August 2013 podcast: Two veteran advisers discuss ways to build strong alumni networks

Bill Casey, publisher of The Daily Iowan, and Michael Serino, student media adviser to The Ithacan, talk with Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte about the importance of building strong alumni networks.

Frank LoMonte: You are listening to another edition of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast. The SPLC is a non-profit organization that supports the work of student media around the country. I’m Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, and each month we get together to talk about news and developments affecting the legal rights of people working in student journalism from middle school to graduate school.

And this month we’re here to talk about building a base of alumni support for your college media program and why it’s important. At the Student Press Law Center we’ve seen students draw on the resources of alumni in many ways in recent years, but none more importantly than when a press freedom issue is at stake. The timely intervention of alumni have been a difference maker in places like the University of Memphis, where last year alumni brought the decisive pressure to bear, that turned around a long running and painful censorship controversy that threatened the well being of The Helmsman newspaper and it’s editors. Time and time again, we’ve seen that the voices of alumni can make a real and decisive difference in saving and preserving student publications in this especially dangerous time in our field.

We’ve got two of the best with us today. Two veterans of the college media business, to talk about how they have cultivated a base of support among alumni and to maybe share some tricks and advice that you can use at your own student media outlet. Bill Casey is with us. He’s the publisher at The Daily Iowan at Iowa City at the University of Iowa, which he’s done for upwards of 37 years. And Michael Serino is with us. He’s the student media advisor, been doing that for 18 years at New York’s Ithaca College, home of The Ithacan newspaper. And gentleman, thanks so much, both of you, for sharing your expertise with us. Let me just toss it to Bill for starters. Tell people a little about The Iowan and maybe take them on a little of a verbal tour on that amazing newsroom that you have, which is a museum of the history of Iowa.

Bill Casey: The Daily Iowan’s been around 145 years, so it’s been around a long time and Frank you were just saying we have a museum in our newsroom – what we did when we went into our new newsroom in 2005, we out 150 old front pages in the furniture and then all kinds of old photo of the place. But, right now, what we have is about 100 students working, publishing on five different platforms: newspaper, television, iPad, iPhone and on the internet. Our board is faculty, staff, students and alumni. Our board over the year has been a real advocate for our newsroom. We have been involved with our alumni since the early 90s. We had our 125th anniversary in 93, that’s kind of when we started fundraising and we have fundraised since 1993. We basically fundraise for two reasons: For school scholarships and equipment and we’ve given away about a million dollars of tuition scholarships to students since 1987 and for a long time we were able to pay for that out of proceeds, but luckily since 1993 we fundraised and didn’t really spend any of it until a couple years ago, and now we’re able to pay for about half of it out of funds from alumni. And so we have at any given time eight-16 kids who we’re paying their tuition. And we recruit around the country and that’s how our alumni basically got involved, trying to help get the best kids there and also help us with the equipment, which publishing that all the ways we do, you’ve seen our newsroom, it’s pretty spectacular and one of the things about having a spectacular newsroom is if you don’t buy computers for four years, the high school kids come in and think they’re antiques. So you’ve got to stay on top of it to recruit the best people. So that’s kind of what our fundraising is for.

As far as First Amendment issues, we really haven’t had a lot of those issues at Iowa. We’ve been a force on the campus for a long time and we’re a nonprofit 501(c)(3), have been since 1924, reincorporated in ‘74, and so we’re legally separate from the university and we’re renters on campus, and over the years we’ve not had a relationship, we’re adversaries a lot of times, but, they haven’t ever tried to censor us.

Frank LoMonte: Let’s let Michael jump in. Share with us, first of all tell us about the newspaper, about student media at Ithaca College and also about what you’ve been doing to cultivate and build ties with the newsroom alumni community.

Michael Serino: Sure. Well we’re not quite on the scale of those operations there. We’re a much smaller school with a somewhat shorter history. But the paper was, the college was founded in 1892, and the newspaper, The Ithacan, was founded in 1931. And it was basically run by the college until 1969 when the paper went independent, as so many things did in 1969. They stayed independent until 1987 when they were incorporated into the School of Communications. So, the paper has been part of the School of Communications, what we call co-curricular as opposed to an extra curricular, working in conjunction with the journalism department. But the paper itself is independent of the journalism department. They have a separate advisor – me – whose job it is to advise them. We have separate operations for television and radio, which also have their own separate advisors. And so we’re able to give a lot of individualized mentoring and personal attention to the paper. So that’s basically an overview of our history. Because we’re part of the college now, we have an interesting budgeting system, where the college basically provides us with our operating budget at the front end of the year and then we have an income expectation of $100,000 which we’re expected to make back through the course of the year through advertising and subscription sales. So it’s a very, very amicable situation. I like to say we have the best of both worlds here. We’ve got the full support of the college, but they also really respect the independence of the newspaper. So there’s never any pressure to change stories or to censor stories or anything like that. No one in the administration has ever asked me to intervene, to try to stop or change the way a story went.

Frank LoMonte: That’s very fortunate.

Michael Serino: Things are pretty fortunate in that respect. We’re really very lucky here. We have a very good relationship with the journalism faculty as well. As far as alumni go, we’re a younger program, a smaller program, because 1987 was really – there’s been a lot of continuity from year to year as opposed to before that it was more of a club. Although, actually just five minutes ago, I got a call from a 1965 graduate who is a retired journalist who wants to get involved, helping to advise, to give advice to students if they’re ever interested on the paper. There are people reaching out like that all the time.

As far as active alumni outreach goes, we started doing, around 10 years ago, there was a perception on the part of alumni here, some people that I talk to and you see this at other schools as well, where they said, “the only time we ever hear from the institution is when they’re asking us for money.” We all know that’s not true, but it’s a perception that people have because colleges need support from their alumni. So, the then-dean of the communications school, Thomas Bone, and I were talking about what we could do to alter this perception. So, the first real alumni outreach we did, was we started doing a couple dinners a year. One in New York every spring, in conjunction with the Spring National Student Media Convention, and then one in Washington in the summer, because we have large concentrations of alumni down there, in both those places. Basically, I’ll go to town and invite them all to dinner and we’ll just buy them dinner and get everybody together to talk. Usually, we have 25-30 people at these things, it’s not like a huge banquet, depends on who’s available and timing and all that. We just started doing this ten years ago and haven’t really asked for anything in return other than to see them and get them together with each other. It keeps them connected with the institution and with me and for a lot of them with each other. I mean, a lot of them are still close to each other and see each other all that time, but some only see each other at these events.

Then in 2006, I launched an alumni blog to try and keep these people connected with each other. I’ll post things like weddings, job changings, just general news that people have. And that’s been useful in keeping people connected as well.

Frank LoMonte: That’s pretty cool. What platform is that blog on? Is it a WordPress blog or where is it hosted?

Michael Serino: It’s on Blogspot.

Frank LoMonte: Okay.

Michael Serino: So Blogger. That’s been going for awhile. But the interesting thing about that, is I started that in 2006, and then within the next two or three years I started discovering that people were sending me less and less information about what they were doing and I realized that the reason for that was because they were all posting on Facebook. And they assumed that everybody knew. So then I had to go on Facebook. So, I went on Facebook and I would say at this point 96 percent of the people that I’m friends with on Facebook are Ithaca College alumni, that’s why I’m on it. So that serves as a networking tool for me and then I get information from there and use that and also post it on the blog. So that’s another effective way to reach out to people.

So, as far as scholarships go, because we don’t need to raise money for equipment for anything like that, we have one scholarship, we call the Ithacan Scholarship, that was actually started before I got here, that provides financial assistance for one of our staff members who has shown promise and has already demonstrated ability and shows promise for the future. But we have nothing on the scale of thing Bill was talking about.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah. Bill, we heard Michael talk about, I think these are all great strategies for keeping in touch, both the personal touch – organizing the small ground dinners, which is terrific for networking purposes – and obviously having either a blog or a Facebook presence or some combination of that. How about yourself? I know you do a fair amount of one-on-one outreach to folks, what have you found is working for you in terms of building and maintaining that line of communication?

Bill Casey: Well, we’re trying through Facebook, a Facebook page called the Daily Iowan Backstory, which is for alumni. We do basically the same thing Michael’s doing, putting up job changes, having people send in pictures of their kids. We had several alumni visitors this summer that came in for the journalism camps and I took a picture of all of them in the newsroom and put that on there. So, we’ve had newsletters for years, but we’re doing the same thing Michael’s talking about, using Facebook to get in touch with them now, because that’s how they all do it. But, we also have done receptions in Washington and Chicago and Los Angeles. And those are really nice events. You get a chance to meet a lot of different people. It tends to be a younger crowd that shows up for those. A place like Los Angeles is really tough because of the distances, but what we’ve been doing as far as really trying to raise money is talk to individuals. We do send out two mailings a year, which raise probably about $10-12,000. But, our long term goal is, we’re trying to raise $2 million right now in the next five years, we’re talking to individuals about that. And it’s long-term work, I’ve been doing this a long time and people are very generous, but you’ve got to convince that they’re interested and there’s a reason and also it takes a long time. We had one board member she worked with us for 30 years, and after 30 years gave us $100,000 – a wonderful gift. We also do a homecoming reception every year for football. We had two or three homecoming games in a row that were night games and that was really good because you could start at about three and end at about five, but lately we’ve been playing at 11 a.m. and basically you have to have breakfast and less people show up. So, we’re trying to do those kinds of things. The biggest issue involved, I think, is that we also have regular jobs and stuff going on, so that’s probably the hardest thing is to just stay on top of it. What I find sometimes is that I let it slide, I’ll go along for a while and we do pretty well, like in the Summer we’re pretty organized, and then Fall starts and we’ve got other issues to deal with. So, luckily I work with the University of Iowa Foundation and the person I work with tends to keep us focused on trying to move forward and continuing to be out there and do things and events. Our next event, we’re going to do an event in Washington D.C. in November, so maybe you can show up Frank.

Frank LoMonte: Yeah.

Bill Casey: You know a lot of the kids that will be coming.

Frank LoMonte: Absolutely, yeah. Let me ask you, with the history that you have and the size of this program, how many people come through that door, are you able to leverage or take advantage at all – surely you’ve got some celebrities among the mix, some authors, some broadcasters – are you able to leverage any of the notoriety of your grads for organizational building and promotional purposes like that?

Bill Casey: Yeah, I really think that’s what’s helped us on the campus a lot. When they were building our new building, planning it in the ‘90s, we won like seven or eight Pacemakers in a row, and they really couldn’t ignore that. And the other thing we do with our celebrities, or so-called celebrities, is that we have them come as visiting professionals and we also will do a lot of FaceTime and Skype stuff with them in the staffs, which is actually a lot easier because they don’t have to leave wherever they’re at. But, the ads we run to recruit, basically we have all the logos of where people have gone to work in the last four-five years, and it’s pretty impressive. Both in television and in newspapers and new media. We try to parlay that and that’s one way we try to recruit. It’s getting harder to get kids interested in journalism because of this financial business involved and parents worry about, “my kids got to get a job,” and one of the things I like to tell parents is, these skills are highly transferable. To be quick on the uptake and run all these machines, you can pretty much do anything and it’s worthwhile participating because you learn how to work in an organization and get along with people and get something done everyday.

Frank LoMonte: Absolutely. Let me return to you on a point here. It was interesting, you mentioned you don’t actually directly put the palm out and ask “please write a check,” this is more of an investment, I guess, in building a network of support for the organization, but not necessarily fundraising but not right now. So, what do you see, if this is not actually paying off in an avalanche of checks, what do you see as the benefit, why put in all of the investment that you are putting in to do this, and what do you see as the payoff or the benefit to having that network?

Michael Serino: I think there’s a very tangible payoff, in terms of a network of mentoring and assistance with finding internships and jobs. It’s huge. I mean there’s active mentoring going on all the time. I think it’s a cliche, but we really think of The Ithacan as a sort of family, and we try to maintain personal connections with each other in a way. So for instance, when my incoming editor for this Fall was considering applying for a job in the Spring, she happened to be going to Washington for something else and I arranged for her to meet with three different former editor-in-chiefs for the paper. And they talked to her and discussed the ins and the outs of the job and gave her their advice. And we have a lot of that sort of thing so that when we look back and see years when our students have won awards, it’s not just we’re part of this newspaper that’s good, it’s we’re connecting with the people who made it good. It creates a feeling of responsibility to the past on the part of current students. Here are these people who made the paper what it is, we want to be part of that. But, aside from the mentoring aspect, internships and jobs that have been found through alumni have been significant. Just at these dinners alone, because when we do the Spring conference and we have the dinner in conjunction with it, I usually have seven or eight students with me. And part of those dinners is an opportunity for them to interact with the alumni. We had a couple of internships come out of that at last Spring’s conference for this summer. The same thing happens in Washington. As far as job referrals, very often I hear about jobs, that aren’t even listed, alumni will let me know are available in case I have anybody that is qualified for it. So, for instance, Newsday on Long Island, three years ago we had our first graduate get a job there as a video journalist and within two years we had two more there.

Frank LoMonte: Of course, yeah.

Michael Serino: So the person there would email me and say, “We’ve got another opening, who do you have?” There are quite a few people at quite a few publications around the country that regularly do that. For instance, this year we were quite lucky, I had an email from somebody over the summer that said, “Do you have any graphic designers? We need one.” I was happy to say that all of my graphic designer graduates had jobs.

Frank LoMonte: Wow, there’s a luxury. More jobs than graduates at your program. That’s a story I like to hear.

Michael Serino: We have a pretty good placement record, yeah.

Frank LoMonte: In the few minutes that we have left, let me start with Bill and go to Michael, just by way of wrap-up, any points of advice or any words of caution at all for somebody, “I’m at a college media publication, I’m interested in trying to build my own alumni network,” what’s an “If I knew then what I know now,” for you?

Bill Casey: Well, I would agree with Michael. You want to have relationships with people and we have raised money over the years but we’ve worked on having relationships with people too and again the same thing you said – jobs, internships, getting people back as visiting professionals, being around, telling them they’re in town, bringing them on tours, introducing them to the students – is a good thing because some people are really bothered by being asked for money and I remember the first time we did it, I got some amazingly notes back from people that didn’t like it, so you’ve got to be careful. But, at the same time, you don’t ask, you won’t get, and there’s a real need. To continue what we’re doing, we need to do it. As our advertising revenues have gone down, we need to do it more. So, we’ve got to try and do it in a way that’s comfortable. I had mentioned to you at one of them that I once paid a proposal to a person who had been asked by the journalism school three or four days earlier, so another thing you need to do is make sure you’re coordinating with other parts of the university so you know what’s going on. And we’re doing a lot better job doing that then we used to. From the people I’ve talked to over the years, there’s not a lot of people who have been able to work with their foundations, if you can that’s a good thing because they’re the ones that have the connections and know the people and are pretty good at setting up things in Washington D.C. for you and they have more connections. So, I would just say it’s very longterm work and I think you’ve got to take the attitude that this is long term work, we won’t you to help us continue to be good. The other thing you’ll find is that people want to give money to successful things. And so, you need to continue to be successful to attract people’s interests.

Frank LoMonte: Absolutely. Well Michael, any closing thoughts from you on this? Either a piece of advice or a word of warning?

Michael Serino: Well, as far as advice goes, I think it’s important to recognize that very often the experience that our graduates have in student media are the most meaningful experiences they have in their college. And those bonds – learning to work with other people as a team – is as much a part of their education as learning the skills and liberal arts background that they learn here. They learn to function as adult members of a team and I think that recognizing that helps to keep them together as well. I mean, again, the feeling of wanting to give back that so many of these alumni have is incredible. I have people that have been our six or seven years that will tell me, “If you have a student come into town for an internship interview and they have nowhere to stay, they can stay with me.” People that they’ve never met. So cultivate a – keep relationships active, it’s very important. And I think it has to be done very personally. I think that connecting them with each other and for advisors to stay connected with people personally is very important. I’m happy to say that next month I’m attending my 13th wedding of alumni for the paper. I’m grateful to be invited to these things.

Frank LoMonte: Wow. So you’re breeding a second generation of donor prospects. That’s a great strategy.

Bill Casey: Frank, I’ve been to about 20 weddings over the year and I now have kids that work for me that their parents worked for me. I’ll retire when I start having grandkids of the people who worked for me.

Frank LoMonte: At least they’re not steering them away from you Bill, that’s a good recommendation. Well, I’m gonna wrap it up, and by wrap-up I’m going to share the websites of both of these phenomenally good newspapers, first of all Daily Iowan is just at dailyiowan.com and you should definitely check that out. Michael’s Ithaca College newspaper is at theithacan.org. They’re both terrific publications with very storied history. I encourage you to check both of those out. And one more for you, the SPLC.org website. www.splc.org. If you’re having any difficulty at all, or question about your legal rights, just a comment or a concern you want to share, we are reachable at splc@splc.org or 703-807-1904. We encourage everybody to think about reaching out to your alumni, building that network of support, before you need it, and if we can help you with any question about your rights, your responsibilities, your work with alumni, do get in touch with Student Press Law Center. Take advantage of the free resources and let us know how we can help you. Thanks for listening, see you next month.