IU grads carve Greek-based niche in news

June 19, 2010

Olympia factboxWhat started with a casual meeting between two Indiana University students in a business class in the fall of 2008 has grown into a for-profit operation with projected revenue of $2 million this year.

Interestingly, the Indianapolis-based business is centered on an industry many think is dying. Despite long odds and little startup capital, Evan Burns and Adrian France launched a weekly print newspaper at IU last September.

The newspaper—which is aimed at college fraternity and sorority members—has been profitable since its first issue, said Burns, who, along with France, graduated in May.

The publication is now on four campuses, including Purdue University, Michigan State University and Miami University in Ohio. The founders want a presence at 27 colleges nationwide in September. Burns and France are hiring 15 full-time staffers by Aug. 1.

“We found a print publication put in the right location can rise above the noise level of everything else and gain people’s attention,” Burns said.

The editorial content is another key to the publication’s success.

Don’t expect to find news of the latest kegger in the paper. The content is strictly “PG-13,” Burns said.

“We wanted to keep this a high-end publication,” he said. “We determined our content based on demand. It’s what our advertisers and our readers wanted.”

The articles, many written in first person, cover a range of topics from fraternity and sorority charity and fundraising events to challenges of recruiting house members and more general articles covering topics such as the local music scene or whether to “friend” someone on Facebook.

“There was no publication highlighting the good works of the fraternities and sororities on campus,” said France, who, like Burns, was part of several IU Greek leadership groups. “Everybody likes reading about their friends and other members of their group.”

Still room for print

Despite the success of the fledgling paper, Brad Hamm, dean of IU’s School of Journalism, doesn’t think it will have a major impact on the campus paper, the Indiana Daily Student, which has a stable circulation of about 16,000.

“All media in all forms compete for ad dollars,” Hamm said. “But I think there’s room for a broad, general-interest publication with specialty publications in the same market.

“I think it’s very possible that this new publication is creating new ad dollars. They’ve identified a unique niche that allows advertisers to reach that segment in a new way.”

While Hamm said more young people are getting their news digitally these days, he isn’t completely surprised by the new paper’s success.

“Lots of people still walk around in the community they reside and pick up things and read them,” Hamm said. “Specialty publications still have a strong business model, and a college campus is a perfect community to distribute this type of publication.”

The tabloid-size paper, which was produced out of Burns’ and France’s rooms last year, now appears ready for major growth. But a year ago, all the duo had to sell was a concept—and themselves.

Last June, Burns, a finance major from Jasper, began making cold calls to sell ads, while France, a journalism major from Evansville, began designing the publication and outlining editorial policies.

Burns, a Phi Kappa Psi, sold advertisers on reaching a high-end demographic with disposable income, inking multiweek contracts with Dunkin’ Donuts, the IU Athletic Department, Aveda Hair Salons and others.

Burns roughed out the business plan, which included basics, such as distribution, and the long-term objective of building a scalable model. The duo brokered a deal to have The Daily Reporter in Greenfield print the publication.

After heeding a suggestion from her mom, France, a Delta Zeta, pitched the name The Odyssey for the weekly newspaper. Now she and Burns are on a voyage that calls for expanding to at least 40 colleges during the 2011-2012 academic year.

The two set up an umbrella company, Olympia Media Group, and a model using an on-campus staff, including student publisher, writers and ad sales representatives. Much of the design, editing and printing will be done in Indiana.

Writers are paid per article, while the ad sales staff is paid on commission. The publisher on each campus gets a cut of all sales for that particular paper. Burns and France networked through their fraternity and sorority on other campuses to identify qualified job candidates. Recently, they brought in 20 of their far-flung staffers for an all-expenses-paid, multi-day company seminar in downtown Indianapolis.

While the student employees are not offered benefits such as health care insurance, the company’s full-time employees eventually will be.

“As the company grows, making sure they have the expanding revenue to meet all the new expenses will be one of the biggest challenges,” said IU’s Hamm.

Looking at the long term

Despite a profitable first year, the long-term future of The Odyssey looked iffy until this spring, when Burns and France sat down to have a heart-to-heart.

“I asked him, ‘Are we going to try to really grow this business, or do I need to start looking for another job?’” France said.

Running a small business as college seniors was a challenge, but taking Olympia Media Group to the next level would require a serious commitment.

With the help of four new investors, Burns and France are in the process of building out their headquarters at 5201 W. 86th St. They declined to reveal the size of the investment. They have 27 commission-paid student publishers and 40 on-campus student ad representatives in place.

The investors are Harlan Bakeries Executive Vice President Doug Harlan; Wade Garard, a local marketer and fund-raiser; Grand Rapids, Mich., businessmen John Green, a real estate developer, and Brian Steketee, a marketing agency owner.

Harlan, Garard and Green are Phi Kappa Psi alumni who met Burns through fraternity leadership and fundraising functions. That trio brought in Steketee to evaluate the business, and he liked the model so much, he asked to invest.

“We like the mission, we like the business model, and we love the people involved,” Garard said.

Targeting bigger, and smaller

Burns, 22, and France, 23, launched their paper on the IU and Purdue campuses. After realizing its potential, they began looking for a small-town and larger-town college to test their model. They introduced The Odyssey, which is customized for each campus, at Miami of Ohio in January and Michigan State in February.

“The most important thing about all of our early markets is, they had strong Greek communities,” Burns said. “Then we wanted to test our model in two distinctly different markets. It was a matter of vetting the process.”

Every edition of the four papers made money every issue. The Michigan State paper made enough money in the first three issues to cover expenses for the entire semester.

The duo recently launched a website and is now developing applications for several mobile devices.

“The newspaper is still the main product,” Burns said. “But we think it can be a vehicle to launch other media ventures, including digital.”

Burns and France distribute at least 3,000 issues of The Odyssey per campus, delivering the free newspaper during the 30 weeks of the school year, straight to every fraternity and sorority on campus, plus strategic locations, including coffee shops, hair salons and student union buildings.

“It’s not a matter of just laying the newspapers around,” Burns said. “It’s a matter of putting them in the right location, like right in the dining hall of the fraternity and sorority houses. It’s right there as students eat and with nothing else to do. It’s all about removing the barriers of entry to our publication.”

Keeping barriers of entry for advertisers low has also been key, Burns said.

“We have to make the cost of ads reasonable,” he said. “But we’re not giving space away. We think we have a viable audience to sell.”

Ad prices vary based on how many times an advertiser runs a spot. For a single run, a quarter-page ad costs $115 and a full page costs $695. The entire publication is full-color, and so are the ads.

“Not only did they help us reach an influential group of students on campus in a new way, but they had lots of great ideas to tie into our promotions and on-campus events,” said Kristi Morley, marketing manager for Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee Indianapolis-based H&H Restaurant Group.•


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