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Q&A: Rusty Lewis on CMN's new business model

collegepublisherUPDATE: Additional questions appended after publication.

Editor’s note: These are the responses I received from College Media Network’s Rusty Lewis in response to questions I e-mailed him about their new business model/fee structure.

Since the announcement says that papers with an average of 25,000 page views/mo. will not be charged a fee, how many of your papers do you expect would be charged? What percentage of the total client list is that?

Approximately 100 CMN news sites are above the 25k threshold; this is about 20 percent of our network. We attempted to create several lower cost options for the publications with traffic below this mark, as we know many of them have limited resources.

When it comes to paying fees, there’s never a great time to implement such a change or make this sort of announcement. We understand many student publications use the spring and early summer to budget for the upcoming school year, so the start of the calendar year was as ideal as any time. This announcement allows CMN a full semester to explain and educate the market about the new options with enough time for publications to understand what they need to budget for in the coming school year.

What kind of feedback have you received since announcing the licensing fee?

While it feels like a sudden change, many of the publications or individuals we have reached out to expressed that this change makes sense In an industry full of semester- and year-based turnover, CMN’s success is largely due to the continuity our staff and services provide college media. We wanted to remain in existence, and so far our partners understand that desire.

That said, we have received a some very positive feedback in our efforts to provide multiple options/packages.

Today is actually the second wave of social activity. A CP partner tweeted the initial post within 12 hours of posting it to our site, and we saw an initial buzz for a few hours after that. Overall, though, a surprising amount of the conversation we’ve seen has taken place between people beyond the college media circuit.

Why the difference between the standard CMN/College Publisher package ($1995/yr) and the WordPress package ($4500/yr)?

College Publisher software relies on already existent infrastructure designed to share resources and provide streamlined support. This allows us to spread costs across the entire network. Our WP option is an individualized installation enabling the newspaper staff to customize their site (through themes and plug-ins) in ways network-based software can’t do as easily.

Will you charge $150/hour to support WordPress, and what sort of support is offered in the yearly plan?

The $4,500 annual license fee covers support related to CMN services related to server environment operation, DNS services and integration of CMN plug-ins. Many of the CMN plug-ins –advertising system, traffic reporting, city guide publisher, e-mail newsletter – power the core functions for a news site.

This support package does not include CMN digging into the custom code web editors write. If the site is experiencing failures, we will make sure that CMN plug-ins are not causing the error and then roll back to previous versions in order to isolate what is wrong.

CMN will be responsible for deploying WP core updates, which can be frequent, but are essential to assuring security and stability of the site. Compatibility development post-update for themes and plug-ins (non-CMN plug-ins) is solely the responsibility of the newspaper.

Any supplemental charges for support (at $150/hr) would be discussed and approved in writing in advance of any work being done. These charges would be limited to requests for review of custom code, design work or staff training.

Is there a cost associated with moving to WordPress on the CMN network? (i.e., from CP5 to WP on your system)

Data migration projects can vary from publication to publication so we are not setting a policy on costs for archives. CMN will tackle these requests on a case-by-case basis.

Will you assist in the site design for WordPress as a part of the yearly fee?

No. Our design services are available for our core platform, CP5.

What would be the advantage to having CPPro? ($8995/yr)

This system has dedicated resources (from a hardware, software and personnel standpoint.) A publication choosing this option can expect a high level of customization for any convergence type of project or newsroom work-flow situation. All customization would be unique to this instance (as opposed to CP5) and tailored to the specific needs of the news organization(s) on an ongoing basis.

Why was this announced Dec. 20, when most college media are on holiday break?

It was really simply an unfortunate byproduct of the way the calendar fell with regard to the new ownership of CMN. It took almost three months to fix, assess, plan and announce. The Access Network Co. felt it was the most responsible thing to announce plans for the CMN business as soon as they were finalized (as we would look to start implementing these changes early in 2011.)

The posting of this policy change on our site served as a reference point. In contacting our partners via phone and e-mail, we have somewhere to refer folks to dig into the details. When considering the alternative – “sitting” on the story until the New Year – we hope the news hounds out there understand the decision to post the information as soon as it was ready.

Beyond the business model, what is the overall vision here?

CMN is a collection of niche sites serving the college community. When we started, there was a great need for getting online quickly. We filled that need the best we could. In the previous decade, needs changed and spread to reflect the diversity that exists in college media.

This change is long overdue. College media is unique in that all of our partners serve the same purpose in their local markets, but they do it in a variety of ways. We needed to offer options and customization.

In order to provide college media with more services and more distribution channels, we needed to make tweaks to the business that allowed for client customization. Now, college newspapers can be a member of CMN and use one or all of our products.

This major change in our business model was always an internal discussion point, but only until the most recent change in ownership has the capability from an accounting perspective existed to make this adjustment possible. The Access Network Co. is a technology provider to publishers and brands – they have the infrastructure to help CMN navigate this change.

Innovation is essential to college media’s survival, and ultimately ours, too.

Our goal is allowing students and faculty to focus on storytelling and information dissemination. This doesn’t have to exclude the handful of students who have a passion for custom development. While this is a growing number of students, it’s not nearly a critical mass. We are looking to create an ecosystem that allows publications to experiment with that minority of student developers and easily transition to something else when those students move on.

Anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

All of the prices and packages came from competitive analysis of various providers to the college market. When it came to pricing CP5 and CP Pro, we really took a look at the costs we are incurring to support and develop these systems to determine the price tag. We need to cover costs.

Our focus in 2011 is generating revenue, not just for us, but for our partners. The Access Network Co. is looking to create new revenue programs and hopefully get more digital advertising dollars to college media.

We thrive on feedback and sincerely want partners to let us know if they have any concerns or questions about this model change, our services or anything else related to our goals for 2011.

——— ADDITIONAL Q&A ———–

When did CMN begin looking at charging for the product?

This has been an idea kicked around for years going back to Y2M days. The issue was we never really had the infrastructure to execute this type of business model and client tracking. Investment was put off at several points in the past for a variety of reasons, but the economy definitely made our budgets lean (at least in recent history.)

How soon will this begin affecting existing customers?

We are contacting some newspapers now.

As stated in our communications, we are honoring all existing contracts. Our process involves giving 90 days advance notice to our partners that we are not renewing the existing agreements under the current terms. We have only just begun the process, but under the new set of options, we feel that newspapers will be getting more than they were under our older agreements.

How do you plan to get the word out to your partner news outlets?

We are using all the means at our disposal.

Collegepublisher.com is the hub of info newspapers can use for research and information gathering. We are beginning outreach via email and phone this week and will continue to do this all through the semester, prioritizing newspapers by the renewal date of their contract.

We definitely appreciate CICM for covering the story as it helps clear up any confusion. However, if a newspaper has any questions, we are available through email (support@collegepublisher.com) , phone (866.733.9231) and twitter (@collegepublish).