Can New Ventures Save College Newspapers from Extinction?

    by Charlie Weaver
    May 23, 2014

    The following is a guest post. Read more about MediaShift guest posts here.

    Two years ago, with a year of research, a meticulously crafted blueprint, and a passion for the future of the University of Oregon’s student newspaper, a publisher and his students were perched at the edge.

    "We have an ambitious goal to reach $500,000 in annual revenue from these businesses in five years."

    The expanse between the old and comfortable and the untested and new. The divide that today separates many journalism practitioners.


    Collectively they jumped. They struck the landing, and they called it a “Revolution.” Emerald Media Group was born.

    They outlined a focus on digital-first journalism, committed to projects that would expand alternative revenue-generating services, and presented one of the most logical approaches to reducing print frequency without impacting quality or overall print revenues.

    I’m honored to continue in the footsteps of that publisher, Ryan Frank, and step into the house that he’s built. He and the students dared to do something few others in college media could.


    As the Emerald continues succeeding and failing and succeeding, our goal remains to find new ways to fund independent student journalism. But we don’t think of ourselves as just a campus newspaper anymore. We’re a modern college media company.


    In my few short weeks here, these are some of the lessons the students here have shared with me. There are many more to learn, as well.

    Same tools but for businesses: The advertising clients who have been with us for decades in print desperately want to reach 18-24 year olds on other platforms as well and the same tools used on the news side — high quality video, writing and design — can be used to continue to capture their business. So, the Emerald created a separate business team to do this. It also allows us to train more students in a whole new field: advertising. This is the inspiration for our creative agency model.

    Follow the role models: When the students sat down to redesign our website, they looked at every major media brand that is popular with the millennial audience. From Vice to Vox, they took notes on the innovations that these brands bring: mobile, visuals, explanation, context, humor and more. Legacy media companies must move swiftly to put these tools to use.

    Can’t stop: For college newspapers to survive through the disruptive changes today in media and technology, they must become continuous innovators both in business and in news. This means new ways to tell engaging stories but also new ways to engage with the audience and clients outside the news products. It could be an events business or a marketing team or a new social network for football players. All that matters is that you’re trying something new every day.

    Rapid growth creates challenges: As we started new projects and juggled new ideas, growth began to outpace management. This is a good problem to have. As the Emerald grew from a handful of students on the business side to 50 in one year, it became increasingly complicated to figure out who was talking to which clients, where we were on each project and as well as who had reserved the conference room for what time. The important thing is to address issues. Fast.

    Groom future leaders: Our news team picks the best up and coming go-getters and meets with them every Friday for the Future Leaders meeting. They discuss management, ethics, news judgment — all the things that will eventually make great editors. This helps freshman and sophomores who are still deciding their future become part of something.

    Get ready to go viral: When it comes to news lessons, the biggest one they learned was with a viral video posted earlier this year when a snowball fight between Oregon students went wrong. The video posted by the Emerald climbed to more than 4 million views and began a conversation on our campus about journalistic ethics. Here’s the eight lessons that resulted.

    Have priorities: Be a startup and try a lot of things, but always be deciding what you can be best at. Then go get it. Every campus is different. At Oregon, that might be having the best football coverage or putting on events to honor 25 Ducks who could change the world. Maybe it’s working on a project with a advertising client to showcase the global academic excellence of the university. No matter — find the things that you can absolutely own. Then own them.

    Do pro bono work: We set up a Photo Booth in the lobby of the journalism school to provide free professional head shots that students could use on their LinkedIn account or resume. The line extended outside of the building before the shoot even began. Our creative agency also sets aside 10 percent of its time to do work for non-profits or other groups that enhance the college experience. These can also be great portfolio pieces and some of the most fun and innovative projects.


    After countless experiments, three stuck:

    • Emerald PhotoBooth: A red-carpet-worthy professional photography and printing business

    • Emerald Presents: An events and marketing team to promote the media group and clients

    • The Venture Dept.: A creative agency for small businesses and the university

    Together, they make up a full-service events and creative agency geared at reaching millennials.

    All have grown and matured into forward-facing brands. Born in The Garage, our new ventures division, and developed over the past year or two, these brands are ready to emerge from the incubator. While we still rely heavily on print advertising, these teams have established themselves as profitable and sustainable.

    Now, we’ll make them central to our business strategy — and allow for more new ventures to grow.

    We have an ambitious goal to reach $500,000 in annual revenue from these businesses in five years.

    We’ll reorganize the business side to more effectively maximize revenues and avoid missed opportunities that can potentially occur with a decentralized account team. With the current rapid growth of these individual brands, we’re beginning to create confusion within the group as well as our own client base. Consolidating the relationship management duties into a singular touchpoint for our clients is imperative.

    Growth is exemplified by The Venture Dept. which began with two students and has grown into a staff of more than 20 students in less than a year. Originally budgeted to bill out $23,000 in its first year, Venture has recently passed $100,000 in billables in less than 10 months.

    PhotoBooth has enjoyed similar success and rapid growth — holding down photography at brew fests, Greek Life functions and more.

    The Emerald Presents team has focused its second year on internal promotions to highlight the Emerald brand in a series of successful events. Best of Campus, 25 Ducks and The Undie Run are all examples of community outreach and engagement that has grown a staff of two into a group of more than a dozen team members.

    Presents will be expanding into the public event market and splitting off a social media management team stepping up as an additional revenue vertical that hasn’t been tapped as of yet within the media group.



    With the things we’ve learned through many of the Revolution’s steps, we’re renewing our commitment to spread that spirit of innovation in student media across the country. It will begin with Emerald Media Group kits that other student news/media companies can use to replicate our experiments.

    PhotoBooth will be the first available kit in the fall with other kits to follow throughout the year. In addition to those consumables, we’re planning the first college media convention in history in the summer of 2015 centered around the Emerald philosophy and its commitment to innovation and business.


    There’s a brand new version of our news website on the way. We’ve watched our mobile pageviews climb — cresting 50 percent of our total traffic. We’ve evaluated the current user experience and understand it’s not fulfilling our mission to make college better. We’re remedying that. We understand mobile is where our demographic lives, and will make mobile central to our new site. We’re also building in greater flexibility to tell more visual and engaging stories.



    The Garage was home to our successful PhotoBooth, Emerald Presents and The Venture Dept. brands. As we move those products into our main suite, we’re preparing to experiment more than ever to create new businesses, products and ideas to fund our student journalism endeavors and develop new ways to tell those stories.

    With a dedicated staff to help students find and use the resources to innovate, The Garage will become a true incubator available for students to pitch projects that fulfill the Emerald Media Group’s mission to make college better.


    How do we accomplish all of this? That’s the underlying concept of E+15. The idea is that we never stop thinking about 15 months from now and, more importantly, 15 years from now — every year. By constantly re-imagining what Emerald Media Group will be in 15 months and 15 years, we force ourselves into a perpetual-motion cycle. In essence we’ve cleverly tweaked the initial definition of the Revolution.

    It’s no longer about affecting change. It’s about keeping the momentum and moving forward never stopping. Always revolving. Always evolving.

    Charlie Weaver is the president, publisher and CEO of Emerald Media Group, the student media company at the University of Oregon. He joined the Emerald this May from Iowa State University. 

    Tagged: advertising agency college media college newspapers creative agency emerald media entrepreneurship oregon daily emerald revolution the daily emerald

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