On the hopelessness of print advertising

Screenshot of the Josh Dehaas' article on Maclean's On Campus.

Screenshot of the Josh Dehaas’ article on Maclean’s On Campus.

This week I was interviewed by Josh Dehaas for a Maclean’s On Campus article about dropping print ad revenue and how campus papers are accounting for the loss. The article lays out the dropping ad revenue trend and what some papers are up to, but what it’s missing is an analysis of the trend itself and mention of plans to address it, not just react.

The plans I’m referring to have nothing to do with CUP, at least not directly. Instead, the plans belong to minds busy at work in an office somewhere in Edmonton, Alberta. They call themselves FREE Media and they’re CUP’s preferred partner meaning, if you ask CUP about advertising, we put you in contact with FREE.

I’ve heard their pitch and (no, they’re not paying me to write this) I think they have the potential to significantly impact the market. True, they’re not the only players out there, but the reason I believe FREE will go far is based on their mix of outside-of-the-box plans, talent and resources.

Here’s the longer version of the story: The first time I met two folks from FREE was in a Montreal restaurant famous for its sake bombs (google it). As the new CUP president, I was eager to meet the faces behind this shiny new partner I had heard so much about and they were eager to meet me as I would become the new person they would be dealing with – I could have been a nightmare! Luckily this is not the case ;)

Between bombs, what struck me most about FREE was their stance on the future of advertising in campus media. There was no doom-and-gloom talk that so frequently took over any conversation about advertising in campus media. No, they steadfastly believe there is a huge market in campus media that advertisers are missing out on and, often, campus papers sell themselves short – something that won’t happen, they say, if papers sign up for an advertising contract with FREE. So far FREE looks promising.

First, their website is outstanding. It reflects a clear vision for both their company and their role in the world of campus media – something I can only imagine took hours and hours of discussion, brainstorming and, finally, action to make happen. They’ve published a newsletter again reflecting their vision and goals  (full disclosure, again, I was interviewed for it). They’ve also got a long term business plan, which to my ears says they have a stake in building good and sustainable relationships with campus papers.

It was also striking to meet a company that has taken the time to understand the people they’re working for (ahem, students), the environment campus papers are created in and how their company fits in to our* world. They’re not telling us they know better “because they’re pros,” they’re not pulling scare tactics – at least not that I’ve heard about – and they’re hopeful for the future, running headlong into a market that seems, at least in my experience to date, volatile and doomed to disappointment.

(Context: I became president just in time to be involved in the final legs of Campus Plus’ bankruptcy. Am I a bit more jaded as result? Oh yes – and I’m sure I’m not alone.)

But change and sustainability take time – there will be no miracle with a rainbow made of advertising dollars, probably – but FREE presents campus papers with a new direction and a plan to follow.

That plan may change, go horribly awry and later be abandoned, but the reasoning that shaped the plan is sound: A campus is a gathering point for young people, actively looking for opportunities; a campus newspaper is one of the few mediums mandated to exist in that space with the added value of being created by peers. If companies want to advertise on campus, with campus cred, they need to go in the paper.

After years of being told no one’s jazzed about print ads and the downward trend is an inevitable smack of “real life,” recognizing the real advertising potential of campus papers is cause for celebration – and for reasons bigger than money. To recognize campus papers’ selling potential is to recognize the power these papers have to affect trends and dialogue on campus.

Yes, campus papers are valuable. Yes, the work staff and volunteers do week after week is valuable. And yes, campus papers can be financially sustainable. To me, this the major get out of CUP’s partnership with FREE Media and why this trend of declining advertising revenue, though reality for now, is not inevitable.

The coming academic year will be FREE’s inaugural year selling national ads for campus papers from coast to coast, so time will tell whether the promised dollars and fair practices come through and whether that declining trend persists.

I’ll definitely be watching and I’m sure, of course, campus papers will be too.

*I am a student again! Fall 2013, I’ll be taking one course at Ryerson’s Chang School of Continuing Education. Coding 101, here I come.

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