Last week Elizabeth Crisp of the Advocate emailed me saying she wanted to write a “story about the direction things could be heading and your thoughts on the future of student media at LSU.”
I had four reactions in rather rapid succession:
- Why do I have to deal with this already?
- What took so long?
- For more than 20 years, I have said it’s an important experience for journalists to be the the subjects of journalism. I can’t complain (much) when it happens to me.
- It must be time to widen the conversations we’ve been having internally for more than two months.
Elizabeth’s story generated an immediate and strong reaction among alumni and staff of the Daily Reveille, because the focus of her story was our consideration of cutting back the frequency of print publication.
If you want to read Elizabeth’s story first, I hope you’ll come back and read my explanation of what’s going on and how LSU Student Media alumni can participate. But I’ll post the link again at the end if you’d rather hear from me first.
My student media consulting
I’ll start with some background: I have been advocating for years that professional journalists and news organizations need to move more swiftly to embrace and figure out their digital future. Because I harp a lot about linking, I thought about hyperlinking “advocating for years” to an earlier post. But that would just have to be my home page. More than anything else, this blog has been about the skills, tools, ethics, business and leadership of digital journalism.
While I had several discussions about these issues through the years with journalism professors, faculty advisers and student editors, my involvement with student media intensified in 2012 when my alma mater, Texas Christian University, asked me to study its student media and consult about future strategy. I spent a week on campus and made extensive recommendations, including cutting back print publication from four days a week to one or two. They followed my advice and things have gone well.
I made similar recommendations for student media in general in a piece for the Nieman Lab later that year. I have consulted with student media at other universities, in person and on the telephone.
Intro to LSU Student Media
When I made my first visit to LSU in December 2013 as a consultant, my activities at the Manship School of Mass Communication included a visit with students leading the various media products. I was told that the product silos and legacy-media culture at LSU Student Media were strong, and I could see that in my first discussion with the students. (But that’s true on other campuses, too.)
I repeated an exercise I first did in 2010 at the University of Iowa and have done several times since (I described it again in the Nieman piece). It shows pretty starkly how heavily digital students are in their own media use (even journalism students aspiring to jobs at newspapers and TV stations).
After the exercise, I brainstormed with the students about possibilities for increasing the digital focus of LSU Student Media. I don’t recall that conversation in detail, but I would be shocked if I didn’t raise the possibility of restructuring Student Media and decreasing print frequency (both of which TCU had done on my recommendation).
The LSU students didn’t change how they operated much following that discussion. But Manship School Dean Jerry Ceppos apparently liked enough of what he saw and heard in my LSU visit (it wasn’t all about Student Media) and our previous encounters that he eventually invited me to join the LSU faculty last year as the Lamar Family Visiting Scholar. That was a one-year position, but when Bob Ritter decided late last year to retire as Director of Student Media, Jerry asked me if I would be a candidate.
I said yes, and encouraged moving swiftly, so I could start leading some discussions about the future of Student Media before Bob actually left. I envisioned wrapping up the deal in January or February, and while Bob was still doing the job, I would be leading discussions among students, faculty, Student Media alumni, student government, the administration and other interested parties about the future of our operation and our products.
Well, like many things in life, that didn’t quite work out the way I wished. I work at a university and search committees are involved in such hires. And that takes some time. Furthermore, I was diagnosed in December with lymphoma. Even if I’d gotten the job swiftly, the talks I envisioned might have proceeded slowly, scheduling them around my frequent hospital stays, some of which didn’t happen on schedule. (I considered not mentioning the cancer in this post. But it has been a small factor in the pace of the matters I’m discussing here, and I’m trying to be totally candid and transparent. I’m not making excuses or asking for sympathy — I get plenty of that. I’m just trying to tell the full story, and I’m squarely in the center of it.)
My job interviews
I did manage to squeeze in a Skype interview with the search committee, though. I was right on campus, not in the hospital room, but they wanted to handle all candidates the same in that initial interview. While I don’t remember details of that interview specifically, I can’t imagine that print frequency didn’t come up. If it did, I know I said then what I have said all along, including yesterday to the Advocate reporter: I’m going to lead the conversation about Student Media strategy and I may have to make some final decisions, but those decisions will be the result of thoughtful discussions with lots of input from all interested parties.
I can’t guarantee what the final outcome will be, but I can certainly guarantee that the outcome will include ideas from other people as well as my own ideas. While I am confident in my ideas, I know both that I don’t have all the great ideas and that collaboration in planning improves the execution of any idea. And I’ve made that point every step of the way. People who have talked to me multiple times may be tired of hearing it, but I want to make sure everyone hears it.
I was selected by the search committee as one of three finalists for on-campus interviews. Those interviews included a full day of meetings with various groups, including the student leaders of the various media teams.
On April 22 of this year, the day of my interview, I gave the search committee, which had undergraduate and graduate student members, copies of my written vision for LSU Student Media (I posted a slightly updated version of the vision yesterday, in anticipation of the Advocate story).
I didn’t make enough photocopies to give them to all the students who showed up to interview me, but I’d guess 15-25 students from the content staffs of the Student Media products filled a large conference room (the same room we’d used for our 2013 discussion), taking all the seats at the table and several against the wall.
Students talk, and the leadership hadn’t turned over entirely in the year and a half since my visit. My advice on the frequency of print publication for student newspapers was easily available online. However they learned of my position on the issue, students came prepared to discuss keeping the “daily” in Daily Reveille. I can’t recall who brought it up first, but we discussed that and the product silos in the organization at some length.
I was at the time in my fourth month of chemotherapy. In other interviews, I made a point to bring my treatment up, usually toward the end of the interview, and assure my interviewers of my doctors’ optimism that I would recover fully by the summer. In every other group, people were polite enough not to bring up the question first, though. Not the students. One of them asked the question before I could get to it. I hope I smiled, because I was pleased. We teach students how to ask tough questions and these students didn’t avoid the hard questions of print frequency, organizational silos or cancer.
I do feel bad now about my answer to the student. My doctors were expecting then that I would start my stem-cell transplant in June, and that’s what I said. But a June infection and a light first harvest of stem cells have pushed the transplant, the conclusion of my treatment, back to September.
Back to the print-frequency issue: I told that group and others that our Student Media are not currently on a sustainable path (more on that later), and change is coming whether we like it or not. I had another meeting with the advertising and marketing staffs. I’m pretty sure print frequency was discussed there, too.
When Jerry met in May with the search committee members to discuss their impressions of the candidates, he held an open meeting, joined by quite a few student leaders. The students, Jerry later told me, feared that I might move too fast to make changes in Student Media. In a Facebook discussion last night (more on that later), Chandler Rome, last year’s Reveille Editor, said I was “given awful reviews by students during the interview process.”
My start at Student Media
Jerry offered me the job anyway. As a longtime leader of professional media and now a dean, he knows that professional and student media have been too slow to change. He thought, and I agreed, that the next director of LSU Student Media needed to push the students further and faster than they wanted to go. Like their elders, student journalists tend to resist change.
I accepted the job, knowing that my challenges were to lead the students to produce more and better digital products, decide how to move ahead with existing products, build new revenue and prepare the students better for media careers, all while teaching them good journalism. I hope I will be successful enough that students will be happier about my tenure, whenever it ends, than they were about my selection.
That was mid-May. I immediately started sharing my vision with student leaders, both the written version I had given the search committee and elaborating in individual and small-group meetings. I addressed the moving-too-fast issue in multiple conversations, saying that it was risky, but not as risky as moving too slowly.
I considered broadening the discussions in May to include Student Media alumni such as former Reveille editors. But many of the students and faculty were starting to scatter for the summer, and I figured I should address this with more students and in more depth before we expanded the discussion. Besides, I had some key positions to fill in the professional staff and that demanded a lot of my time this summer.
We just finished one of the hires last week. I announced it this morning: Molly Holmgren will lead our student teams in advertising and marketing. (Her success might ease the revenue pressures that are part of this consideration.)
We started a couple of discussions on Google documents, since getting together for meetings during the summer would be difficult to impossible (the Gumbo yearbook editor is spending the summer abroad, for instance). Even using digital meeting tools would have demanded working around lots of conflicting schedules, so we collaborated in writing. I shared a long document with lots of questions and options and invited student leaders to answer my questions, raise more questions and offer their own suggestions.
Discussion of the Reveille’s future
In that document, I discussed the possibilities of changes to, or even elimination of, every existing product, as well as possible new products we could launch (certainly more products than we will have the capability to launch).
I asked if we should consider eliminating our print newspaper:
Should we blow taps for the Reveille?
I noted two university student media operations that have eliminated their print newspapers, but expressed doubts that LSU needed to go that far. I wrote:
I don’t favor eliminating the Reveille. I recommended that my own alma mater, TCU, take a less drastic step, cutting from daily print publication (they were four days a week, not five) to weekly. I think a cut to once or twice a week (or maybe once a week plus game-day edition for home football games) is probably the wiser course to consider for the Reveille. TCU followed my recommendation and was able to maintain ad revenue in a single bigger weekly edition with nicer paper stock, and that allowed them to focus more student firepower on digital and still cut their printing costs. If we cut the frequency of print publication, what day (or days) should we publish?
If we’re going to continue the Reveille as a daily paper, how are we going to get more people to pick the paper up? Do we need to rethink the approach to any or all parts of the paper?
What is/are the right relationship(s) between Reveille and other student media operations? Do we need to be more collaborative and less competitive? Do we need more competition?
The document asked similar questions about Tiger TV, KLSU, lsureveille.com, Gumbo and Legacy magazine. And lots more questions about possible new products we might launch, new revenue approaches and what would be the right structure for such a diverse operation. I intended the document as a conversation starter, and it worked. My initial 24-page document has expanded to 33 with questions and suggestions from students, faculty and others I shared it with.
I had shared that document with a wide range of students, faculty and the chair of our Student Media Board. And it was an open document, so I encouraged them to share it with others who should join the discussion. Anyone with a link could access and contribute.
Last Thursday, the day Molly accepted her job leading our advertising and marketing efforts, I got the email from Elizabeth Crisp, the Advocate reporter who covers higher education. Someone had shared the doc with her and she considered our discussions newsworthy.
Elaborating on those responses I related at the top of this post: My first thought was: Why now? Give me a few weeks so I can discuss this with the students when most of them come back in mid-August. My plan was to post an updated version of that strategy document I developed for the search committee last spring to my blog in early August. That same day, I’d send an email to alumni, informing them about our discussions, linking to my post and inviting them to join the discussions. Then we’d have some heavy-duty discussions when the students returned and probably schedule some meetings with faculty and alumni in late August.
Well, life doesn’t always work out the way you plan or wish. Just like treatment hasn’t proceeded as I’d planned, our discussions accelerated last night when the Advocate story posted.
What took so long?
Once I had a moment to deal with my chagrin of not having a few more weeks to control the pace of this discussion, I had to laugh. We had been discussing this for months. Why did I think I would be able to control the pace anyway? Journalists talk to journalists. If someone thought this was newsworthy (and obviously they did), they could have (and perhaps should have) found out about this in May when I got this job. I appreciate having a couple months to get our discussions rolling over the summer. I can live with increased scrutiny and accelerated pace now.
And it really doesn’t matter whether I wanted this to happen now, just like it doesn’t matter whether students want their media products to change. The products have to change and I have to expand the discussion of that change now. Disruption never asks permission. The new timetable will intensify our pressure to make decisions, and make the right decisions, and I welcome that.
I did seize a modicum of control over the conversation by posting my strategy to the blog yesterday and closing off public access to the Google docs where we’ve been discussing the details. If you want to join the conversation, email me: stephenbuttry (at) gmail.com.
The third point I noted above was that I’ve long believed journalists need to be on the other side of the notebook now and then. I have had that experience many times, usually positively, and I’m pleased with Elizabeth’s story. But even when an interview goes well, you wonder and worry about which quotes someone will use, whether you will be quoted accurately, how people will respond (nothing about last night’s response surprised me), etc. Journalists put people through that experience all the time. I spent about 17 years as a reporter and about 20 as an editor. My reporters and I put thousands of people through the unease I’ve felt about this story the past few days. It’s good to experience turnabout now and then (and I’ve experienced it with some really unpleasant stories).
I preach to the newspaper industry to embrace discomfort in facing the challenges of innovation. I guess I can embrace my discomfort over being interviewed and written about.
Time to expand the conversation
My final point at the top was that it’s time to widen the conversation, even if it’s a little before the time I would have chosen. After Elizabeth’s story posted, Reveille alumni began tweeting various forms of dismay, support for daily publication, encouragement for considering digital options and other reactions. I will curate those tweets in a separate post, possibly later today.
I also got some email reactions.
Some of the most interesting reactions were on the LSU Daily Reveille Alumni group on Facebook. It’s a public group, so I can read the posts and comments there, and I generated a lot. I am not a member of the group, so I have chosen not to respond directly in those conversations, though I will share a link to this post there if I can (or ask someone to post it). Before I had a chance to check out the group, I was assuming is was private (like some newsroom alumni groups I belong to. I asked Chandler Rome to post this message to the group for me
(I didn’t see it in my first swing through the many comments there, but our exchange was fairly late last night and he was working; he did, however, post a shorter comment from earlier in our email exchange, and some of the response to that showed some willingness and interest in working together). Update: I somehow overlooked Chandler’s subsequent post, which did go up last night. Here’s what he posted from me:
I appreciate the candid and caring reaction from Reveille alumni to the Advocate story and to our consideration of changing existing Student Media projects. I welcome your participation in the discussions about the best strategy for LSU Student Media to remain prosperous, to serve the university’s media needs and to prepare students for media careers. I will tell you more soon in my blog and hopefully directly. But I’ll tell you a few things right now:
- We have made no decision to reduce the print frequency of the Daily Reveille.
- We will involve alumni, students (Student Media employees and consumers), faculty and other interested parties in our strategic discussions and decisions.
- You soon will get an invitation to participate in digital and in-person discussions about the future of Student Media.
- Anyone who wants to discuss this with me directly can call me Thursday or any time at 703-474-0382. (Just don’t give the number to Donald Trump.) Or email me:email@example.com. Or friend me on Facebook and we can message there. Or if you’re in BR, drop by for a visit (with or without an appointment). Or we can Skype (stevebuttry).
- The financial issues are real. But I am hopeful of improving our revenue under the leadership of a new ad director who starts Monday. Watch for my announcement about her on my blog tomorrow: https://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/ I am confident the new products we launch will also improve our revenue.
- If this were simply a financial decision, we would be cutting print frequency now. I had to make some difficult budget cuts in June, including deciding to fill just one of two adviser vacancies. But I wanted this decision, whether we cut print days or not, to be made as a result of a carefully considered strategy for the future of student media, not simply forced by a particular year’s tight budget.
- One measure we are seriously considering for this fall would be to actually increase print frequency, adding a game-day edition of Reveille for the seven Saturdays in the fall when the Tigers play at home (with a huge press run, distributed at tailgate parties across campus). I think this has potential to be an attractive advertising vehicle, which would improve that revenue picture discussed above. We hope to decide soon whether we can launch that this fall.
- I will send Elizabeth Crisp (and publish on my blog), revenue figures for Student Media, probably Thursday. I did not learn until after 5 p.m. today that the Advocate would be publishing Wednesday night (when she interviewed me Wednesday morning, she thought it would be a weekend story). Student Media Business Manager Megan Stone is on vacation and I wanted to make sure I got the figures right before I gave them to her. I was unable to make the Advocate’s deadline, but I will get the figures and release them Thursday.OK, that’s more than I intended to post here, but I’m willing to talk at much greater length with any and all of you. Please let me know if you want to be involved. Thanks for caring so much about LSU Student Media. Your passion and hard work made The Daily Reveille the product it is today and built the powerful connections I’ve seen in your responses tonight. I look forward to meeting and talking with you.Steve
The conversation will continue
I will blog some more about this soon. By this afternoon (depending on how my day unfolds), I hope to blog about some specific points in the Advocate story, including Student Media financial figures.
I also plan to curate some of the social media reaction to the story (and perhaps to this blog post). That might take longer, possibly even into next week. I have two deadlines tomorrow, as well as a son arriving for a visit.
Rest assured, though, this conversation is just starting. I’ve had several email exchanges already and am scheduling other phone calls, lunches, etc. Let me know if you want to join the discussion. My contact info is above.
I encourage you to read Elizabeth’s story, if you haven’t read it yet.