The New Quad: college newspapers’ quest for a sustainable business model

The move from push media to pull media will mean college newspapers will struggle to maintain relevance, authority and sustainability

A new business model and revenue approach is going to be essential for college newspapers if they hope to stay relevant and sustainable moving into the second half of this decade.

While this may seem self-evident to observers of the general media environment, it is a tough pill to swallow on campus.

For years, universities seemed to have been immune from the downturn in newspaper circulation. Even while city newspapers dropped circulation days and laid off staff, college papers appeared to be cruising through the trend unscathed.

Sure, national ads dried up, but readers continued to flock to the printed page, and thus the local advertisers also hung tight, keeping inky dead trees a profitable venture.

The good old days

Before I talk about the turn in this trend, let’s look at why college papers continued to thrive, even while city papers limped.

It came down to this: environment.

The college campus’s physical environment gave the printed page an advantage. First, because of student fee subsidies at most schools, the paper could be distributed free and ubiquitously across campus.

Second, the content was relevant and local. The best college papers focused on what they did better than anyone else in the world, and that was to focus on the campus community – a hyper-niche environment that nobody else stood a chance at covering the way the campus natives could. College newspapers had authority on college campuses.

So what happened?

None of that has changed.

Why then are daily college newspapers now seeing slumping circulation and dropping print days?

Again, it comes down to something from the physical environment that used to be its strongest advantage.

College papers have what I call “creepy repellant.”

That is, if you are some guy sitting by yourself in the middle of the quad, everyone looks at you and says, “what is that creepy guy up to?”

But if you are a guy sitting by yourself in the middle of the quad reading a newspaper, nobody gives you a second thought. They may even believe that you are an intellectual.

Enter the smartphone

Unfortunately for college papers, the smartphone has now replaced the newspaper as the de facto creepy repellant.

Much like the newspaper, smart phones also give you the appearance of looking occupied, and thus not creepy. They also feel free because you have already paid for them up front, and everyone has them in their pockets.

And what’s worse, social media has made them hyper relevant, taking the thing that the college papers could do better than anyone else in the world and owning it.

All of a sudden, picking up the paper is not convenient. It is an extra step.

In the quad environment, the newspaper used to be a “push” technology. That is, a publisher could push its content in front of an audience simply because of the nature of the space that audience occupied. The audience was there. The paper was there. That was the one convenient choice.

Sadly, now that phones are the more convenient creepy repellant, people have to have a reason to go pick up the paper, making it a “pull” technology. That is, the publisher has to lure, or pull the audience toward the content.

College newspapers’ competitive advantage is disappearing – quickly.

Now what?

OK, so now what? Obviously, college papers, like the city papers before them, must innovate to stay relevant and sustainable.

The first thing that the newspaper must do is to ensure it is taking advantage of all the ways available to push the content into the audience’s hands. Good PR, street teams handing issues directly to readers, attractive covers: Those are all great ways to keep the printed page alive.

But the bigger-picture question is whether that is the best move for the long-term viability of the media company. Sure, this will keep that legacy product alive a bit longer, but a truly innovative manager will see that this life support should only be used as a way of biding time while new products and revenue streams are being actively pursued.

In the parlance of the Boston Consulting Group, newspapers are the Cows, and we need to be pursuing the Question Marks. (Cows generate cash but don’t have much growth potential. Question marks have growth potential but aren’t yet generating much cash.)

To stay relevant, newspapers need to meet the audience where they are.

Paper is still relevant, but it is now the niche product. While it is still earning flagship dollars, we need to build the infrastructures for what comes next.

A Road Map

Rather than fight against social media, college papers need to step up their game and their presence on those social outlets.

Facebook is the new meeting place. It is the new quad. Where before, college newspapers were the authorities on the campus quad, they now need to be the authorities on the social media quad.

They need to be producing high-quality content on their websites, and then using their Facebook accounts to pull readers. They need to look at what they do well — better than anyone else in the world, actually — and actively push that content through social media in order to maintain that audience.

That content needs to meet the audience needs:

  • Information
  • Entertainment
  • Community

College newspapers can’t just produce the same 12-inch story and call it a day. The newsrooms need to explore all the ways their audiences are looking to engage in that social space and meet them there with options.

Content has to be more than just news. That is because, according to research by Flurry, consumers use their mobile devices to consume news only 2 percent of the time.

That is compared with the 17 percent spent on Facebook alone.

The other content in addition to news that the college media companies should be producing needs to include:

  • Video – 4 percent of mobile usage
  • Entertainment – 4 percent of mobile usage
  • and Utilities – 8 percent of mobile usage (I see these as things like food truck trackers, transit apps, and other niche utilities that students need, but haven’t yet found in other areas. College media companies can develop these and again become the authority.)

If we can localize those aspects and provide community-level content, then we can conceivably capture as big a percentage of the mobile usage as Facebook. And once we are sure we can maintain our audience, then we need to apply a revenue model to monetize that audience.

Then we’re back in business.

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In newsrooms, failure is often caused by faulty systems, not people

As a manager, you may ask yourself “why aren’t my employees doing what I want them to do.” Let me just caution you against the knee-jerk reaction most of us have – it is rarely because they are “lazy.”

There is a truism in systems theory that says that 85 percent of failures within a company are the result of problems with the system itself, and only 15 percent of the problems come down to the people involved.

I would contend that in the majority of the cases that we assume the problem is with our employees, the problem actually comes down to one of two issues:

  • Your employees don’t know what is expected of them; or
  • Your employees do know what is expected of them, but they don’t know HOW to do those tasks.

Last year I wrote about the case of the “broken car” and why it is wiser to fix the system than to address the symptom. That is precisely what I am talking about here.

To illustrate this, let’s draw upon two images that my mentor in the MBA program, Jerry Goolsby, often invokes.

 

The challenge of getting everyone on your team working toward the same goal.

The challenge of getting everyone on your team working toward the same goal.

 

First, imagine that these six arrows represent your team. Imagine that the different lengths represent the level of motivation each person has, and imagine the direction it is pointing represents the goal that each team member is aiming to achieve.

As you can see, everyone is obviously working to their own end, rather than your desired destination.

If you as a manager never set a clear, easy-to-visualize goal from the outset, then you are wasting your time increasing your team’s motivation. Push each of those arrows as hard as you can and you can see that none of them will ever reach that goal.

 

Even if you do a terrific job motivating someone, if they are pointing in the wrong direction, it just doesn't matter.

Even if you do a terrific job motivating someone, if they are pointing in the wrong direction, it just doesn’t matter.

 

It doesn’t matter that YOU know what they are supposed to be doing. If they don’t know that you expect them to reach that goal, even if you are sure that you made it clear, no amount of motivation will get them to do the right thing.

The buzzword here is “alignment.” You want to make sure everyone knows where you are trying to go.

Rather than trying to "motivate" your workers, instead make sure they clearly understand what you expect from them.

Rather than starting by trying to “motivate” your workers, instead first make sure they clearly understand what you expect from them.

Now, once you have made that goal clear, then you can focus your attention on that motivation. You can start pushing on those arrows, and instead of scattering, they will start moving in the right direction.

As for that second bullet point – simply telling someone to do something also isn’t sufficient. You need to break each task down to its elementary pieces.

In my newsroom we went through a multi-year process of “decomposing” each of the newsroom jobs to a granular level. We wanted to truly understand the role each position was supposed to play in our system. It took us a while, but boy was it worth it.

Now that we have a comprehensive task list for each position, we have written massively detailed work flows and job descriptions that anyone who takes that position can follow.

What was a monumental amount of work on the front end is now paying massive dividends in training and in employee satisfaction. There is much less of a feeling that we are just dropping new hires into the deep end without training or orientation.

When we hire someone, we can tell them “here is what you need to do. Please look through this list and let us know which of these tasks you know how to do and which you do not.”

And then we go step by step and re-explain each step to make extra sure that they understand.

Yes, I am sure you explained it once. But remember that the first time anyone hears something, the majority of it falls right back out of their ears before soaking into their brain.

Sure, in 15 percent of cases, you really are dealing with someone who is willfully trying to game the system. But call me an optimist. I really do think that, at their heart, most people truly want to do a good job — as long as we as managers make a system that lets them succeed.

So, next time someone in your newsroom falls flat, step back and ask those two questions: do they truly know what you expect them to do, and do they truly know how to do it.

It may just open your eyes.

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Bringing the Phoenix Cycle under control: how college media can avoid a boom-and-bust cycle

 

A common phenomenon plagues many college media companies. I have come to call it the “phoenix cycle.”

The phoenix cycle plagues newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, yearbooks, magazines — pretty much any student-run media entity. And I would venture to bet that a similar ailment plagues small community newsrooms that have high turnover.

Just as the mythical bird does, the media companies grow into beautiful, impressive, powerful and enviable entities. Then, as if out of nowhere, that entity bursts into flames and annihilates itself.

All the wonderful work becomes a memory of what was, and the current material just doesn’t live up to that previous standard.

Then, after a number of years, another beautiful group crawls from the ashes, and is back to producing wonderful journalism.

I spent years studying this puzzling boom-and-bust cycle in college media. I was determined to discover what was driving this cyclical pattern and whether we could design a system to counteract that cycle and smooth out some of those downturns.

I worked with several student-run publications at the collegiate level, at the high school level, in private schools and in public schools, and each one suffered from the same cycle.

But the puzzling thing to me was that the cyclical curse wasn’t endemic to ALL student media companies. Some of the industry’s shining stars seemed to have gotten that cycle under control. What were they doing that the rest of us hadn’t figured out?

It seems to me that this is not so much a symptom of being a college media company as it is the result of some characteristics that many college media companies have in common.

  • Leaders with strong personalities
  • High turnover
  • Inconsistent recruitment plans, often drawing from just one social group
  • Inconsistent training plans
  • Lack of professionalization in many organizational processes

The curse of the strong leader
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of that list is the strong leader element. But be assured, in every case of the phoenix cycle that I have observed or that I have helped a newsroom recover from, that strong leader element was there.

The typical narrative was that the organization had crumbled and so someone, usually an adviser or the strong leader in question, scrambled to fill the staff positions of an organization.

Like manna from heaven, a particularly committed group stepped across the threshold and into the organization’s top leadership positions. Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

The staff rallied around the strong leader. People were drawn into the organization to work with the strong leader. And the organization performed better than it had performed in recent memory because of the heroic efforts of that strong leader.

And then that leader has the audacity to graduate.

Without the savior, the organization doesn’t burst into flames – yet. But like a forest without rain, it begins to dry out and set the stage for those flames.

Usually it is two years later that something sparks the fire and the phoenix is engulfed. And because irony is cruel, that is about the time that those awards would be rolling in from all that work that the heroic leader inspired.

The problem wasn’t that there was a strong leader. The problem was that the organization relied solely on that strong leader, rather than take advantage of that leader’s energy and vision for long-term change.

Turnover trap
The real heart of the phoenix cycle is the turnover inherent in college media. Best-case scenario, we get to keep our employees for eight semesters. And in most cases, it is more like four or five, depending on when they step into a mature role. Community colleges obviously have it even worse, and the saints who advise those have my eternal admiration.

The fires come when more than about a third of the staff leaves at one time. Up to that tipping point, the institutional memory can withstand the shock, provided the rest of the elements I listed above are in order.

But even with the best training program and the most professional operation, a 50 percent turnover is going to cripple an organization.

I often liken a college media organization to a college sports team. There are a lot of similarities. If you aren’t constantly recruiting and constantly anticipating the holes created when the senior influencers leave, you are bound for disaster.

You can’t, and shouldn’t, avoid the turnover. If we do our jobs properly in college media, our best students leave us – they either graduate or find awesome internships or jobs.

The trick is to put training and recruitment and professionalization in place to counteract it.

Recruitment
Continuing with the sports analogy, you always need a good farm system. If you don’t have a pipeline of solid prospects always flowing into your newsroom, you are doomed to the boom-and-bust cycle.

For my newsroom, that pipeline is the journalism program at Loyola. I’m blessed. And this is the case for other strong programs, such as The Reveille at LSU, and the Daily Texan at the University of Texas.

I have a strong program from which to draw my recruits, and the classes built into the journalism curriculum serve as a great foundation onto which I can further train.

What I don’t have is a built-in pipeline for my business office.

Loyola doesn’t have a professional sales major. We do have an advertising degree, but it is focused on the creative end of the field. Our majors want to design ads and be the next Don Draper. They don’t want to do the front-line sales work.

I have tried many different methods of keeping my business office staffed up. One of the easy solutions, in the short term, is to bring in an established social group.

Bringing a bunch of women from the same sorority, or bringing in a group of friends from the honors program always seems like a brilliant idea. But unless you do that as a stop gap while continuing to do the hard work of building a staff one hire at a time, you are doomed to a phoenix collapse when that group graduates or just gets bored and leaves.

The pipelines I have found that work, but require a lot of effort are:

  • The federal work study program: I am an approved work study employer at Loyola and I am always at the job fair publicizing my openings.
  • Established social groups: Places like sororities, the entrepreneurship club, the economics club and the ad team are terrific to find the students who have self-selected as involved. You just need to make sure they aren’t the only people you bring in and that you don’t lean on them for too large a proportion of your staff.
  • Related majors: Sure, I don’t have a professional sales major, but I do have some that are closely related. Marketing, advertising, management, and even chemistry serve as fertile ground for sales reps, provided I do the footwork of spreading the word about our opportunity. (Chemistry was a surprise, but it turns out, a lot of people who are interested in pharmaceutical sales are chemistry majors, and our sales training is a valuable resume line for them.)

What you should NOT do is to show up to a class and pass out a sheet to everyone to “sign up if you are interested.” That always ends up with a sheet of names of people who might be interested, or who might have just signed out of peer pressure.

If you don’t contact them all immediately, then they will be resentful — “he never called me.”

Plus, you can’t differentiate between any of those names – who is going to be a go-getter and who just mails it in.

My trick is to show up, give a quick presentation, and then put up a hurdle. I give out my business card and I ask them to come to our next meeting.

The ones who actually call and show up are the ones who I want selling for me.

When it comes to recruiting, you have to be constantly doing it. Even when you have a full staff, you need to be visiting those clubs and classes and collecting resumes.

Training Trouble
Getting warm bodies in seats is just the first step in avoiding the phoenix cycle. Properly training them is a whole other thing.

Unfortunately, the best-case scenario of training in many newsrooms consists merely of the outgoing editors sitting down with the incoming editors and “showing them the ropes.”

And on the surface, that is an admirable effort at training. Hands-on training is certainly one of the best practices coming out of the professional world. The problems come in when bad habits or partially understood pieces of a process come into play.

Ed Deming, a 20th century management guru, called this problem “taking a random walk.” If you are interested in the fallacy, this is a nice video called the “Funnel Experiment” explaining the theory behind it.

 

The short version is that on-the-job training is too often a game of telephone — you understood a piece of the message, passed it on as if it were the entire process, and then she understands a smaller piece, until the message being delivered bears no resemblance to the original intent, and the message has taken a random walk off into the wilderness.

Professionalizing your organization
I have found that the key to fixing the training problems, your recruitment problems, and most all problems that lead to the phoenix cycle is for someone to professinalize:

a) Understand every aspect of the organization and how it should work (often drawing from conferences and other best practices in the industry), and
b) Write out those processes in some permanent way for future staff members to look back at as a reference, and
c) Constantly update that knowledge bank.

Every process must be decomposed into its base parts, explained, and then given to a specific person to accomplish. And that has to happen at EVERY transition — any time anyone turns over a position, you need to go through this process.

And definitely don’t hesitate to reach out to other people in your field who have already invented those wheels. I have a terrific partnership with LSU where I will bring my sales staff up to meet with their sales staff for a day during our summer orientation, and those groups get to share best practices (and common pitfalls.)

Final thoughts
I’m not sure I can say that I have cured the phoenix cycle here at Loyola. What I can say is that we have had the luxury of having four years in a row of very stable, high-performing staff members. We were named to Princeton Review’s list of best college papers this year – a first for our newsroom. So, I do feel good about what we have been doing.

That said, I am always looking around the corner for that damned phoenix and hoping I can put out the day-to-day fires before they engulf the whole organization.

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