JULY 1 WILL MARK THE START of the new budget year in most institutions across the country. Nothing new, as that’s the regular budget cycle of higher education. But new this year are the deep cuts some budgets have undergone due to the economic situation.
For many publication officers and magazine editors working for colleges and universities, this budget year is going to bring drastic changes and big challenges. With increasing paper, printing, and postage costs combined with big circulations, print publications have become the biggest budget lines on most balance sheets — the type of lines that will get noticed by any financially concerned eye.
At the same time, as individuals and as professionals we are becoming ever more deeply immersed in new technologies and digital media. With so much time spent in front of screens, it’s easy to wonder if printing anything on paper still makes sense, especially when sustainability efforts are targeting any wasteful use of natural resources.
Are college publications going to follow the tragic lead of the newspaper industry? It’s probably too early to tell, but current budget levels are definitely worrying, as proven by some of the results of an online survey of 148 editors conducted in March 2009 on the CASECUE listserv, an online community mainly composed of higher ed magazine editors that’s managed by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. Some highlights:
- Only about one-third of survey respondents haven’t been advised to review or reduce costs related to their flagship publication, while the same percentage has been expressly asked to produce their magazine at a lower cost.
- Nearly 18 percent have been instructed to review the lineup of all their marketing publications, including their magazine.
- Last spring, more than half (54.5 percent) of the surveyed editors expected a decrease in budget and staffing levels for 2010.
While this survey wasn’t scientific in nature, it confirmed the trends uncovered by another recent survey, which I conducted from January 29 to February 17, 2009, about the state of print and electronic publications in higher education. This was an updated version of a previous survey I reported about in the University Business column “Demand Print or Print on Demand?” (October 2007).
Completed by 199 institutions on a voluntary basis, this year’s survey isn’t statistically representative, but it definitely sheds some light on the current move from print to electronic on many campuses. Full survey results from “The State of Print and Electronic Publications in Higher Ed, 2009” can be found here: www.higheredexperts.com/2009surveys.
According to the results, no less than 65 percent of respondents reported that their print budget had been frozen or had decreased over the past two years — as opposed to only 48 percent in the 2007 survey. To reduce the budget of print publications, 82 percent have started to rely more on electronic publications, a five-point increase compared to 2007. More and more news-oriented publications such as newsletters, those covering campus news, and event calendars are now only available in an electronic format (see above chart). While this fate is reserved to a small fraction of magazines — 4 percent — this share has doubled in less than two years.
So what should you do if you have been asked to come up with a plan to revisit your institution’s marketing and news publication budget?
Even if your institution produces only a handful of publications, start with a quick audit to get a good grasp of the costs related to printed pieces. Talk to the person in charge of approving the invoices and get the annual dollar amounts paid for designing, printing, and mailing each publication. At this stage, it’s also a good idea to identify the names of any outside vendors (designers, photographers, printers, etc.) used. Obviously, it makes sense to perform this audit at the institutional level. At big universities, this will mean working with several publication officers.
While it might seem an obvious move, this step is often skipped because of a lack of time. However, it makes a lot of sense to consult the recipients of your publications about their preferences in terms of formats. Those at CASE member institutions can use, for free, their standardized online survey to poll magazine readers on several topics, including print/electronic preferences. CASE will compile the results from all participating institutions on an ongoing basis and publish the first nationwide results later this year. Running short on time? You can always set up an online survey of your own to gain some insights from your readers or target audiences.
Chances are your research will show that you can’t go paperless with every single publication. In some instances, paper will remain the most effective medium for communications. That doesn’t mean, however, that print operations can’t be optimized. The publication audit performed earlier will point you in the right direction.
For example, an institution that uses several vendors for different publications might get a better deal by consolidating all jobs on a single contract. Smarter and tighter page design may also help reduce the size of your printed piece, and a better integration with the web to provide part of the information online can save paper — and money.
Going paperless can mean several things. When it comes to digital options, one size doesn’t fit all. PDF files might be one of the worst possible options for full-color magazines, but they are actually perfect for any forms or publications that your target audiences would need to print to fill out and mail back to you. Flash-based interfaces can approach (though not replace) the experience of flipping through a magazine. Different options exist, and their costs can vary from free to a few thousand dollars.
HTML versions powered by content management systems or blogging platforms such as WordPress or Moveable Type are often retained, as they are well suited for news-oriented publications and open a new world of possibilities with the integration of photo slideshows, online videos, audio files, and other multimedia goodness.
E-mail newsletters can also fit the bill for some publications, but be sure to begin collecting the e-mail addresses of readers long before making the change, and provide recipients with an easy way to unsubscribe.
Don’t switch to electronic without letting your readers or target audiences know about it on paper first. Whether it’s a newsletter or a catalog, it’s very important to explain the change on the medium people are used to receiving. It will make the transition less painful and more successful.
Karine Joly is the web editor behind www.collegewebeditor.com, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also the founder of the professional development online community www.higheredexperts.com.