Student media organizations seek solutions to boost budget

Richie Mulhall

Lori Cantor calls it a battle between print dollars and digital dimes.

As the demand for journalism shifts from print newspapers to websites, the budget that operates the Daily Kent Stater, TV2 Black Squirrel Radio and other student media publications is raising concern among students, faculty and administrators in Kent State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Student Media Task Force Mission Statement

1. To make budget recommendations for 2014-15 budgets.

2. To conduct research on the best practices of other student media units in the country. To conduct readership studies of our Student Media.

3. To make recommendations based on that research on the future size, scope and organization of Student Media

A report handled by Cantor, the student media manager in the Office of Student Media, showed that the total revenue for the 2012-2013 school year fell nearly $50,000 — almost a 5 percent drop in revenue from the previous year. As of the end of fall semester, the Stater is more than $25,000 below its projected ad revenue, according to documents supplied by Cantor.

Of the two sources of student media revenue — advertisements and individual student fees of about $20 per year — advertisements typically provide most of the money, Cantor said. These ads include those found in the Daily Kent Stater and on KentWired or commercials on TV2 and Black Squirrel Radio.  

However, this year, advertising revenue has been outpaced by money from student fees. Student fees now cover 53 percent of Student Media’s total revenue, and ad revenue only makes up about 46 percent.

One percent of the revenue derives from fundraising.

Different kinds of advertising

The Daily Kent Stater, which has always been Student Media’s main source of income and accounts for about 38 percent of Student Media’s ad revenue — is no longer turning the big profits from before readership for print news and information declined, said Andy Rolinc, an ad manager who works closely with Cantor.

“It’s rough because we’ve gained a lot of revenue from organizations that run in the Stater, but as they develop and get a more loyal following, they drop their advertising with us,” Rolinc said.

With journalism progressing further and further into the digital age, Rolinc said “print is a dying medium, and (the Office of Student Media) does want to make the transition to digital and figure out how to maximize revenue on (that) digital side.”

But Cantor said big money has not found its way into the world of online advertising just yet.  Even though there is an increase in total online ad revenue, it is not nearly as lucrative as print revenue, so it does not offset the lack of the Stater’s revenue.  

It costs roughly the same price, $400, for a banner ad to appear on KentWired over a 30-day period as it does for a quarter-page ad for just one day in the Stater.

“We’re very heavy in print here in student media, but the problem that confounds everybody is even though print is declining, we still can’t make that type of revenue in the digital world yet,” Cantor said.  “It’s print dollars versus digital dimes.”

Finding a solution

Mitch McKenney, the Stater’s newsroom adviser who spent 18 years at the Akron Beacon Journal, said the budget woes of student media reflect professional media’s struggle to bridge the gap between digital and print media.

“The shift in advertising from print products to digital shouldn’t be a surprise,” McKenney said. “Right now the marketplace is sorting out where the money is and how best to capture it.”  

Last year, the Plain Dealer cut its seven-day print publication to three days a week to keep up with costs. It shifted its strategy to a four-day-a-week home delivery on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.  

In contrast to this, he said, the Beacon Journal still delivers newspapers seven days a week to continually generate revenue from its print product.

To research different ways to maximize profit, Cantor recommended the student media governing boards form a committee. The Student Media Task Force will make budget recommendations for the 2014-2015 budgets with research on the best practices of other student media units in the country.

It will also discuss the “future size, scope and organization of Student Media,” according to its mission statement.

Tim Roberts, chair of the JMC Media Board, said that since no one has the right answer, proper solution or correct model yet.  That is why there is a task force, a listening group that allows everyone to put “everything on the table.”

“We have to change and think outside the box, but do it within reason because of financial resources,” Roberts said.

Cantor said the task force is still in the “discovery phase” and examining other schools — such as the University of Oregon, Georgia the University of Texas — to get an idea of what Kent State could potentially do moving forward.

Is cutting an option?

In 2012, student media at the University of Oregon scaled back its daily newspaper, the Oregon Daily Emerald, to two days. It replaced its traditional daily newspaper with the Emerald Media Group, an the independent, nonprofit media company.

Ryan Frank, the president of the Emerald Media Group, said in a May 24, 2012 blog that the Emerald Media Group has switched its strategy and replaced its traditional newspaper with a more well-rounded form of media to “better serve the community” and “prepare the student staff for the professional world.”

In Frank’s blogs — and in a video Skype meeting with the task force last fall — he said the Emerald Media Group has conveyed real-time news, community engagement, photo galleries and video on the web. New mobile apps have received great feedback from students.

He also mentioned that in order to improve the Emerald Media Group’s readership and revenue, the school could not be afraid make sacrifices and make cuts to the product.

“We had to be open to cutting things, and it’s uncomfortable and painful, but if we want to run something that’s like a business, you have to be lean and mean in order to be efficient,” Frank said.  “If things don’t make sense, you have to stop doing them.”

Thor Wasbotten, who is in his second year as director of the journalism school, said he wants the Task Force to consider a “blank slate” approach, which essentially involves starting from scratch and looking at Student Media as if it were a brand new initiative.

Wasbotten said he wants to expand student opportunities through “invention and innovation.”  Contrary to Frank’s views, Wasbotten believes “cutting” any of Kent State’s publications or media would only limit student opportunities, something Wasbotten said he would like to avoid if at all possible.

“The most vibrant student media, to me, is not a restrictive one, and because of the budget situation I think we are starting to restrict ourselves,” Wasbotten said.  “And [since] the students have such great ideas, I don’t want to prevent that.”

Richie Mulhall is a reporter for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact Richie at [email protected].