February 24, 2016

Aging gracefully is a tough trick in publishing these days. I caught up recently with the chief editors of Education Week and The Chronicle of Higher Education — industry-leading publications with more than 80 years in business between them. Each is seeing the same slow slide in print revenue as have daily newspapers, and each has embraced a digital strategy to stay sustainable.

At the Chronicle, President and Editor-in-Chief Michael Riley is placing what he calls “a pretty big bet” on Vitae, a digital system for managing academic resumes that will match employers and recruiters with job candidates.

I first wrote about plans for the venture more than two years ago. It has just come to market in the last several weeks, and Riley expects several more years work before it contributes profits. But he believes that there is a $60 to 70 million market in higher ed recruiting and that, with Vitae, “we have a shot at capturing a good share of that market.”

Doing so would essentially be a reinvention of the classified job postings that used to fill dozens of pages every issue and made the Chronicle, founded in 1966, a highly lucrative enterprise for decades.

Education Week, launched in 1981, has no comparable single product launch in the works. But President and Editor Virginia Edwards told me that digital subscriptions and other activities have gelled as the traditional print weekly audience fades.

Paid print subscriptions slid below 30,000 last year. But digital-only subscriptions now number 10,000. Revenue per digital subscriber is up 34 percent in the last year. And Ed Week is available to more than 100,000 additional readers via group subscriptions to school districts, universities and others.

Ed Week’s parent operated at a loss for seven of the eight years between 2003 and 2010. It has run surpluses the last five.

The two publications were once operated jointly as nonprofits, but the runaway success of the Chronicle’s job classifieds dictated that it convert to a for-profit enterprise. (Founder Corbin Gwaltney, now 93 and still active in running the business, is sole owner)

“We’ve never been in danger so making so much money” as to endanger the nonprofit tax status, Edwards told me. The dimensions of pre-K-12 education are huge. “It’s a subject people get excited about that deserves a lot of attention,” she added. “So people assume there is a lot of money there, but it’s tricky.”

During the print era, both publications were frequently routed around offices. Those at the end of the list might be looking at a weeks’ old issue by the time the copy reached them.

Digital solves that, giving everyone on the licensee’s roster immediate access. The Chronicle also deploys the licensed subscriptions model and reaches 1,400 schools and their faculties in that fashion. (Paid print subscriptions have fallen to 30,500, but paid digital accounts for another 20,000, and monthly uniques now total 2.1 million).

Even in its formative stages, Vitae is trafficking in comparatively big numbers. About 700,000 have registered with the site and about 70 percent of those are providing at least a rudimentary profile including name, job title, education and experience.

The target audience on the hiring side includes 4,500 institutions as well as recruiting firms. Riley said that Vitae was beta-tested in the fall with a select group before the full roll-out earlier this year.

The big idea, over time, is to streamline the hiring process for both sides. And the voluminous nature of academic resumes and application documents should help fuel the demand.

Despite some cuts over the years, both publications maintain substantial newsrooms — 55 positions at Ed Week, more than 100 at the Chronicle (including its sister Chronicle of Philanthropy).

I also don’t think it’s coincidental that at both, the top editor carries the title of President and is effectively the CEO. The publications are editorial-driven, not ad-driven.

Neither Riley nor Edwards seemed especially focused on competitors, though they have gained some during the years — Inside Higher Ed for the Chronicle and the Hechinger Report, Chalkbeat and assorted advocacy sites for Ed Week.

One of Ed Week’s larger projects in the last year, Edwards said, has been a foundation-funded acquisition of the non-profit Learning Matters video unit from veteran host and producer John Merrow. It will do segments for the “PBS News Hour.”

The subject matter provides a steady flow of news and opinion opportunities, and the longevity of the publications makes them a prestige destination for essayists.

There’s a challenge in that too, Edwards pointed out. Eighty percent of the company’s revenue is earned (rather than from grants). So relationships with advertisers and joint venture partners are part of the business model mix, she said. “But we need to be maniacal that there is not even a whiff of pay-to-play” in the editorial content.

Both were early to digital versions in the mid-90s and pursued paid strategies (now with the standard meters and exceptions to draw in a wider audience).

That’s not entirely a blessing, however. “We’re not where we need to be in technology…” Edwards said. “Our website is not up to speed…Funders won’t underwrite a big capital expenditure, and we can’t plunk down $2 million for a new CMS.”

At the Chronicle, Riley said that growth in events, special reports and other ancillary ventures has cushioned print losses, but a boost from Vitae will be arriving at just the right time.

“We did have a slight decline in overall revenue in (fiscal year) 2015,” he said, “and that makes it all the more imperative that we build new products and find new revenue streams.”

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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