A remarkable number of Minnesota journalists have ties to the Minnesota Daily, one of the country’s largest independent, student-run newspapers. Among that group the collective antennae went up at news this week that the paper is in the process of hiring a full-time general manager, essentially moving responsibilities that had been part of the paper’s mission — letting fledgling journalists learn from hands-on, real world experience — to a professional, who will have to be paid a professional salary.
For those unfamiliar with the Daily’s ways, the paper until recently had operated with a triumvirate of student leaders. An editor, a business manager and a president made day-to-day decisions for editorial, advertising and administration. Each position has been budgeted for roughly $30,000 a year in compensation, although the current editor, Cody Nelson of New Ulm, says “almost no one is actually paid $30,000.”
A volunteer board of faculty members and local business executives offered only guidance.
Now, responding to the same downward pressures affecting all of print journalism, the guiding wisdom — accepted by the student leaders — is that a full-time pro is necessary, perhaps to enhance revenue but certainly to avoid expensive management mistakes.
To cover the pro’s salary, the Daily has eliminated the president position and may have to dip into its reserve fund.
Chuck Brown, the Star Tribune’s chief financial officer and a Daily board member, says the old process worked better some years than others.
“It’s different people every year. The feeling is that we needed consistency, because it’s a different environment today. The Daily isn’t immune to the same forces we feel here and everywhere else,” Brown said. “But the intent is not to take over from the students.”
All in all, the Daily is still in a tenable financial position, despite intermittent pressure from the student fees committee to reduce funding, usually in reaction to the paper’s reserve fund, a unique commodity among campus organizations.
Says Nelson, the Daily’s current editor: “That still goes on. But this year I made the presentation [to the fees committee] and they seemed to understand that this wasn’t just a pool of money we were hoarding for no good reason. In fact, it’s very common for a nonprofit of our size.”
The Daily’s staff fluctuates between 100 and 150, with widely varying hourly commitments. In the end, the committee approved $495,000 of his $505,000 request, Nelson says.
Brown says the Daily, “is not in crisis mode. But there are digital and IT upgrades that are overdue.” (The paper’s creaky website stabilized in recent months, but there are still server issues everyone would like to see resolved.)
Nelson sees the general manager as “a kind of full-time board member.” For him, the critical consideration was that person have no authority over the Daily’s editorial function.
“I would not have gone for that. I know that we’ve had advisory positions in the past. But our position, and it was supported by the board — who by the way, work their asses off for us for no pay — is that there will be no change to the Daily’s independence.”
And in terms of guarantees that an incoming pro will bigfoot the students, Nelson says “there are only so many guarantees you can put in writing.”
“But as I say, the board itself is completely supportive of our position, which is the longstanding tradition of the Daily,” he adds.
“No, this isn’t a change in basic philosophy,” says Chuck Brown. “The Daily needs to remain what it is, a petri dish for students to get direct experience with all aspects of journalism.”
Budget trims are relatively minor, says Nelson. The paper will do without a car it has leased. Some hours will be cut from business and administration and, to create a fulltime salary, “there’s going to be a little bit of a hit to the reserve fund.” The hope is that a fulltime general manager will be able to earn it back and find a way to earn money from the online product.
Every time someone talks about goosing online revenue, the fair question is, how? With Buzzfeed-style listicles, clickbait and assorted juvenilia?
“No. That’s not going to happen,” says Nelson. “We’re not going in that direction. If anything, we want to be more of a primary news source. I love this place to death, and it has a legacy for a reason. I wasn’t sold on this right away. But if it’s what we have to do to keep it alive for years to come, it’s worth doing.”