The Iowa State Daily‘s presence has been a staple of the university since 1890, when it was first published under the name The I.A.C. Student. Since its beginning the newspaper has been a student-run operation serving the Iowa State and Ames communities.
As the nationally renowned student newspaper approached its 125-year anniversary at Iowa State, it also neared the brink of bankruptcy following years of declining advertising sales.
Fortunately, the Daily has one of its best former student employees fighting to keep it afloat. Last July, Lawrence Cunningham, ‘03, made it his personal mission to ensure that the organization he credits for starting his career continues to provide the same professional experiences he gained so much from to current and future students.
After working with university administrators and the Government of the Student Body last fall to keep the Daily’s doors open past October, Cunningham is now leading the organization into a new chapter. As the Daily prepares to move off campus at the end of the year, it’s also expanding to new platforms, connecting with its audiences and regaining its relevance in the digital age.
The sun was nowhere to be found on Thursday, Dec. 4. A high of 33 degrees and a chilling breeze foretold the coming of another dreaded winter in Ames. No snow was falling, but a flurry of activity outside of 108 Hamilton Hall signaled another change besides the weather on the Iowa State campus.
Iowa State Daily staff members crowded around the back of a white van outside of Hamilton Hall, waiting eagerly to grab as many copies of Hoops magazine as they could carry. As they carried loads to their cars, they kept mental counts to ensure they would have enough to distribute across campus.
The basketball season was already underway — the game later that night against #18 Arkansas was the fifth in the men’s season — but there was a sense of urgency surrounding the distribution operation. While waiting for their armful of magazines, students excitedly flipped through the magazine.
The frenzy wasn’t just hype about the basketball teams whose stories Hoops tells; it stemmed from a sense of pride in the first-of-its-kind publication for the Daily staff. In just over a month, they had produced the magazine’s content and sold the advertising required to print the publication they now held in their hands.
The 50-page nine-by-12-inch magazine, complete with a boldly designed, soft touch cover and its own beautifully-designed website, is a drastic change from the traditional 16–20 page special section that formerly ran in the newspaper. The staff couldn’t wait to show the world their creation.
Not only is Hoops a testament to the innovative capabilities of the Iowa State Daily staff, it’s a statement to the new direction the organization is taking under Cunningham.
Though the student newspaper and its staff members consistently win both regional and national awards for their work, the digital revolution that forced professional newspapers to change their business models throughout the 2000s finally caught up with the Daily in recent years. The organization’s reluctance to branch out from its print-based business model and a lack of oversight in its advertising department strained its relationships with advertisers and caused declines in advertising revenue — its primary source of income — each year since 2008.
> “The future is not about going at it alone and the Daily to this point in history, in 124 years, has kind of gone at it alone.” – Cunningham
While he received his degree in liberal studies from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2003, Cunningham believes he earned his degree and advertising prowess working at the Daily. Since graduating, Cunningham’s career is illustrated with a series of successes. Though he worked in Ames right after graduating (and also served on the Daily’s Publication Board) and returned years later as a Cyclone property manager with Learfield Sports, he hadn’t kept up with the state of the student newspaper.
It wasn’t until he presented at the 2014 Iowa Newspaper Association conference in Des Moines that Cunningham first learned about the Daily’s troubles from Mark Witherspoon, the Daily’s editorial adviser.
“At some point over time, a lot of things just went by the wayside and there was some professional staff turnover and there was just a different dynamic for students today than there was when I worked there,” Cunningham says.
After telling Cunningham about the Daily’s difficulties, Witherspoon asked him to return to the Daily’s Publication Board to help drive efforts to revive the organization. Cunningham agreed to sit down with Witherspoon and the Daily’s CEO at the time, Laura Widmer, and some members of the Publication Board to share some of his ideas for the organization.
After their initial meeting, Cunningham and Widmer continued to meet to discuss the ideas he had for the Daily to turn around its decreasing earnings. His experience building businesses helped him identify opportunities and gaps for the student newspaper that hadn’t yet been considered.
After weeks of discussions, Cunningham received his most unexpected job offer to date — to return to the Iowa State Daily as its advertising manager — to execute his ideas and guide the organization into a business model that would drive revenue in the digital age.
Keep in mind Cunningham hasn’t applied for a job since his internship with Landon Media Group, which he copmleted the summer before his senior year of college. His expertise in advertising sales, higher education marketing and digital strategy has always brought him new opportunities when he needed them.
“Lawrence has been successful wherever he’s gone and we wanted that success for the Daily,” Widmer says. “He had also worked for the Daily and he has a passion for the Daily and a passion for Iowa State.”
Despite his affinity for his alma mater and the student newspaper where his career began, his initial response to Widmer’s offer was, “Not a chance!”
“I said, ‘I cannot look in a mirror every day and say OK, you are at the same exact place you were 15 years ago, working for the Daily selling ads. I can’t do it, I fundamentally can’t do it,’” Cunningham recalls telling his wife after he first received the offer.
At the time he was working as the director of business development at Catchfire Media, a social media strategy and consulting company in Des Moines. He, his wife Brandy and their two sons, Asher and Brooks, were finally settling into the new house they had bought in Urbandale, where they had just completed a kitchen remodel.
“He was really happy with his current job at that point and was doing some great things in Des Moines and I think we both kind of thought we were in the Des Moines area for a while,” says his wife Brandy. “I think for him, it became a really outstanding challenge that he couldn’t let go."
The job certainly looked to be a challenge, but for Cunningham there was also some sentimentality involved.
“Ultimately I just started saying, ‘OK, I could have a really significant impact on this organization, which I hold very close to my heart because it was my training ground,’” Cunningham recalls.
A Daily Education
Cunningham first applied at the Daily as a sophomore biology major, who could count his experiences in sales on one hand. Initially, his interest was more in the commission-based pay plan the newspaper’s advertising sales reps worked for than the work the positions entailed. At the time he also held jobs with Parks Library and the ISU Foundation’s call center, trying to chip away at the loans that covered his out-of-state tuition.
His charisma and outgoing personality got him a job on the Daily’s advertising sales team. Under Annette Forbes, the Daily’s general manager at the time, Cunningham, a self-described “relationship-oriented person,” learned to apply his inherent social skills to a business setting. This helped him to build strong relationships with his clients, some of which he’s maintained to this day.
“There’s not many things in the world that I feel I can say I’m really good at, but I was good at this when I started and I think it changed my entire career path because I got this job,” Cunningham says.
While he didn’t make enough to pay his tuition in full, he made enough to quit his two other jobs and take out half as many student loans his junior year. Cunningham quickly found himself caught up in the Daily’s work hard, play hard atmosphere and in the second semester of his junior year he officially switched his major to advertising.
While Cunningham worked at the Daily the organization flourished. Advertising revenue was on the rise, its staff was embracing the potential of online, and Lawrence and his coworker Mike Stitt, ’02, made a conscious effort to break down the barriers that existed between the editorial and advertising departments while helping establish a public relations department that still exists today.
“It was one of the most prolific times in the history of the Daily, as far as money coming in, but it was also the funnest,” says Witherspoon, who began his position as editorial adviser in 1999, the same year Cunningham joined its advertising department.
> “I think for him personally and professionally he didn’t want to see that happen to the Daily — it’s always kind of been a part of him.” – Cunningham’s wife Brandy.
Cunningham’s involvement in the Daily’s success brought him invitations to speak at national conferences for organizations like the College Media Association and College Media Business and Advertising Managers. These opportunities allowed him to share what he and the Daily staff found worked and what didn’t, but also forced him to evaluate that success and its underlying causes.
With his eye on the big picture and his public displays of success Cunningham graduated with 11 job offers from advertising agencies, newspapers and other companies across the country. Cunningham surprised many when he took a position at Innova, then a small startup in Ames, working on their account management team.
Since his first position, Cunningham has branched out from his foundation in advertising that began at the Daily and taken on endeavors in marketing and consulting and business building, all with a digital focus. His background in higher education, expertise in the digital realm, keen business sense and his ability to connect with people have made him someone employers come to with their jobs, rather than the other way around.
Following the 2014 INA Conference and his initial talk with Witherspoon and Widmer, Cunningham had a conversation with fellow alumnus and Greenlee School Advisory Council Member Dan Winters, ‘03, affirmed that his experience as a student wasn’t the norm. The two talked about what students studying mass communications need and where schools lacked training opportunities for them, highlighted many differences between students today and their experience 11 years earlier.
Though they worked in different industries — Winters was a journalism and mass communications major who went into broadcast and is currently an anchor and reporter at WHOtv in Des Moines — they shared many similar experiences. Most notably, they both noticed a disconnect between the skills of graduates they were hiring and the skills the industry expected of them.
The two agreed that mass communications students need to learn the business side of their respective industries to ease the transition from being students to working professionals.
“Especially on the journalist side, we’d seen so many journalists who were casualties to not understanding the business side of an organization,” Cunningham says.
This conversation definitely factored into his consideration of Widmer’s offer. “I started to think about it. If I could get in a position where I could help students get on that path, that fast-track, because I was clearly on a fast track with the successes that I had had, and I thought that was interesting,” Cunningham says.
In addition to the positive impact he could have on the organization and on students’ lives, the thought of what might happen if he turned the Daily down also influenced his decision.
“As he got into it, he started looking more at national trends with newspapers in college media and a lot of them are going by the wayside," says spouse Brandy. “I think for him personally and professionally he didn’t want to see that happen to the Daily — it’s always kind of been a part of him.”
While the Daily couldn’t possibly offer him the kind of money he was making at Catchfire, the merits of the work he would be doing there and the potential to create more stories like his own won him over. After talking logistics with Widmer and his wife, Cunningham eventually agreed to return to the Daily as its general manager and advertising department manager at the end of July.
New Terms on Campus
Though his ideas for revitalizing the Daily earned him the job, his first task was resuscitating it. Years of declining revenue with few changes to organization’s expenses had the student newspaper on track to run out of money three months after Cunningham came on board.
“Revenues weren’t a focus and as in any business where revenues aren’t a focus, things decline quickly,” says Cunningham. “We took a very sizable loan from the university to get through October, that’s how out of money we were.”
This situation wasn’t unanticipated. Last spring, ISU President Steven Leath appointed a committee of university and Daily administrators to “recommend a plan to assist the Daily to re-tool in order to become self sufficient,” says Dr. Thomas Hill, senior vice president of student affairs and chair of the committee.
> “Lawrence is very in tune to this generation. He cares very passionately about being relevant and I think that’s an aspect of leadership for the Daily that’s really important." — Hillary Kletscher, GSB President
“Quite frankly, I think the Daily had gotten into a place where there was this period that they would do what they wanted to do regardless of the response or the consequences or whatever and I think as a result over time, they found themselves in a position where the major audience that they were serving wasn’t satisfied and really, were at a point where they didn’t want to support the Daily,” Hill says.
In addition to funding provided by ISU administration, Cunningham worked with the Government of the Student Body to renegotiate the Daily’s contract. The old contract provided the organization with an annual subscription fee, allowing the free distribution of its 40-cent print edition on campus.
Cunningham successfully requested an additional $30,000 of funding on top of the $110,000 that the old contract provided, but that additional funding came with a big catch. Instead of providing flat funding as it had in the past, the renegotiated contract, which GSB passed on Oct. 28, stipulates that the GSB’s annual allocation to the Daily is tied to specific benchmarks that the organization will be evaluated on annually. The only guaranteed funding: $25,000.
“It’s a very serious move, but it’s one that I’m comfortable with because we should be doing all the things in the benchmarks,” Cunningham says. “They didn’t put anything in there that we shouldn’t be doing. Everything that was listed was very fair.”
Throughout the negotiation process, Cunningham worked closely with GSB President Hillary Kletscher, graduate student in business administration. Though there were certainly concerns raised about providing more student funds to the campus newspaper, Kletscher said that Cunningham’s forward focus and ideas to drive more revenue helped make the case for the GSB to support the Daily through its transitional phase.
“Lawrence is very in tune to this generation,” Kletscher says. “He cares very passionately about being relevant and I think that’s an aspect of leadership for the Daily that’s really important, the desire to maintain that relevancy because quite frankly, what our students enjoy right now for getting their news won’t be the same five years from now. So continuing to want to evolve, the desire to evolve is something I’ve found to be really important.”
Hoops was one of the Daily’s first milestones since Cunningham rejoined the staff. Even before he moved into his office in Hamilton Hall, Cunningham met with Daily staffers over the summer to get them thinking about approaching things differently than they had in the past.
“Lawrence brings in this energy, but he also brings in this sense that we have to evolve ourselves pretty drastically in this coming year and he proved that he knows what he’s doing when he unveiled some new products and expanded our digital offerings,” says Kayla Klahsen, senior in advertising and Daily assistant sales manager. “So he’s kind of shaking everything up in a good way.”
As they were sorting through their special sections for the year, Klahsen and Quinton Bangston, senior in graphic design, identified Hoops as their primary target for a new approach, in the wake of the Men’s Basketball Team’s Big 12 Championship last spring. “With the excitement tied to men’s and women’s basketball at Iowa State, we decided it was kind of a no-fail situation to do that up big,” Klahsen says.
Though students produced all Hoops content, none of it would have been possible without Cunningham. “In their eyes it was a big, wild idea,” Cunningham says. “They didn’t know how to get from point A to point B, let alone point Z.”
> "The Daily goes beyond tradition; it’s weaved in the fabric of Iowa State. If we can so what we’re setting out to do, we can change our destiny and we can write a new ending to the story that was very close to its last chapter." – Cunningham
His experience working in printing led him to suggest the magazine’s size and quality paper because the students wanted to create a memorable publication. His connections at Iowa State Athletics, from his time working with Cyclone Sports Properties, provided Daily reporters with unprecedented access to ISU basketball players. His ties to the Ames community, remnants of his both his college and professional careers, helped him and his student sales reps sell the increased-rate ads to support printing 20,000 copies of the publication.
“This is an example of us being more relevant; something that’s going to be cool and sexy and people are going to want to hold on to,” says Cunningham. “The newspaper is great for what the newspaper does, but it’s not everything to everybody, so we have to be thinking more about audiences that we’re not consistently touching.”
The most telling sign of the Daily’s new direction can be found on the back cover of Hoops — a cardinal red page, featuring nothing but a small logo centered at the bottom of the page that reads, ISD Media Group.
“We’re shifting from the Iowa State Daily, which is a print newspaper, to the Iowa State Daily Media Group, which will, by design, give us more flexibility in our product offerings,” Cunningham says.
In addition to new products, Cunningham is also looking to build more partnerships like the one created with ISU Athletics that lead to the creation of Hoops.
“The future is not about going at it alone and the Daily to this point in history, in 124 years, has kind of gone at it alone,” Cunningham says. “This is the era of relationships and partnerships and community.
"The Daily goes beyond tradition; it’s weaved in the fabric of Iowa State. If we can so what we’re setting out to do, we can change our destiny and we can write a new ending to the story that was very close to its last chapter. We owe it to every person that’s been involved with the organization in any capacity to be better and be more focused and be better stewards of the money that we have and the tools that we provide and the resources that we leverage and the platforms that we offer. We have to be good stewards of those things," he added.
From Witherspoon’s perspective, Hoops is an indication of the Daily’s promising future.
"The key here is the quality of this work is going to be spreading. Once our students see this, they will want to know how to get that good," Witherspoon says. "Excellence breeds excellence and it starts with Hoops and there’s going to be more opportunities like this too once the Iowa State and Ames communities see what we’re capable of doing."
In addition to changes to the Daily’s operations, the student newspaper is preparing to move off campus and into the new Kingland Systems development in Campustown, upon its completion at the end of 2015. Michael Bugeja, Greenlee School director, hopes that the university will allow a small space in Hamilton Hall for a Daily campus bureau.
Campustown redevelopment efforts have been in the works for years and although it will physically distance the Daily from the Greenlee School, the move offers the organization a chance to join the Ames community in a rejuvenation of two institutions synonymous with the Iowa State experience.