The Lantern fulfill its mission.”

The Lantern staff directed the Student Press Law Center to MNCO for details regarding the partnership, but Gannett refused to comment on how many students will be on the staff, what their duties will be or how and when they will be selected. It is also unclear whether MNCO representatives will work on site.

Jurich said another question her staff raised was whether the partnership would have any effect on The Lantern’s editorial process. She was assured by the administration, however, it would not.

Steinmetz and Weary stressed that The Lantern’s 15 paid editors and faculty adviser will remain independent. In a press release, Ohio State officials said Gannett’s role would be limited to business.

“MNCO’s sole involvement in editorial operations will be laying out the advertisements on the pages that The Lantern editorial staff will fill with articles, graphics and other content to best inform its audience,” according to the release.

As to who will have the final say on those advertisements, Weary said a “university liaison” will help sort out any issues that may arise. That person will be student media adviser Dan Caterinicchia, who said he could not comment.

David Swartzlander, president of the College Media Association, said this could be cause for concern because there is often overlap between the advertising and editorial departments.

“Sometimes advertising reaches into editorial and vice versa and that would worry me if I was the adviser of The Lantern,” Swartzlander said. “What happens when you print a story that some advertiser doesn’t like and it decides it’s going to pull its advertising revenue? Does Gannett stop by the newsroom and say that they need to have more of a say in what goes into the paper? That’s a gray area.”

If anyone other than a student has the last word, it could mean trouble for the university, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“Advertising is First Amendment protected speech. The decision on what ads to accept or reject legally ought to remain with the students at the college level,” LoMonte said. “The idea that some administrative intermediary would have the final say in a dispute raises big constitutional issues.”

LoMonte also said if an administrator – a government actor – were to be the decision-maker, it would make the university more susceptible to a First Amendment lawsuit when ads are rejected. If the final say remains with the students, there would be no claim.

He also questioned a portion of the contract that specifies the newspaper’s publication schedule, which LoMonte said shouldn’t be part of Gannett’s deal. The regular printing schedule and the newspaper’s special edition dates should be decided by the editor, he said.

And those are just a few red flags about the deal, Swartzlander said. The contract also states that if The Lantern is not producing a net profit for Gannett during any 10-month period, the company could “renegotiate” the contract.

Swartzlander questioned this statement, saying he didn’t know how this would work.

“Does that mean they would have a say on the cost of collecting news? If that’s the case, there are some big issues here,” he said. “I’ve worked for commercial newspapers in the past and usually when you don’t make your budget, people get laid off and the newsroom is affected. Would that be the same thing at a student newspaper? Gosh, I would hope not.”

MNCO President Bill Albrecht declined to comment on details of the contract.

Swartzlander said perhaps the biggest worry is that the partnership could negatively affect the students’ experience and the newspaper.

“Here’s how I look at it: student media is student media,” he said. “Those students should be doing the writing, reporting, shooting the photos, making the calls for the advertising and collecting… that’s how they learn. They can sit in a class and learn, but you can’t really understand how it all works until you get out there and do it.”

Swartzlander, a professor at Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, said from an academic standpoint, it doesn’t make sense, but from a financial standpoint, he could understand why The Lantern would agree to the deal.

He said newspapers – including college publications – are experimenting with new ways to survive. He said it is becoming more common to see newspapers move toward digital-only publishing in the wake of financial setbacks.

Not unprecedented

While subsidizing Fortune 500 media companies can’t be called a trend among college newspapers, it has been done in the past. And this isn’t the first time Gannett has made its way into the college media network. This particular arrangement with The Lantern, however, is the first of its kind.

Gannett currently manages 82 daily newspapers, including USA Today. It also manages two college publications – the FSView & Florida Flambeau at Florida State University and The Central Florida Future at the University of Central Florida. But those newspapers were privately incorporated prior to Gannett’s takeover.

The Tallahassee Democrat, owned by Gannett, bought the twice-weekly newspaper that serves Florida State University in 2006, marking the company’s first venture into student media.

FSView General Manager Eliza LePorin began working for the publication in 2007 immediately following the purchase.

“I came on right after, and I’ve been able to see the changes occur,” she said. “I think that it was for the best. Our transition was pretty seamless, and it continues to be.”

She said students maintain control of editorial content while professionals oversee the sales department. She said the model is beneficial because the employees are more permanent than students because they aren’t balancing school with work and they aren’t graduating.

Asked if this model limited student experience, LePorin said the Florida State newspaper is a unique case, as there is no journalism curriculum offered at the university. She said the community newspaper is the outlet for learning about the field and gaining hands-on experience.

But when news of the purchase spread, Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said he hoped it wasn’t the “first of a big wave of things to come.”

“There are dangers of students losing their voice and being absorbed by a corporate structure,” he told Inside Higher Ed. “I do hope they maintain student autonomy.”

Within the year, Gannett took over its second student newspaper, The Central Florida Future.

Gannett made its third attempt at Colorado State University in 2008, when the Coloradoan discussed buying the student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian. But when leaders from the university and the newspaper began privately meeting, the student staff spoke out.

The students, who were excluded from the initial conversations, wrote an editorial headlined, “Collegian not for sale.” The bold statement garnered national support from media organizations and other student newspapers. Months later, the so-called “strategic partnership” was called off, though reports of why were contradictory.

It’s unclear if the media company will continue to branch out into additional student media outlets. When Gannett was meeting with Colorado State, it told The New York Times there was “no grand strategy” and that it was “not looking to buy college newspapers.”

Though LoMonte said he didn’t know what the future would hold – for Gannett or for college publications – he speculated “what we’ll see is more colleges maximizing revenue out of their publications.”

LoMonte said there is increasing talk of student newspapers establishing professional advertising departments that would use full-time, experienced sales people instead of student trainees. He said this is a direct result of the economy.

Florida Atlantic University’s weekly newspaper-turned-magazine the University Press is among the universities to adopt this strategy. The publication now contracts a small, independent media company with one full-time professional salesman.

Marc Litt, proprietor of Nitch Media, said his one-man show is beneficial for his business, for the publication and for the university. Litt does all of the ground work and handles the advertising sales and revenue, working on straight commission.

Litt employs one student designer and has recently hired a student salesperson to begin work in the fall.

He said he hopes to eventually add more students to his team, but said he must first establish a sustainable business model. For now, he said it’s more beneficial to have a professional handle the work.

“We want to have students involved, but we have to make this work,” he said. “The goal isn’t to waste my time but to get a student sales team up and running. It’s about getting a model that students can sell and that runs smoothly.”

Litt has worked with the University Press since spring 2010, first as part of another independent media group and then as a direct employee of the university. He served as the student media accounts manager for the spring 2012 semester, but he said it was better for the university and for him to work independently.

“It’s like oil and water. Putting someone – a business man or a business model – within the university structure is conflicting. Everything that Sales does is quick, efficient, streamlined, and, well, the university takes the scenic route.”

Litt opened Nitch, his new media company, shortly after his June 29 resignation.

“It’s like oil and water. Putting someone – a business man or a business model – within the university structure is conflicting. Everything that Sales does is quick, efficient, streamlined, and, well, the university takes the scenic route.”

Ryan Cortes, University Press editor-in-chief, said Litt helps the relationship between advertising and editorial. He said instead of reporting to the university, Litt reports to him. The students have control over the editorial content and the final say on advertisements.

“I don’t have to focus on the ads or worry about that side of it,” he said. “[That’s] a burden I think a lot of other editors have. I think what we do is a little rare, but it helps me.”

Cortes said Litt adding employees to his independent staff will enhance this relationship.

“One of the big concerns we had with Marc was, what happens if he gets hit by a bus one day? Who would sell our ads? He has been our one guy,” he said. “This new model, in terms of getting and teaching students, will help in the future.”

LoMonte said college media will see more contracts with private vendors in the coming years, but there are risks involved. Those risks, he said, could include the loss of student jobs, the experience and the university mentality that the newspaper is a vehicle for learning.

“The newspaper is different than the food service, the bus system,” he said. “It has an expressive role with constitutional values that isn’t true of any other outlet on campus. When you contract away all or part of student media operations, students should be given a voice – if not a decisive vote.”

He said for newspapers that are directly associated with the university, like Ohio State, it is unlikely a media company will completely buy out a publication.

“Any college would face a stiff resistance from the students and the college media network as a whole if it tried to contract away student free press rights,” he said.

By Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writer.