An Interview with Elliott Gordon
President of the Board, Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech
Could you start off by telling us about your past and current involvement in student media at Virginia Tech?
I innocently joined the student media at Virginia Tech during my sophomore year (1991) out of an interest to simply learn more about the art of photography. I saw a print ad in the Collegiate Times (the student-run newspaper on campus) for the Student Publication Photo Staff (SPPS) that messaged no experience was required and that equipment would be provided – so I figured, why not? Three years later (my senior year), I was Photo Editor of the CT, managing the photojournalism assignments for a staff of a dozen or so covering the news, sports and entertainment events around Virginia Tech and the surrounding areas.
Fast-forward to 2016 and I am now the President of the Board for the Educational Media Company at Virginia Tech, the 501c3 organization that operates the five core student media divisions at VT, including the Collegiate Times (publishing a print edition and collegiatetimes.com); WUVT 90.7 FM; Virginia Tech Television Channel 33; The Bugle (the yearbook of Virginia Tech since 1895); and the Silhouette Literary and Arts Magazine.
How would you describe the mission of student media at EMCVT?
At a high-level, the purpose of these individual organizations within EMCVT is to provide a creative outlet for students pursuing either personal and/or professional interests within the various field of media – whether that be journalism, television production, or even fundraising activities – while simultaneously gaining practical experience beyond the classroom. However, working in student media is also an exercise in interpersonal communications, management skills, fiscal responsibilities, time management and mentorship – all behaviors that are required in a successful post-graduation career.
What are some of the challenges you have encountered at EMCVT?
For perspective, EMCVT has operated since 1997, yet many of the divisions have been in existence for generations – for example, the Bugle began in 1895, followed by the Collegiate Times in 1903. The fundamental challenge this particular organization (and likely many student organizations across the country) seems to have faced in the last decade is the overall marketplace shift to digital/social, and frankly even the expectation around ordering and owning a yearbook at college has changed. The revenue models – particularly advertising in print mediums – has dried up at a dramatic rate, and accepting that organizational and operational changes (people, process or otherwise) need to happen quickly to stay in line with the marketplace demands is sometimes a difficult transition.
What changes have you implemented, and what have the results been so far?
As it relates to EMCVT – and specifically with the Collegiate Times – the most significant change we implemented when I came on board in July 2015 was the immediate reduction of printing days for the newspaper. It had ballooned to 4x a week (when it was traditional 2x a week when I was in college), and the printing costs combined with the staff overhead for that size of an operation could not be supported by the advertising dollars being generated. Secondarily, there was also a transparent budget exercise across the entire company to really understand our fiscal situation, which resulted in painful but necessary steps including the reduction of student stipends and the elimination of all travel – really no different than any other company taking an honest look at P&L statements.
Can you describe the services you use with MediaMate and how they've contributed to your overall business vision for EMCVT?
When I came on board as President of EMCVT, I inherited a dire financial situation – and given that the majority of this organization’s revenue and operating expense was directly attributed to the success or failure of the print edition of the Collegiate Times, that was where our energy was focused. In particular, the advertising operations were in complete turmoil due to a significant amount of student turnover and a disjointed record-keeping system; monies weren’t collected, rate cards weren’t being followed, and students were not being trained properly. We found great partners in MediaMate, who came in and literally spearheaded this reclamation project. We are now operating with a streamlined sales kit and selling process (e.g. an appropriate commission-based structure), students are being trained in the art of advertising sales (e.g. following an industry-accepted rate card) and client management, all-the-while our account receivables are being tracked and managed within modern CRM tools (and our students are getting paid in a timely manner with direct deposit, too!). MediaMate’s partnership has allowed EMCVT to leverage their expertise in this space, reducing the organization’s distraction from what should be our core competency – providing Virginia Tech’s students with fantastic on-the-job-type media experiences.
What advice would you give to other schools where student media is losing money?
The best advice I can give is to a) make decisions, and make them quickly, while b) basing and supporting those decisions on facts with emotions put on the side. Ultimately, these are businesses, and need to be operated as such – if you are losing money, figure out what areas of the business can be changed/reduced/suspended/eliminated to remain solvent. This sounds like an obvious premise, but to me it is a simple exercise in the finances. If students (and/or staff) are getting paid too much, reduce it. If businesses cost too much to print or publish, reduce the runs. Figure out new ways to get sponsorships or underwriting to support parts of a student media organization – there are plenty of alumni available that I am sure would step in and lend a hand, either through their career expertise or their wallet. If you have legacy (or bad) deals with vendors, renegotiate them – it never hurts to ask, and many companies will be accommodating. And finally, don’t be scared to make drastic changes – at the end of the day, the school and/or an independent organization like EMCVT has a responsibility to provide these services and opportunities to students, and it is important to make sound business decisions to ensure that continues.
How can schools best balance student experience and student decision rights?
I suppose at the end of the day, I believe the longer the leash a student has to learn and make mistakes, the better. Student media organizations should be about supporting experimentation and challenging the status quo, while figuring out how to leverage new technologies like Facebook Live or Snapchat. The student media experiences at school should translate into resume bullets, internship opportunities, and the like.
What is EMCVT’s relationship with the university?
EMCVT is an independent 501c3 that operates with some financial support from the University. Virginia Tech also supplies office space on campus for these RSOs (registered student organizations) to operate, which is of great benefit. As mentioned, these individual organizations are generational, community institutions and there is a healthy, friendly and collaborative relationship between EMCVT and Virginia Tech – we collectively have a common goal to ensure there is a stable organization operating for the benefit of students who want to be involved in media.
What’s next for EMCVT?
We have a few core goals for the upcoming 2016-17 academic year – we are continuing to hone our publishing schedule/calendar for the Collegiate Times, in conjunction with MediaMate, such that we can optimize advertising and newspaper pick-up rates around campus; we are looking to migrate many of our digital sites to more modern technologies; there is a renewed focus on how to leverage social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) alongside the traditional print journalism, while also encouraging cross-pollination of content creation between say VTTV video segments and the CT online; there are also capital investments that need to be made for equipment upgrades to ensure redundancies of our WUVT radio library, and we need to look at replacing a significant amount of legacy photography equipment for improved quality and staff training purposes.
What legacy would you like to leave at EMCVT?
EMCVT is a labor of love for all the alumni that participate in the Board, agnostic of what division we all came from. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that these institutions – some of which are over 100 years old – are around for another 100 years, in whatever form that takes. Products evolve – what was once a traditional yearbook generally made up of student headshots has become an award-winning coffee table-style book. The Collegiate Times has hosted and streamed live mock debates using digital channels – so the most important legacy anyone can leave is simply to ensure that these divisional brands have the financial capabilities to continue on for future generations, and that they can have the flexibility (and professional mentorship) needed to evolve rapidly as times change.
What are you most proud of EMCVT for accomplishing this year?
The organization was in financial turmoil during the 2015-16 academic year, and I am most proud of the maturity our student leaders exhibited during this time – they had to participate in really hard decisions, and look beyond just the immediate impact those decisions were going to have on them. With their support and collaboration, the Board was able to adopt many changes that ultimately brought financial stability to the organization and set the tone for how we will operate in the years ahead. The organization was essentially walked back from bankruptcy, and without the support of the student leaders and Board members, we could have never have accomplished this renewed sense of excitement everyone has going into the upcoming academic year.
What is your biggest wish for EMCVT?
Foremost, I want our students to “come to work” every day and not have to worry at all about a financial disruption – all of these divisions need to know that EMCVT has the financial transparency, accounting and investment necessary to make sure they can participate in student media without the threat of it ever ending. Beyond that, I really want EMCVT to make sure that our students have the best, most modern tools, equipment, training, etc., available to them such that their experiences translate into opportunities beyond their time at Virginia Tech.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Student media is a family – I spent more time participating in student media activities than I ever spent in a classroom or on school work. The circle you build in these types of student organizations stick with you forever, and I am truly blessed to continue having close relationships with many of these friends today. And many of these friends are now donating time and expertise to EMCVT divisions, which seemingly has had the effect of evaporating the fact that 20 years has past. It’s amazing.