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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About mdgiusti

Michael Giusti is a journalist and educator. He is the Adviser and Chief Administrative Officer for the Loyola Student Media, which publishes the nationally award-winning Maroon newspaper. He has 20 years experience as a professional journalist and has worked in daily newsrooms, weekly business journals and as a freelancer for national and international publications. He holds an MBA and is passionate about media business models.
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