- The Washington Times - Monday, September 22, 2008

COLUMBIA, Mo. — One hundred years ago, publisher Walter Williams laid out his vision for the world’s first journalism school.

Foremost among his ideas: a daily newspaper that would cover the world beyond the University of Missouri campus.

Student reporters at what is now the Columbia Missourian continue to practice what Williams dubbed the Missouri Method, a training approach that helped elevate the study of journalism in universities alongside law, business and other respectable professions.

But as the University of Missouri School of Journalism marked its centennial earlier this month with a flurry of academic seminars and celebrations - including the dedication of a $22 million research lab - the future is uncertain at the newspaper, which for many proud alumni defines the school.

Escalating annual losses - more than $1 million in each of the past two years - have university officials demanding a new approach at the Missourian, which is owned by a nonprofit corporation, but receives a $250,000 yearly subsidy from the school.

“The Missourian will never go out of business,” general manager Dan Potter said. “We’ll always be here. But we’ve got to change the financial model.”

Despite its small size - the paper struggles to reach a paid daily circulation of less than 2,000 - the Missourian has developed a reputation as a pull-no-punches training ground for industry leaders.

University leaders traditionally accepted small deficits as the cost of doing business at a learning laboratory whose first mission was to educate, not make money. Annual profits weren’t unheard of, but the rapid trajectory of its deficits have administrators no longer willing to accept the status quo.

“It was inevitable, no matter what we did,” said Brian Brooks, a former Missourian top editor who is now an associate journalism dean for undergraduate studies. “We’re the second newspaper in the smallest two-newspaper town in the U.S.”

Among the possible changes under consideration: a digital-only publication; a reduction in publishing to five days a week; elimination of home delivery to focus on free campus distribution; and a business partnership with the for-profit Columbia Daily Tribune, a family-owned paper founded seven years before the university publication and the Missourian’s longtime rival.

Tribune publisher Hank J. Waters III has spent four decades criticizing what he calls the unfair advantage afforded by the state’s financial support for a business competitor.

Now, in an industry beset by an exodus of readers and advertisers and struggling for its survival, he’s singing a new tune. With even top papers trimming costs and cutting staff, and the formula for success in a digital news world still elusive, Mr. Waters says that survival requires a drastically new approach.

“There are a lot of ways we can help each other,” he said. “I think it’s a great thing for the town and the school. I give them credit for being willing to open their minds.”

Associate journalism deans Esther Thorson and Margaret Duffy approached the Tribune in the spring with a proposal: the afternoon Tribune would handle printing and delivery of its morning rival. Home delivery would be scrapped in favor of a free paper provided to faculty and staff in their campus mailboxes, with limited street boxes scattered elsewhere in town.

Such a switch would reduce the Missourian’s annual expenses by $2 million, Mr. Potter said. A campus-centric product would also offer greater appeal to advertisers, he suggested.

“There’s a city within a city in this market,” Mr. Potter said of Columbia, where the 30,000-student university is by far the largest employer in a community of roughly 100,000 residents.

Faculty and staff have higher disposable income on average than the rest of Columbia, he added.

A deal with the Tribune is far from a certainty, though. In late August, WEHCO Media Inc. of Little Rock, Ark., alerted the university that it also is interested in a partnership.

The company, which publishes the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, established a local presence with its recent purchase of the Jefferson City News Tribune in the state capital, 30 miles to the south. The Jefferson City paper has printed the Missourian since 2006.

The Missourian’s publishing board is considering its options.

The challenge of retaining its signature publication comes at an otherwise plush time for the nationally recognized journalism school.

The opening of the Reynolds Journalism Institute enlarges the journalism campus to seven buildings. Its 85 full-time professors make Missouri’s faculty the largest among peer institutions, Mr. Brooks said. And enrollment in the program has surged in recent years.

Despite assurances of editorial independence under a revised business structure, many Missourian reporters and editors remain wary, said Katherine Reed, an assistant professor and Missourian city editor.

“The fact that we have always strived to be a community newspaper and not a campus paper has always set us apart from other journalism schools,” she said. “We’ve always had a real-world publication.”

Each semester, Miss Reed and other professional editors guide a new batch of as many as 100 student reporters, photographers, copy editors, graphic artists and designers. Most receive only academic credit, not pay, and juggle full course loads along with their newsroom work. Non-students handle advertising and circulation.

The Missourian’s paid daily circulation hovers near 1,200, said Mr. Potter, though that number increases to 6,000 when including campus delivery, rack sales and free copies provided to local hotels.

A free Saturday publication is delivered to 40,000 households. The Tribune has a weekday circulation of roughly 18,000 and 25,000 on Sunday.

Emily Van Zandt, a senior from Jefferson City and assistant city editor, said most students at the paper realize change is inevitable at the Missourian.

“These changes are happening all over the industry,” she said. “If we have to go through this, it might as well be at school before we go out into the working world.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide