Tips for rescuing your student publication’s finances

<b>default</b> caption

Finances are on the minds of student journalists as more of their newsrooms, like commercial news outlets, face dwindling advertising revenue. Many readers have migrated to digital products that yield a fraction of advertising dollars that papers provided. Still, the proportional advertising pricing of print is so valuable that for now, giving up on print entirely is often out of the question.

Many students have the additional challenge of dependence on less-than-assured school funding. They face landmines like fluctuating student fees and retaliatory budget cuts from student governments or administrators.

The Student Press Law Center has reported on repeated incidents involving financial disputes  at student publications.

  • The Blue and Gray Press at the University of Mary Washington’s budget was cut from over $13,000 to just $100. Funding was fully restored in May of 2018.
  • The Sunflower at Wichita State University had their budget cut by $25,000 in early 2018. The cuts are pending approval by the university’s Board of Regents in June of 2018.
  • The Daily Campus at Southern Methodist University was forced to re-affiliate with the university over financial concerns at the end of the 2017-2018 school year. After learning about this, editors at The Independent Florida Alligator at the University of Florida, Gainesville, launched the Save Student Newsrooms campaign, bringing attention to the need for student media and the issues many student journalists face, including finances.

Publications that rely solely on school funding or an outdated advertising model can find themselves at risk of large and unexpected budget cuts. Publications should no longer rely on one stream of income. Here’s what several advisers, student journalists and journalism organizations recommend to reduce risk and diversify income streams.

Get staff involved with the business side of things

Jimena Tavel, engagement management editor, The Independent Florida Alligator at the University of Florida, Gainesville

“I do think the leadership of every paper needs to be thinking about ‘Okay, what if we go bankrupt tomorrow?’” Tavel said. “The top editors should definitely be involved in the financials of the newspapers.”

Tavel, one of the organizers of the Save Student Newsrooms campaign, said talking about finances in a student newsroom “can be daunting,” but is a necessary part of the job.

Christopher Richert, president of the College Media Business and Advertising Managers and general manager of The Columbia Chronicle at Columbia College Chicago

Richert said he expects the editors to have an understanding of advertising at the paper, in order “to understand how we do it and what works each week and what doesn’t.” Richert said that journalists should not make editorial decisions based on how advertising at the paper could be affected.

“As long as you have a full picture of what may be working at that college on the business side, then at least they’re cognizant of it and they understand that something they publish could affect the business side. Should that stop a journalist from doing those stories? No, not at all.”

Richert trains the entire newspaper staff alongside the sales and advertising staff. That way, editorial staff members have a better understanding of what the students in advertising and sales are working toward and how sales are made, he said.

Think outside the box: sponsored content, events and newsletters

Christopher Richert

The Columbia Chronicle created a newsletter, which offers space for advertisers. They have also done special sponsored pages online, like sudoku puzzles, Richert said.

They’ve hosted events and speakers on campus, as well as published sponsored content, where advertisers sponsor articles about things related to their services.

Richert said that engaging the community and ensuring that they are “continually publishing the best possible product,” opens more doors for advertising revenue.

Chrissy Beck, director of The Chronicle at Duke University and former president of the Western Association of University Publications Managers

The Chronicle also utilizes newsletters and sponsored events. They have several different newsletters with space for advertising, including one with daily headlines, a basketball newsletter that goes out during the basketball season and a newsletter specifically for undergraduates that she said is similar in tone to theSkimm.

“That’s strong and that’s been going well for many years,” Beck said.

The Chronicle also sponsors a contest during basketball season, working with local businesses to award the winner $500. Beck said she has heard of other student publications hosting events like housing fairs or local business fairs, and suggested  publications work to find what is “school specific” and works best for them.

These events are good for driving website traffic and increasing recognition of both The Chronicle and its advertisers, Beck said.

The SPLC recommends:

Consider the ethics of sponsored content. Make sure content is clearly labeled as sponsored. If possible, have a member of the advertising staff write sponsored content instead of a member of the editorial staff. Create a policy for approving sponsors and sponsored content and make sure to stick to it.

Combining advertising across student media publications

Paul Bittick, general manager of Mustang Media Group at California Polytechnic State University

Several years ago, Mustang Media Group was created to provide marketing and advertising for all the student media groups on campus.

“With the changing media industry, we wanted to try to mirror the direction other media organizations were going, while providing an opportunity for students to be involved in all platforms.”

Bittick said part of the reason for consolidating the advertising was declining revenue from print advertising, which forced them “to look at other advertising platforms.” They offer advertising on social media, native advertising and, in the next year, will start offering video advertisements on websites and during newscasts, Bittick said.

Bittick said this may not be an option for all student media, but it has worked well at the Mustang Media Group

Communication is key

Chrissy Beck

Beck said communication and collaboration between the business and editorial sides of a student newsroom is important, since they share a common goal: keeping the publication operating.

“I think really the only path forward is trying to find a way to work together constructively. ”

She added that the decline in advertising revenue should drive more collaboration.

Christopher Richert

Richert said communication between publications and university administrations is also important.

“The colleges that are struggling with funding are struggling with the fact that the people are making the decisions on that funding are not aware of the full benefits of working in student media,” he said, adding that it’s important to make sure they are “educating those decision makers on what student media does above and beyond printing a paper or having an online site.”

Advice from the SPLC

  • Reach out to alumni of the publication and school who can offer donations and advice in times of financial uncertainty. Have a systematic way of keeping information about news organization alumni up to date.
  • Consider forming a volunteer alumni group dedicated to fundraising.
  • Create a donate button on your website. Do some homework first — it takes effort to put in place the infrastructure to securely process credit card donations.
  • Consider offering membership and online subscription services as a way to increase revenue. Think carefully before offering a print subscription — the time involved and cost of mailing may not be worth it.
  • Save money for the future — but be sure it is in a restricted account stating that funds are to used only by your news organization. You don’t want it being absorbed or controlled by other entities on campus.
  • As news racks and other physical evidence of your news organization disappear, it’s essential that an on-campus presence remains. Banners with your publication’s website, app if you have one, and social media links should be placed in the student center and other public areas with a lot of foot traffic. Sponsoring/co-sponsoring campus events can keep your publication in the public eye and a vibrant part of life on campus. Ask marketing students/classes for their suggestions.
  • Apply for trainings, like this free one offered by Society of Professional Journalists and CMBAM that will select two college newspapers and set up time with an advertising expert to help the staff discuss strategies. The deadline to apply is Friday, June 15. There’s also a boot camp for ad reps and Student Ad Managers Workshop at the College Media Mega Workshop taking place July 12-15 at the University of Minnesota. Registration is $209 per person, plus dorm housing and travel.

SPLC staff writer Monica Kast can be reached by email or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @monica_kast.

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free Weekly News Roundup.