Last year, an outside media company began operating the business side of The Lantern, the student newspaper of The Ohio State University. Dan Caterinicchia, who serves as the paper’s media adviser, wrote an article explaining his qualms about the partnership and his surprise at its success. He was initially worried about the media company, a Gannett subsidiary, infringing upon The Lantern’s editorial independence. After a year of working together, however, he seems to be convinced of the benefits of the Gannett-Lantern partnership. Student journalists and editors have a chance to learn from professionals in the field, Gannett gained a new important market, and the joint operation has been running successfully.
Being part of an independent student newspaper is challenging but rewarding work. The dwindling newspaper business is intensified in the university setting because students are accustomed to instant gratification and are constantly connected on their cell phones and computers. Because local businesses recognize this, it can be difficult to sell print advertisements. Regardless of a newspaper’s revenue, there are costs that have to be covered — printing and delivery at the very least, plus technology needs and office supplies. It can be challenging and a little bit scary to function as a business as just students. Because we’re not funded at all by the University, we don’t have a safety net if our money runs out . It’s simple: if we run out of money, we stop printing. Our editorial independence brings real-world challenges, but we value the freedom to have it. We also understand that it’s a privilege to learn how to run a business as students.
After learning about the situation with The Lantern, it sparked some discussion among the Editorial Board at The Triangle. First and foremost, we would be worried about the functional status of our independence. Even if both partners had open minds and had the best interests of the paper at heart, conflicts seem inevitable. The stories that we, as students, think are important may not be the same stories that a media company would prioritize. In the case of a disagreement, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that would end with the students making the end decision. Often, to be successful, companies must run with a for-profit mentality, while we run our newspaper with our audience — mainly Drexel students — in mind. Some decisions we might make on behalf of our readers might be incongruous with the media companies’ ideas for profitability. For example, we’ve refused to run advertisements for tobacco products and adult film stores in order to preserve our moral credibility, even though such ads would appeal to a significant portion of our audience and bring us much-needed revenue.
Despite the threats and challenges that would arise from a partnership with an outside company running a student newspaper, there are some benefits that can’t be ignored. For one, as Caterinicchia explained in his article, it is an incredible opportunity for student journalists to learn about working with a professional company. Not only would it provide close to real-world experience, but it would also allow for student journalists and those interested in the newspaper business to network with and learn from experienced people in the field. Also, if the partnership allows the student newspaper to do the same work as always — keeping in mind the same audience, holding on to editorial independence, etc. — more effectively than it could before the partnership, it really is a win-win.
It seems like the key to making this a fair business relationship, as opposed to a one-sided one, is that it’s used to make healthy changes that will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the newspaper without changing its core goals. If the media company can teach students how to sell bigger advertisements or how to market better to an audience beyond the student body or how to make a profit every year, then it’s benefitting everyone involved. Similarly, if the students are able to share fresh perspectives with the company and help advise them on how to appeal to a younger audience, everyone’s still winning. As soon as the company starts to treat the student newspaper too much like a cutthroat business, though, the situation should be re-evaluated. In the end, we see our involvement with a student newspaper as a learning experience on all sides — journalism, ethics and business. And if the corporate partner doesn’t allow for students to learn and grow, then it defeats the whole purpose, even if it’s making more money than before.