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Board members discuss future of Missourian

Wednesday, September 10, 2008 | 8:20 p.m. CDT; updated 10:30 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 8, 2008

This story has been changed to correct the name of the Missourian Publishing Association Board of Directors.

COLUMBIA - The conversation echoed those found in struggling newsrooms across the country.

The Missourian Publishing Association Board of Directors, along with MU Provost Brian Foster and the president of the Missouri Press Association, met Wednesday to discuss the future of the Columbia Missourian as a daily, printed newspaper.

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The Missourian has operated at a deficit for years. Last month, WEHCO Media, owner of the Jefferson City News-Tribune, wrote a letter expressing interest in a business partnership with the Missourian in response to informal talks between representatives of the School of Journalism and the Columbia Daily Tribune, who had been discussing a similar partnership.

On Wednesday morning, these partnership discussions grew into a multi-faceted conversation about preserving the Missourian's status as a hands-on student laboratory in the face of an increasingly troubled news industry and an economy struggling to finance public education.

"The question is, how do we find a way to keep this incredible resource in a way that's fiscally responsible or, for that matter, is fiscally feasible," said Foster, who added MU is facing "a very daunting fiscal situation."

The Missourian is a not-for-profit corporation owned by the Missouri Publishing Association, whose board serves in an advising capacity. Potential partnerships would involve collaboration on the paper's business aspects, such as printing and advertising, but not editorial control.

Requesting proposals for partnerships remained a priority throughout the meeting, although the board also discussed moving print content online and overhauling the paper's distribution.

Dan Potter, general manager of the Missourian, said he thought he was going into the meeting to discuss partnership opportunities. "Now," Potter said, "it sounds like, and the provost said it best, everything is on the table."

The board is considering publishing the paper only five or even three days a week and eliminating home delivery to cut down its two highest costs: printing and distribution.

With those costs down, the paper could distribute 13,000 copies daily rather than its current 6,000.

MU's campus mail would distribute the paper to more than 10,000 employee and department mailboxes free of charge. An additional 3,000 copies could be distributed to Columbia and Stephens colleges, the Columbia Mall and downtown areas. The Missourian could save more than $2 million, according to a report prepared by the Missourian comparing current distribution and a system through campus mail.

Distributing primarily to MU faculty and staff could also attract more advertisers because of the demographic's high disposable income, the board said.

While MU originally expressed resistance to campus mail distribution, Foster said Wednesday he was open to discussing the option.

The Missourian's total income for the 2007-08 fiscal year was only 2.2 percent lower than the total income for the previous year, according to a profit and loss report calculated by the Missourian.

"Most newspapers would kill for only a 2.2 percent loss this fiscal year when compared to previous years," Potter said. "But we still generate at a deficit, and that's not good."

The paper ran a deficit of more than $1.1 million for the 2007-08 fiscal year, according to the report.

Major changes might be in store to eliminate, or at least reduce, this deficit. "We obviously look like we'll scale down, a lot in some cases, in Missourian staffing," Potter said. "There will be some positions at the Missourian that won't exist at the university."

Business staff positions, including those in advertising, circulation and creative services, would most likely be eliminated.

The board also heard from a student.

"Students are a little upset that we might just be distributed on campus," said Emily Van Zandt, assistant city editor for the Missourian and a senior newspaper journalism major. "I wanted the opportunity to work and have real-world experience while I was doing my education." Van Zandt worries a focus on MU faculty and staff could mean a shift to campus-centric content.

Had the paper been distributed primarily on MU's campus when she was applying to colleges, Van Zandt said, "I probably would have looked elsewhere rather than making this my first choice."

The board will hold its next meeting sometime in April or May, if not sooner by conference call or e-mail, Potter said. "We're looking at no later than November to get the request for proposals to bidders."

The Missourian could have a new business model as early as January or February, Potter said, and could begin either on July 1, the Missourian's fiscal year start, or be timed with the academic semesters.

In the meantime, the proposal for partnerships will be written and approved by the university's procurement office, the board, legal experts and Dean Mills, dean of the School of Journalism.

"I want to make clear that we (the Missourian) will never go out of business," Potter said. "We'll be here 100 years from now."

 

 


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