Opinion | Columns

The struggles and success of Spec business's new direction

At the end of my last semester as publisher, I was locked in the office for 48 hours with fellow Turkeyshoot board members to decide next semester’s editors. 

I wish that happened earlier. It was tough, and tough decisions had to be made, but we all really enjoyed each others’ company and insights (even after all that time). I regret not having spent more time with these people throughout the year—and that includes both applicants and deliberators.  

Looking back on my two years on the job, I know I made some mistakes. I know reimbursement checks weren’t always written in the most timely manner. But I really hope that some of the good in what we’ve been doing on the business side became clear. I hope, given our new revenue-driven versus cost-cutting approach, we took real steps in making the adversarial relationship between business and content a thing of the past. The best parts of Spectator going forward will be ones that combine creative content presentation and creation, aesthetically pleasing design, a web-first mentality, a reader-oriented perspective, and, of course, monetization strategies.

But Spectator can fail; not only in our day-to-day ability to produce quality student journalism, but also in our capacity to survive as an independent student-run publishing company—one that receives no funding from the University while shouldering printing, web development, staffing, and production costs, among others.

That very real threat of financial failure, made even more real by current trends in the traditional media industry, is what makes Spectator’s business team so exciting.

Two years ago, Spec’s sole response to fluctuations in print revenue was cost management. The student business team generated no operating revenue and made no ad sales. Instead, all placements were made through our professional ad manager. Our ad products were limited to print and web display. 

But, in 2012, that comfortable arrangement of waiting for reliable inbound calls from ad agencies asking for big display placements became untenable following the financial crisis and the decline of print media. With costs already cut to the bone, we knew students had to take a more active approach in growing the top line. 

That was difficult at first. We didn’t know how to interweave new student outbound ad pitches with existing advertiser relationships, or where to look beyond conventional ad platforms for revenue, or how to suddenly raise the expectations for business staffers from 30 minutes to 8, 20, or 35 hours per week. We threw a lot of stuff against the wall that never stuck: text link ads, revenue-sharing agreements with college-focused daily deal sites, and an ad partnership with EventSalsa, a student events calendar. 

But eventually we struck gold with the first Columbia Media Conference in Fall 2012—the first of its kind for Spectator. It was a sponsored event—and, best of all, students themselves sold the sponsorships. 

What unfolded over the next year was nothing short of incredible. Momentum from CMC opened the flood gates for student ad sales for our print and web editions; we re-launched the Spectator site and rolled out a series of new ad products—sponsored social media, multimedia, web interstitials, flyers, and campus events. We were so successful in selling our web ads that we began acquiring and developing new digital ad properties, like Print@CU and Courses@CU, beyond the daily site. On the donor-facing side, we closed the massive archive digitization campaign, redesigned our donor website, and retooled our alumni outreach to become year-round, as opposed to just centered around our annual fundraiser dinner.

In short, we stayed in the black. And without organizational precedent for driving revenue, and under threat of real failure, our student business staff overcame tremendous challenges.

To the 2012 and 2013 business teams, you should be fiercely proud of what you accomplished. I know the road there wasn’t easy—I expected a great deal from you, and sometimes, given uncertainty over the right way forward, those expectations weren’t totally clear. But, together, we took the risks and took action, and no one can take away the lessons you learned along the way. In many cases, you, not me, were the impetus behind a big sale, a big idea, or a big donation. 

In particular, I need to sincerely thank Wes Rodriguez, Rob Frech, Trevor Cohen, and Michael Ouimette. Together, we built the beginnings of a truly student-run company. To the students who will continue to run it, remember that inaction is not a luxury you can afford in our industry: You, as an individual, can make a tremendous difference in Spectator’s future. Results are what matter. 

And a huge thank you to Finn Vigeland, Sammy Roth, Sarah Darville, and Maggie Alden for being fully supportive of this brave new direction for the business staff. You are incredibly talented journalists—you have done incredible things for Spec and will continue doing incredible things elsewhere.

There’s still a lot of work to do here. The nascent business team is still figuring out what works and how to execute what works—especially with the same routine effectiveness that content demonstrates when they put out articles every day. But I’m confident in next year’s staff and leadership to get the job done.

I spent just as much time in college as publisher as anything else. And, because of all the people I had the pleasure of working with at Spec, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

#SpecNation #DreamTeam

Alex Smyk is a Columbia College senior majoring in financial economics and environmental science. He was the publisher for the 136th and 137th corporate boards. 

Read the rest of this year's senior columns here.

To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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anonymous posted on

you should have had the decency not to write a column.

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Jake Hershman posted on

Well said, Alex! You should be really proud of all of your accomplishments.

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Anonymous posted on

BRAND SMYK

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