For-Profit Student Newspapers: New College Media Trend?

Can the student press turn a profit?  Michael Westendorf says yes, and he operates a newspaper aiming to prove it.

The Saginaw Valley Journal is an independent paper covering Michigan’s Saginaw Valley State University, an 11,000-student public school less than an hour’s drive from Flint.  The paper is a grand experiment of sorts– aiming to kick more than 100 years of college media wisdom smack in its bottom (line).  Westendorf started SVJ on the premise that it can not only earn money, but run long-term in the black.

A majority of student media operating today make barely any money.  Instead, they are produced, published, and distributed thanks to the financial largesse of their host schools.  A small number of campus outlets make enough through advertising and other support to run independently as non-profits.  For-profit, though, is not a status considered for even a second by most of the student press.

Westendorf– who started the publication small-time while a student at SVSU (he has yet to earn his degree)– is striving to buck that economic trend.  From an editorial perspective, he also appears to be attempting to embody SVSU’s motto: “Something More.  Something Better.”  In this respect, the key is a focus on substantive news.

In Westendorf’s words, “This newspaper was established for the SVSU community; for students, faculty, staff, and the administration.  It will be a newspaper’s newspaper, and by that we mean straight, hard news. . . . [W]e want to serve the faculty and staff as much as the students.”

Even its design– seemingly directly inspired by Wall Street Journal— screams serious.

The paper's most recent front page.

I admit, until I see actual revenue reports, a breakdown of how student staffers are compensated, and hear him speak and be vetted at a national or regional ACP/CMA convention, I am skeptical.  But slightly optimistic.  Westendorf is laser-focused on this venture like a tiger who’s spotted raw meat.  On spec, the content produced by him and his student team seems solid.  And Columbia Journalism Review deemed the effort worthy of a recent write-up.

In the Q&A below, Westendorf discusses the ins-and-outs of the paper’s for-profit, hard news, and independent statuses.

Michael Westendorf

These are tough times in the print news world, and advertising revenue alone does not seem to be cutting it.  How do you see SVJ turning a profit and staying afloat in the long term?

We’re really excited about the opportunities we’re seeing in the college newspaper market.  We believe we’ve found a profitable model for campus newspapers, and much of that comes from observing existing student newspapers and asking ourselves ‘What’s done right?’ and ‘What’s done wrong?’.

Our business department is in the unique position of being able to completely examine profit models, while ignoring the education aspects that other student newspapers must confront.  An admittedly cursory examination of most student newspapers nationwide would reveal bloated salaries and staff– all in the name of education.  We don’t do that.

How does the student employment component actually work?

We don’t differentiate between student-employees and employees.  If we think you’re qualified, we’re going to hire you.  We don’t limit our reporting work to students.  However, as it turns out, the editorial staff is composed of all students.  I’m sure that’s due to a number of factors, most of which is location.  We do not disclose salary/payment information to the general public due to strategic competitive concerns.  We take our competition seriously, and I’m sure they do the same with us.

You told CJR the paper would focus on more than “sex columns, Lady Gaga album reviews, and unresearched and disconnected opinion pieces.”  Why is the time for hard news now?

I don’t think the time for hard news is now (or vice-versa).  It’s just simply what we do.  I don’t think it’s any more relevant today than it was yesterday, or then it will be tomorrow.  In higher education and student newspapers, however, it seems to be sorely lacking.  At our university, at least, we’re seeking to fill that gap.

Do you worry as an independent, outside entity– and one described in CJR as occasionally combative toward SVSU– that your access might be stymied over time?

We actually don’t worry about access being stymied as much as we used to worry about it.  We’ve learned how to become diplomatic and to develop relationships with senior administration officials.  We’re also increasingly focused on community engagement.  Those two things (building relationships and community engagement) weren’t focused on as much as they should have been by us early on.  But now that they are, we’re finding that the university is actually starting to embrace us, instead of trying to avoid us.

Finally, as long as we continue to consistently put out a quality product, I think more and more administrators will start to look at the other newspaper and say to themselves, ‘Gee, this newspaper’s better, and it’s not being infused with $22,000 of student money each semester.  Maybe it’s time we start examining a better use for this money.’

4 Responses to “For-Profit Student Newspapers: New College Media Trend?”
  1. Bryan Murley says:

    The paper at Florida State has long been a for-profit venture.

  2. Dan says:

    Do you think it will ever become viable or popular in student press circles??

    • Bryan Murley says:

      There’s not enough money in it for it to become popular. The economics don’t seem to work when you start paying reporters a living wage. If anything, it’s less viable now than it would have been 20 years ago.

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