COLUMBIA — The good news keeps coming for the Missourian Publishing Association.
At its board of directors meeting on Friday, the discussion about the Columbia Missourian's financial situation was a positive one. That's something that hasn't happened at a meeting in more than three years, said Mark Russell, president of the board of directors and print news manager for the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel.
"The last three years our discussion has been about loss," Russell said. "This time it's refreshing."
The 101-year-old Missourian is one of two daily newspapers in Columbia and is a teaching laboratory in the Missouri School of Journalism. The hands-on experience for undergraduate and graduate students at the Missourian and at KBIA/91.3 FM and KOMU/Channel 8, has come to be known as the "Missouri method."
General Manager Dan Potter said the newspaper’s switch to a five-day print model has eliminated hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses. The paper stopped printing the Saturday free edition and the Monday morning edition in March, and the strategy is proving beneficial. The newspaper is online at ColumbiaMissourian.com.
For the first quarter of this fiscal year, the Missourian lost $26,887 even though it was budgeted to lose $114,701. Last year at the same time — July through September — the paper lost $230,467. In other words, the paper experienced a 88 percent drop in bottom-line loss, which is a major feat, Potter said.
“There are two benchmarks for me: how are we performing against the new budget model, and how are we doing versus the same months the previous year?” he said.
Potter said between mid 2008 and the March 1 deadline, 40 percent of full-time equivalent employees were cut, which helped reduce expenses. He said advertising is a contributing factor to the paper’s increased revenue.
“The major reason we’re ahead on revenue is advertising,” he said. “We were 53 percent over the expected budget from March to June.”
Potter said the fact that advertising is doing so well is especially impressive given that the Missourian is working with a smaller advertising staff. Jack Swartz, advertising director at the Missourian, said special sections like the homecoming edition have helped increase advertising revenue.
Potter also noted that laboratory support from MU increased during the first four months of the paper’s new budget, to $216,668 from $83,333 at the same time last year. The increase was the first in lab support since 1997, when the Missourian became affiliated with the university. Because of this affiliation, the Missourian also has to account for educational expenses.
“Just like any other laboratory setting, we have some costs we have to bear because we are a teaching institution as well as a community newspaper,” Potter said.
The Missourian was ahead of budget by 54 percent from March to June, and Potter said that number continues to increase. “It looks sustainable, and we continue to do very well. In fact, July through September are already better than the first four months,” he said.
Potter said the Missourian, like many newspapers across the country, needed to do something drastic immediately to turn around the operation.
“We have scrutinized every single penny we spend,” he said. “It’s not automatic — you have to have strategies. But we think we’re going to end the year in great shape. Right now things look very bright for us.”
Paula Fleming, the Missourian's business manager, said she checks the expenses of the paper on a daily basis and knows how each expense affects its corresponding department.
"Three months in, we've done a pretty good job so far," Fleming said.
Russell said the improving financial situation will benefit the Missouri School of Journalism in addition to the Missourian.
"This is a game change for all involved," he said. "It allows us to focus on innovation without a large deficit like we've had in the past."