On the college media

By Andy Balaskovitz

Declining advertising, circulation leading to 'great upheaval' in college newspaper publishing. How is The State News faring?

This story was corrected on Jan. 16.

Twenty years ago, the letterhead on the stationery of The State News said it had a circulation of 38,000.

Today, the campus newspaper at Michigan State University publishes 18,500 copies.

Print circulation and declining advertising revenue are two indicators that The State News has been on a trajectory similar to college newspapers throughout the country. Couple that with the ways people consume news and an economic downturn and you have a scenario in which college newspapers are fighting the same battle as their professional, commercial counterparts.

“College newspapers are going through a time of great upheaval,” Eric Jacobs, general manager at the Daily Pennsylvanian at the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadephia, recently wrote alumni.

“I won’t try to sugar-coat it: the DP is in the deepest financial crisis it has faced since becoming financially autonomous 50 years ago,” wrote Jacobs, who’s been with the paper for more than three decades.

“I don’t know if I’d use the term upheaval as much as it’s change,” Marty Sturgeon, general manager of The State News at MSU since 2001, said this week. The State News, like UPenn’s college paper, is independent of the university, financially and otherwise.

“Particularly over the last four to five years, there’s a fair amount of change that’s taken place,” Sturgeon added.

Hyperbole or not, The State News is not immune to the shifts affecting college papers — and commercial ones, for that matter — across the country. In the past five years, the paper that became Michigan State University’s “independent voice” in 1971 has seen steady decline in circulation and advertising revenue.

In the fiscal year between July 1, 2010, and June 30, 2011, the paper’s total revenue was $1,785,584 — a 27 percent decline from three years prior. Advertising revenue, which still makes up a large majority of the paper’s revenue, declined 21 percent between 2008 and 2011, according to the paper’s 990 forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service. Sturgeon said those numbers have leveled off at about $1.25 million in the past few years.

The State News also is supported by a $5 fee on MSU students, which is included in the paper's total revenue. (Students have two weeks each semester to collect a refund.) The paper spends that money to pay students.

As with commercial newspapers, the Internet and social media have dramatically altered how students in particular get their news and hence how advertisers communicate their messages.

And the economic downtown in 2008 exacerbated the changes, Jacobs said.

“Initially we thought we knew what we were facing. Around that same time is when major changes started happening in ways people consume media and how businesses advertise in the media,” he said. “It created a perfect storm for significant upheaval and change.”

Yet Jacobs says college papers are adjusting. The State News could be included on that list: the number of pages is fewer than it used to be; it is considering reducing summer semester publication from three days a week to two (while remaining a five days a week in the fall and spring semesters); it eliminated wire content from The Associated Press, saving $26,000 annually; and it’s gotten into the website development business — 11 college papers throughout the country pay for a content management system (an online publishing platform) operated by The State News. Sturgeon said it should bring in $50,000 to $60,000 a year.

After moving out of the Student Services Building on campus and into its own — and more visible — building on Grand River, the paper also brings in additional revenue from technology firms who rent second-floor space, Sturgeon said.

“It’s simply up to us to always be looking at what are the new trends; where are people getting information; and making sure we’re an active part of that,” she said.

The State News joins college papers nationwide that are at once seeing falling revenue while trying to find new revenue sources. While they’re all “fundamentally in the same business,” Jacobs said each community’s market is unique and the extent to which changes are happening “varies.”

To Jacobs, the challenge for every college paper in the country is: “How do we compete successfully for people’s time and attention? … I think everybody is trying to figure out what will work in their market.”

Jeremy Steele, a State News editor in 2002 who serves on the paper’s alumni association board of directors, recalls a time of cramped space in Student Services when the papers “were definitely a lot thicker than they are today,” sometimes 30 pages. Now they don’t reach 10 on some days.

Steele is a former Lansing State Journal reporter who heads the Michigan Interscholastic Press Association. He’s encouraged by what he says are innovative ideas — whether it’s offering advertising deals through Twitter or using social media to drive readers to the website — coming from “student leadership” at the paper, both on the print and advertising side of things.

For exposing journalism students to these real-world problems may ultimately benefit them when they enter a field that’s in, for lack of a better term, upheaval.

“That’s how I define success: Are we increasing the number of students we can employ?”

The answer is no: Sturgeon said the number of employees has declined by 10 to 20 students from a high of 130 to 140.