Amid celebration, Missourian faces uncertain future

Wednesday, September 10, 2008 | 6:36 p.m. CDT; updated 10:30 a.m. CDT, Monday, September 15, 2008

COLUMBIA — One hundred years ago, Boonville 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 MU campus.

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


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But as the Missouri School of Journalism celebrates its centennial this week with a flurry of academic seminars and lavish celebrations ­— including the dedication of a $22 million, high-tech research lab — the future is uncertain at a newspaper that, for many proud alumni, defines the school.

Sustained and 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 non-profit corporation but receives a $250,000 yearly subsidy from the school.

"The Missourian will never go out of business," said general manager Dan Potter. "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's influence can be felt in news organizations nationwide, along with its reputation as a pull-no-punches training ground for industry leaders.

University leaders traditionally accepted smaller 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 even 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 the past 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 a massive exodus of readers and advertisers and struggling for its survival, he's singing a new tune. With even top papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post trimming costs and cutting staff, and the formula for success in a digital news world still elusive, Waters realizes that survival requires a drastically new approach.

"There are a lot of ways we can help each other,"Waters 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, said Potter. A campus-centric product would also offer greater appeal to advertisers, he suggested.

"There's a city within a city in this market," Potter said of Columbia, where the 30,000-student university is by far the largest employer in a community of roughly 100,000 residents. "The buying power behind the faculty and staff ... their disposable income is much higher on average than the rest of Columbia."

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, too, is interested in a potential 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 south of Columbia. The Jefferson City paper has printed the Missourian since 2006.

On Wednesday morning, the Missourian's publishing board met amid the centennial festivities to consider its options. A recommendation for the university to solicit formal requests for proposals was expected.

The dilemma of how to retain 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 in the heart of the university. Its 85 full-time professors make Missouri's faculty the largest among peer institutions, said Brooks. And enrollment in the program, including the traditional print journalism sequence, 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, Reed and other professional editors guide a new batch of more than 300 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, although in the past, students also worked in those departments.

The Missourian's paid daily circulation hovers near 1,200, said 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.

Under the preferred plan, the Missourian's daily circulation would jump to as high as 13,000, with most of those copies provided on campus. 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 — just like in the rest of the media landscape.

"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."



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