Michael Silver: Alumni, students on the same page about moving the DP forward

When it came down to the big decisions about how to put the DP on a better trajectory, the votes were unanimous.

As one of the four alumni who sit with five student managers on the DP’s new Board of Directors, I initially feared that our discussions about tough issues could devolve into alumni vs. student camps. I was particularly concerned that students wouldn’t share our desire to control operational costs, invigorate the DP’s online presence and rekindle a spirit of innovation.

My fears were unfounded.

During months of intense discussions, the alums and the students brought different perspectives to the issues, and took the lead on different things at different times. Together, we’re now moving toward a DP better suited to thrive in the digital age.

The decisions we made in May — including a reduction in professional staff, elimination of one day per week of the print edition and launch of bolder and fresher website — began with a frank and productive get-acquainted meeting in late 2013 in which we discussed general issues facing the paper.

With the start of the January semester, alumni immediately noticed a vibrant new approach to the flagship print product.  Working with great advice from a wide network of alumni (including an intensive bootcamp event organized by alumni director Jean Chatzky), managing editor Amanda Suarez quickly began transforming the daily print edition into a livelier, more visually-appealing product.

For those of us who still appreciate a strong printed newspaper, the dynamic DP front pages we’ve seen over the past few months give us reason to hope that a printed DP can continue to engage readers for a very long time.

Working with DP President/Executive Editor Taylor Culliver and Business Manager Gianni Mascioli, we delved into the reasons behind our ongoing operating deficits. Alumni director Chuck Cohen, who served as both a DP managing editor and business manager, provided some key insights and expertise as a manager and owner of an innovative business in a mature industry.

Like most newspapers, the DP has experienced a dramatic decline in print advertising revenue. Online revenue growth hasn’t been strong enough to match the print decline. The result: more than $400,000 in operating losses over the past four years.

This year, our total compensation-related spending (including five full-time professionals, student editors and managers, student ad reps and circulation staff) was about $440,000, or close to 60% of revenue. The DP has been well served for several decades by a core group of loyal employees. But with little prospect of significant near-term revenue growth, we believed we had no choice but to reduce expenses by cutting payroll. For new fiscal year that began this month, we have downsized to three full-time employees.

While some of us were focusing on expenses, alumni director Randall Lane was persistent in highlighting the lack of urgency in the DP’s online products. Drawing on his experiences at Forbes (where he is now the editor) and several high-profile web sites, Randall outlined specific steps the DP could take to raise its own online profile.

The student board members were receptive to his advice — including, ultimately, his strong advocacy of re-directing student staff time toward a much more aggressive approach to web publishing.

That included cutting back the print publishing schedule to four days a week, eliminating regular Friday publication.  

Initially, this was a step too far for me without more debate and consideration. As much as I liked Randall’s ideas for reinvigorating theDP.com (and had a few add-on ideas of my own), I was concerned about a potential loss of presence and clout if a new printed edition didn’t appear on Locust Walk every weekday during the school year. Some other board members shared my fears despite the logical arguments in favor of the cutback. I held back my own decision until I heard from each student board member — and all five spoke in favor of eliminating the Friday print edition as part of a plan to focus intensively on web. At that point, I was in.

Lots of work lies ahead. Revitalizing the website will be a big undertaking, with an overhauled site for both the DP and 34th Street Magazine debuting at the start of the fall semester. Maintaining sales activity and key administrative functions with a smaller professional staff is a challenge. Expenses still will exceed operating revenue in the coming year — although we expect to be in the black when investment income is added to the mix.

Most importantly, the DP needs to transition into the kind of organization that can adapt and innovate as advertisers and audiences change. The tough decisions we’ve made in the past few months are a start. With alumni now working alongside students and the professional staff, we believe we’ve boosted opportunities for the DP to flourish in the years ahead.

 

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