Student newspaper learns what it’s like to have a media company manage its business operations

A year ago, Ohio State University announced that a Gannett subsidiary was taking over business operations of The Lantern, the school newspaper for which I serve as a college media adviser.

I was skeptical — nearly every press release or story announcing a new business partnership bills it as a “win-win,” or some variation of that cliché. When I was a business writer and editor, that term made me raise my eyebrows. Today, as a journalism professor, hearing it makes me encourage my students to dig deeper.

In this case, I understood why both sides might benefit from the deal. Ohio State could focus on journalism education and The Lantern’s editorial content while getting out of a newspaper “business” that had lost money for many years. Gannett’s subsidiary, the Media Network of Central Ohio, would get to expand an existing relationship — it already printed and distributed The Lantern — and possibly cultivate a new revenue source in a valuable market.

But as The Lantern’s adviser, I’d helped its student sales force actually turn a profit the year before. So I wondered if this was the best timing, and I worried about unintended consequences, such as whether advertisers or the business side would influence the editorial side of the house.

A year later, though, I have to give the cliché some credit: So far, this agreement really has been a “win-win.” There have been some bumps along the way, but the bottom line is that the paper product is thriving (no small feat when many other great college papers are cutting print editions or reducing wages just to survive), the online audience is growing, editorial independence has continued and the business is successful.

Here are some lessons we’ve learned so far:

Lesson #1: Communication is key, internally and externally.

Ohio State students working on the business and editorial staffs both said they felt blindsided when the deal was announced a year ago. I felt for them, but it was unavoidable — there was nothing to tell until an agreement was reached. After the deal was done, representatives from MNCO met with both student staffs and all returning business-side students were invited to interview for new jobs.

Most did, and now have Ohio State University and Gannett as employers on their resumes. They are also learning from experienced sales and marketing managers about selling ads for print and in the digital environment. (One OSU employee’s position was eliminated in the transition. She found a new job here within three months.)

On the editorial side, there was no change in daily operations. The Lantern editorial staff won the General Excellence award from the Ohio Newspaper Association for two years before MNCO took over and won it again last year after the business side changed hands. As the partnership has evolved, communication has remained open.

For example, if the newsroom receives a tip about a restaurant opening or a pitch seeking coverage of a new show or gadget, the editors decide if it is worth a story and act accordingly. If appropriate, I sometimes share these tips as ad leads with MNCO sales managers and students – the same procedure followed before MNCO took over. The Lantern’s advertisers know that editorial coverage is never guaranteed.

Lesson #2: Be open to learning from the pros.

MNCO managers have done some smart things that were much tougher to accomplish when everything was in-house at Ohio State. For example, they quickly designed newer and bigger in-house ads to tout Lantern coverage of OSU football and other events, while expanding the in-state advertiser base. When this front page came out after a certain rivalry game, it was the most talked-about in the three years I’ve been here.

MNCO turned the page into glossy posters, sold them for $10 each and had a hard time keeping them in stock around the holidays. MNCO managers also praised the Lantern editors for the bold choice of that front page and gave each of them a free copy. That was a small but meaningful gesture — a copy of the poster signed by the editors hangs above my desk.

Lesson #3: Try new things.

The Lantern has three sections: Campus, Sports and Arts+Entertainment. On this campus, a+e is often underappreciated, but we now shine a “Spotlight” on it every Thursday. MNCO was interested in selling a calendar listing local events in print every Thursday, but it would require giving a+e the second section front and more pages.

The editors embraced the idea, despite the added work, and haven’t looked back. The editorial staff also visited the MNCO printing plant where the paper is produced, and some recent alumni have interviewed for editorial and business positions at Gannett properties.

Lesson #4: Mistakes happen: Learn and move on.

Once this year, a Lantern reporter unknowingly interviewed a MNCO student-employee for a story unrelated to the paper. Editors and I raised concerns, noting that’s usually avoided unless that person is the focus of the story — in this case, he wasn’t. (MNCO also has a policy against it.)

The student-employee was taken out of the story before publication and the business-side students were informed of their employer’s stance on the matter. It was a teachable moment for both staffs. There were also some software and back-end system compatibility issues that Gannett and Ohio State technology staffers worked out in the first few months of the transition.

 Lesson #5: Students run the show.

I teach the class that is part of our curriculum and tied to The Lantern, but the paid editors make all final editorial decisions. On the business side, MNCO employs a general manager and sales manager, but the front-desk staff, ad designers and sales force are students. The size of those staffs is the same as they were when Ohio State managed them. The commission-based sales jobs remain among the most potentially lucrative on campus and now carry experience with a Fortune 500 company.

To be sure, not all universities and school papers have Ohio State’s massive student body, passionate alumni base, Columbus’s solid business community, and a big company interested in striking a partnership. Still, agreements like this can help college media endure and innovate.

But don’t take my word for it. Contact me with questions, read The Lantern, or talk to the business and editorial students here. And maybe even reach out to a local or national news outlet of your own and see if there’s interest in partnering. In this volatile journalism business environment, not exploring every alternative to guarantee the future of our college media outlets is the opposite of a “win-win.” It’s a recipe for failure.

Dan Caterinicchia is the director of student media and a clinical assistant professor at Ohio State University in the School of Communication. He can be reached at: dan.cat@gmail.com or @dancatosu on Twitter.

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