COLUMBIA — Dan Potter is finally sleeping again at night.
Six months after a major reorganization, Potter, the Columbia Missourian's general manager, is cautiously optimistic about the financial future of the newspaper. After discontinuing its Saturday and Monday editions, drastically reducing its staff and receiving more lab support from MU, the newspaper is operating much better than budgeted.
“I’m not waking up at three in the morning anymore,” Potter said.
The Missourian's financial woes made national headlines a year ago, as the Missouri School of Journalism celebrated its centennial. Many worried the paper would not survive.
Dean Mills, dean of the journalism school and the Missourian’s publisher, said he is delighted that the newspaper is doing better than financially projected. “I’m surprised, actually, as we hadn’t predicted the (national) financial crisis when we made the budget,” he said.
The community newspaper is staffed by professional editors and student reporters and is one of the journalism school's three laboratory newsrooms, along with NBC-affiliate KOMU-TV and radio station KBIA/91.3 FM. These news outlets teach young reporters by merging practice and theory, a teaching style that has come to be known as the "Missouri Method." The Missourian was founded in 1908, on the same day as the Missouri School of Journalism, which is the oldest in the world.
Although the Missourian Publishing Association, a non-profit organization, owns the Columbia Missourian, the newspaper is an affiliate of MU. As an MU laboratory, the Missourian receives lab support from the university. It also receives a subsidy to pay off any year-end debt. In 2008, the university covered a deficit of slightly more than $1 million. After several years of covering high deficits, MU demanded the newspaper cut its costs.
In response, Potter cut staff positions for 18 months prior to the March deadline and reduced the non-newsroom staff by 40 percent. Since July 1, 2008, he said, the Missourian has cut $1.02 million from its annual operating expenses.
In the first three months of the new plan, the Missourian lost $26,889. In the same period last year, the paper lost $237,651.
For the 2009 fiscal year, after four months with the new plan, Potter said the year-end subsidy from MU was $479,228 — a 52.5 percent drop.
Increased lab support from the university helped soften the blow. Potter said the Missourian's lab support had not been raised since its implementation in 1997. In March, the university increased this amount to $650,000 from $250,000.
Potter said the most significant reason for the paper's financial improvement has been expense reductions, followed by the increased lab support money and higher than expected advertising revenues.
"We're not going to break even by the end of this fiscal year but, believe me, we're trying," he said. He estimated the paper would end the 2010 fiscal year with an annual loss of $200,000 versus a budgeted annual loss of $401,000.
Executive editor Tom Warhover said, “It’s as if a huge boulder has been lifted from our shoulders."
Potter will report the latest numbers to the newspaper's board of directors at its annual meeting on Oct. 23, but some board members are happy with what they've heard so far.
"I think it's just been a terrific financial and fiscal story for the Missourian to turn on a dime like this,” said Mark Russell, president of the Missourian Publishing Association’s board of directors and print news manager for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel. “Without a robust Missourian, we become just another (journalism) school."
Potter emphasized that the Missourian would continue to keep expenses low, particularly as the paper develops more online media.
“We’re not sitting back with our feet up and are very comfortable that it’s going to happen automatically,” he said. “You’ve got to continue to work at it, innovate and be entrepreneurial or you end up right back where we started.”