COLUMBIA - A group exploring future business models for the Columbia Missourian will work with MU to issue a request for proposals from publishers interested in forming a partnership with the newspaper.
A subcommittee of faculty and representatives of the Missourian Publishing Association board of directors made that decision after WEHCO Media, owner of the Jefferson City News-Tribune, wrote a letter expressing interest in becoming a business partner with the Missourian.
The Missourian has operated at a deficit for years.
Talks about a partnership had previously been confined to the Columbia Daily Tribune. WEHCO sent the letter in response to those informal talks.
"Our company is interested in possibly further assisting the School of Journalism's community newspaper that is so important to our industry," WEHCO Vice President Paul Smith said in his Aug. 20 letter.
The letter was addressed to UM System President Gary Forsee, MU Chancellor Brady Deaton, School of Journalism Dean Dean Mills and Missourian General Manager Dan Potter.
WEHCO Media, an Arkansas-based communications company, recently bought the News Tribune Co. in Jefferson City and prints the Missourian.
Smith spoke to the importance of the Columbia Missourian as a teaching institution. The newspaper is an independently owned, not-for-profit corporation that also has a formal affiliation agreement with MU as a teaching laboratory for the School of Journalism.
"The University of Missouri and the News Tribune have had a long and beneficial relationship," Smith said in the letter. "Some of our company's best employees were educated there, and we would be pleased to enter into a partnership with the University of Missouri, provided we can agree upon an arrangement that will be mutually beneficial."
In May, the Missourian Publishing Association board of directors appointed a group of faculty and board representatives to develop potential business models for the Missourian. The newspaper is under pressure from MU administrators to eliminate its deficit.
The subcommittee had, to this point, been looking into the possibility of a partnership with the Tribune, said Scott Swafford, a city editor at the Missourian and an associate professor at the School of Journalism.
Preliminary talks had centered on a five-day-a-week newspaper delivered to MU faculty and staff mailboxes; the Missourian would provide the content, while the Tribune would print it and sell ads. After covering costs, the partners would share the advertising revenue.
Esther Thorson, associate dean of graduate studies and research, has been involved in the search for business models. She said that other models, such as making the Missourian a strictly digital news source, had been explored. Those models didn't provide as much financial relief as the committee was hoping for.
"We are in even more financial trouble than even most newspapers in the U.S.," Thorson said, adding that it was the School of Journalism's responsibility to find a model that would fix that deficit. "It is my belief that a partnership will be an excellent way to do that."
Thorson also said that the partnership model would not drastically change the Missourian's content, though it might focus a bit more on what is important to an audience of MU faculty and staff.
"It would still be very much a newspaper that reports on what's going on in the city of Columbia," she said. "It will probably, however, become a little more niche-oriented."
The letter from WEHCO prompted a change of direction by committee members, who decided Thursday that the best way to proceed would be to issue a request for proposals.
The UM Board of Curators would issue the request on behalf of the Missourian asking for bids consistent with the business model favored by the subcommittee.
"Any time you have an open bidding process, you're in better shape," Swafford said.
The group exploring business models will report its findings to the Missourian Publishing Association board on Sept. 10, during the Journalism School's and the newspaper's centennial celebration.
At that meeting, members are expected to make a formal decision about the plan they think will benefit the paper most.
Swafford said subcommittee members have a number of criteria for a successful plan.
"We want the Missourian to retain its identity as a daily community newspaper. That's paramount," he said. "Also paramount is the idea that we should do nothing to compromise our ability to educate young reporters."
Swafford said it was equally important to retain editorial control.
"What's important is that it continues to provide the top education experience for future journalism students," Thorson said.
"We have a 100-year record on that, and I don't want to see that damaged."
Mark Maassen, Missourian board member and sales manager of the Kansas City Star, said retaining a print product is essential for the Missourian at this time.
"Regardless of which direction we go, we need to make sure we answer the needs of the community and the readers," Maassen said.