In early March, University Daily Kansan was gearing up for their biggest advertising sales of the academic year because of their No. 1 ranked men’s basketball team. Then, the coronavirus pandemic started spreading more rapidly in the U.S. prompting a slew of event cancelations followed by the University of Kansas shutting its doors for the foreseeable future. The University Daily Kansan had to cancel its print paper and lost thousands in projected revenue.
Student journalists across the country are stepping up to cover COVID-19 in their states and communities, but the pandemic has disrupted the advertising model their publications rely on to stay afloat. The loss of print ads and a decreased interest in advertising from small businesses struggling to get by are forcing many student publications to dig into emergency funds.
Tami Bongiorni, assistant director of Kent State Student Media and president of College Media Business and Advertising Managers, said to keep their communities informed on COVID-19 developments, college newspapers need money to pay their reporters and cover ongoing expenses like rent, equipment, website maintenance and software subscriptions. Now, many student publications have had to dip into their “rainy day funds” to keep up with normal operations.
Student newspapers use different models of funding, but the money typically comes from two main sources: advertising revenue and school funding or student fees. Most high school publications are heavily reliant on school funding, but use ad revenue to supplement their budget. Similarly, many college publications get most of their funding from student fees allocated by student government and sell ads for additional revenue.
But school funding isn’t always a reliable source of revenue. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, student media organizations faced budget cuts. In 2020 alone, Florida International University’s student government cut the budget of the student paper, PantherNOW for the fourth year in a row and Southern Oregon University’s student newspaper, The Siskiyou, had its budget entirely slashed by the student government before bowing to public pressure and reinstating it.
SPLC’s guide for dealing with student media budget cuts advises students that, “If your student publication is funded fully or in part by student fees, you should have a plan in place in case of a budget cut.” The guide goes on to say that diversified revenue streams can be a publication’s lifeline if they lose funding, and publications should work to improve their finances before the situation becomes dire. A separate SPLC guide provides ideas and tips for securing additional funding from new and varied sources.
Less common are independent publications, which do not receive any funding from the school or student government — these are the first and hardest hit by the current ad crisis because they rely almost entirely on advertising revenue.
Rob Karwath, the general manager for The Kansan, which runs off of ad sales and student fees, said stopping the print edition for the semester saved $17,500 in the labor hours it takes to produce the print paper, printing costs and paying staff to distribute the paper. However, that does not balance out the estimated $30,000-40,000 in advertising money lost. They tried to move their print ads online, but as more businesses take losses because of the virus, fewer have been willing to advertise.
“It was a series of developments that at every point when we thought we had an option for recovering at least some of that advertising, the events just cascaded,” Karwath said.
Working with advertisers
Nichola McDowell, editor-in-chief of The Kansan, said before COVID-19, the publication was already working to restructure their budget and cut a few positions and hours to stop overspending.
When the university closed and moved to online learning, McDowell was concerned for the paper’s finances and what that decision meant for advertisers. She said that most of the advertisers were understanding that canceling the print publication was a move that had to be made, but because of the financial uncertainty, some small businesses could not move to online ads.
Our job as a student media organization is to really help our campus on the editorial side. But we also have a responsibility to our clients that depend on those students for their livelihoods
Online ads are also less profitable than print ads. At Kent State, where student media relies on ad sales as well as a student fee that helps pay their staff, a quarter-page local business ad costs $350 per issue. Whereas, a medium rectangle (300×250) online ad that stays on the website for a week costs $235.
Charlie Weaver, the general manager for the Minnesota Daily, which relies on student fee and advertising money, and president-elect of CMBAM, said now the Daily’s biggest challenge is focusing the sales team’s attention on advertising in digital spaces.
One important step is showing their clients that they are continuing to reach large audiences with their content. Weaver said being a go-to resource for COVID-19 will be crucial for both the wellbeing of the community and the financial security of the publication. If the editorial team can answer the questions the community is asking, they can leverage that to reach new readers and grow their audience, as well as retain more loyal audiences, all of which appeals to advertisers.
Bongiorni said that almost all of the CMBAM schools are now turning to their contingency fund, where they can withdraw money when something unexpected occurs. She said this fund can help student news organizations survive tumultuous times like a budget cut or, in this case, a pandemic, but it’s meant to be a holdover measure until they can increase revenue again.
Karwath said he doesn’t expect the revenue loss will permanently damage The Kansan, but they will have to go through a period of recovery. The paper’s priority right now is to get information out in the community and to support their student journalists and advertisers.
“If we could be gracious about refunding advertising revenue to businesses that are hurting and being flexible about trying to move things to the fall when they are up and running again and using our advertising space for important messages and not charging, I think that’s the right thing to do,” Karwath said.
Business offices need to balance the economics and empathy of what they are trying to accomplish, according to Weaver. The way publications handle the crisis can either cement or break relationships with advertisers, and prioritizing short term gains over consistent future advertising can hurt the publication in the long run. Weaver suggested offering to promote local businesses for free where possible. He said building good-faith relationships can encourage businesses to partner with student news organizations when they are back on their feet.
Bongiorni said at Kent State they are assessing what they can offer to businesses that are still open, including delayed billing and creating new spaces on their website for ads (at discounted rates or for free) so the publication can help businesses weather school closures.
If we could be gracious about refunding advertising revenue to businesses that are hurting and being flexible … I think that’s the right thing to do
Student newspapers are also prioritizing audience engagement. Bongiorni said many student news organization’s audiences are growing and are getting more interaction on social media. An increase in numbers can be a selling point to advertisers that want to reach large audiences digitally. The University Daily Kansan recognizes this and is now posting more frequently on social media and on their website to bring attention to their COVID-19 coverage as well as boost their following and encourage clients to advertise online in the future.
McDowell said a mix of fun content and breaking news reporting is driving up The Kansan’s web traffic. They are looking at ways to use this spike to grow their digital ad revenue. They posted videos of what their sports editor’s are doing without sports and partnered with local businesses to put together a “March Sadness” giveaway.
COVID-19 threw a major curveball at news publications planning their upcoming year’s budget. Weaver said that business departments should be in close communication with university administrators and keep track of any major changes or decisions the university is making regarding extending remote learning. This way, student news organizations are better equipped to plan the upcoming year’s budget.
Student media organizations are a conduit between business and students and they should be taking the temperature of the business community, according to Weaver. He recommended sending surveys to current and potential advertisers asking their concerns about running their businesses and what support they may need from the news organization to continue advertising. This will allow the newspaper to project what the paper’s client base of advertisers when students come back to school will be.
“Our job as a student media organization is to really help our campus on the editorial side,” Weaver said. “But we also have a responsibility to our clients that depend on those students for their livelihoods as far as the goods, services and resources that they sell to that community.”
Weaver said canceling The Minnesota Daily’s print edition caused them to look internally at how they’ve diversified revenue streams in the past. They are focusing on alternative revenue sources like running ads on social media and driving up their content on social media so more readers are routed back to the website.
Karwath said the effects of the pandemic have made them think critically about creative revenue sources. One option he’s considering is events to engage with alumni who want to support their student news organizations.
From an editorial perspective, McDowell and the staff at University Daily Kansan are working to continue to produce content and increase traffic every day. McDowell believes that the success of the editorial side of the publication will help support the advertising staff in their next steps to bring advertisers back in the summer and fall.
“What I’ve been trying to do with my team … is providing my ad staff and my audience the content that they need,” McDowell said. “Even though the school year is not running, we’re still working hard to push content on our website and on our social media just as we normally would.”
Correction: In a previous version of this article, Tami Bongiorni’s name was misspelled. It has been corrected
SPLC reporter Alicia Thomas can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318.
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