Corporate media on campus?

Florida State University paper sold to Gannett Co.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Brandon Mellor, editor-in-chief of Florida State University’s campus newspaper, picked up the phone on Aug. 1 and learned his newspaper had been sold to media giant Gannett Co. Though the sale captured national media attention and made Mellor’s paper, FSView & Florida Flambeau, a sister publication of USA Today, he told The Herald it is back to business as usual in Tallahassee.

“The initial shock kind of wore off,” he said, adding that the sale was a good move for the twice-weekly newspaper. “I’m very happy about it.”

So far FSView’s editorial content has been entirely unaffected, Mellor said. Neither the Tallahassee Democrat, the local Gannett-owned paper that initiated the sale, nor Gannett’s McLean, Va., headquarters have provided any editorial input.

Rather than a top-down corporate strategy, the deal – the first of its kind – was a local decision by the Democrat that demonstrates an effort to reach a younger audience, said Robert Parker, FSView’s former publisher. Instead of starting its own operation targeting young readers, the Democrat now benefits from FSView’s school-year circulation of 25,000.

“It wasn’t a corporate thing,” Parker said. “Gannett wasn’t out to acquire college papers.” The company, which owns more than 90 daily newspapers in the United States, purchased the Democrat last fall.

As media companies increasingly seek to enter the college media market, the sale provided FSView protection from potential future competition as well as long-term financial stability, Parker said. He added that FSView retains responsibility for hiring and firing, daily management and ad sales.

Immediate benefits may include job prospects for FSView’s graduating reporters. For Mellor, the sale has already provided a new opportunity – he is now a paid sports blogger for the Democrat.

“When we graduate and all move on, we’re obviously part of the Gannett family, so we have the opportunities there,” he said.

Unlike The Herald, the FSView had operated as a for-profit business since 1992, when it merged with the long-established but bankrupt Florida Flambeau. Though several campuses, in particular large state universities, have for-profit newspapers, FSView was one of only two for-profit college papers without a competing campus paper.

Most college papers operate as part of a university’s journalism program or are independently financed non-profit organizations, like The Herald. These types of publications thus could not be bought by a large media corporation interested in the paper’s advertising demographic. But as a for-profit company, FSView’s sale to a larger media company was a fairly logical step for the paper’s long-term sustainability, Parker said.

Despite FSView’s unusual for-profit status, the Aug. 1 buyout prompted concerned editorials on the pages of other college newspapers.

The Michigan Daily published an editorial questioning whether FSView’s student reporters would retain editorial control and what precedent the sale might set for other papers.

Christopher Zbrozek, the Daily’s editorial page editor, said the worry was not that the Daily could fall under the control of a corporate parent, but rather a “general concern for the freedom of the college press.”

Unlike an independent student-run paper, or even a family-owned paper like the New York Times, Zbrozek said a “standard Gannett drone” newspaper must answer to shareholders and be continually profitable.

“Being run by college students and not as concerned with making a buck, (college papers) have a lot more liberty to discuss issues that other papers might not be willing to touch,” Zbrozek said.

But Mellor said larger corporations’ interest in the demographic of his readership does not bother him. “Whether you pick up the paper to read the ads or our content, you’re still picking up the paper,” he said. “I don’t care how or where or when people pick up the paper, as long as they’re picking it up.”

“When it comes down to it, this paper is a moneymaker,” Mellor said. Last year FSView’s budget was in the top 3 percent of all college newspapers, according to Parker.

Despite the concern on other college campuses, Mellor said most FSU students have not seemed to notice. “Most people are naive to the way (the paper) works, and I think it’s better that way,” he said. “We just provide the paper, and they read it.”