In May 2012, the University of Missouri Press lost its $400,000 subsidy from its parent organization, which effectively meant the press would be closing in 2013.
The news of its planned closing, coming from new University of Missouri President Timothy M. Wolfe, the second businessman to run the university (he’s a former computer salesman — his predecessor had been CEO of Sprint), ignited ire within the faculty.
More recently, a press release claiming the university was “launching a reimagined University of Missouri Press that will use innovative techniques for scholarly communication” only increased the ill will percolating among faculty. The fact that the current press is still slated to close in 2013, with staff allowed to apply for jobs with the new press if they agree to also teach at the university, fueled more outrage.
In the words of a New York Times story on the matter, the press release’s “critics said the new plan was vague and full of corporate jargon.” Worse, the press release showed how out of touch the administration may be, again quoting from the New York Times story:
The administration seemed unaware that the press already was doing the supposedly new things described in the plan, Clair Willcox, the current editor of the press, said. The press, for instance, already publishes e-books, he said.
Later reports that Wolfe never spoke to or consulted employees of the current press only fanned the flames.
I first came across this story via Twitter, when someone shared a link to the press release. The press release piqued my interest immediately — there’s a sick beauty to a press release so full of jargon and empty of ideas, like the glistening beauty of a roadkill frog, puffed and distended by the heat. Here’s one of my favorite sections. Remember, this is supposed to be an actual human being being quoted:
This new 21st century press will enable the University of Missouri to be an innovator and nationwide leader in university publishing at a time when traditional academic publishing is being challenged to maintain its position as the main venue for scholarly book publishing. By launching a press that is creative, cost-effective and in line with the university mission of educating students and advancing knowledge, MU can develop a model for a new kind of university press that effectively integrates a significant publishing enterprise with high-quality, hands-on education and training of students in new publishing technology and practices.
Who talks like that?
What seems to lurk in the rhetorical weeds is that they need to cut costs and put students to work in the press.
The New York Times story also carries an interesting aside about another press that attempted a similar reinvention:
After closing its press in the mid-1990s, Rice University reopened a digital-only operation in 2006, but it shut that down after four years. Rice’s example revealed a difficult truth about digital scholarly publishing: it is still expensive.
There are many threads encapsulated in this story — the incursion of non-academic business leaders into academia, and how they seem to bring in their wake silly jargon and discord; the invocation of “innovation” as a mantra without meaning; the realization that digital isn’t cheap; the ongoing diminution of academic outputs for the sake of small savings and unclear alternative priorities; the issue of unpaid interns, a trend that picked up steam before schools broke for summer; and the lack of vision or ambition being exhibited in some quarters, as leaders outside their realm retreat into ROI and business school survival mode.
The new leader of the press, Speer Morgan, is trying to put the best face possible on the proceedings, but succeeding only moderately well. In a story in Publisher’s Weekly, Morgan claims the moves by university officials were part of a much broader strategy to “reinvigorate” the press, and make it part of the “learning function of the university.” Many are saying this is a duplicitous term for making students do the work of the professionals at the press. But it seems to me the university is taking it further — trying to make the editors into teachers, saving teaching positions, and the students into editors, saving editorial salaries. How this nets out in their books isn’t clear, so it’s not surprising that some sources admit the university doesn’t know what the new model for the press will cost.
Morgan is an interesting choice to lead the press, as this snippet from the Publisher’s Weekly piece points out:
While Morgan admits that he does not have experience in book publishing, he contends that this is not an obstacle, as he is both a published author and has been the editor of the Missouri Review, which publishes quarterly, for the past 35 years.
“I have experience with authors, estates. I’ve done a considerable amount of primary research, I have experience with research libraries,” he says, “We have good connections with New York City publishers, agent and editorial contacts. We’re not just some literary magazine that publishes only contemporary poetry or whatever.”
It’s no secret that the content business isn’t what it used to be, but comparisons with the newspaper industry are very misguided. (I know, we look at it here from time to time, but mostly from a print distribution standpoint.) For instance, while writing this blog post, I ran into the New York Times paywall, my allowance of free views having been exhausted. No problem, I found an equivalent story in USA Today. News is a commodity. University presses are trading in evergreen content, scholarship that can be highly valued and valuable. Many of the best non-fiction books each year come out of university presses, and have long shelf lives, sometimes decades long.
Ultimately, it seems the University of Missouri is reducing its bet on its content business and increasing its bet on its student business. That may be a harsh but necessary thing, all the criticism of their bad writing and clumsy handling of the matters aside. In a post not directly related to university presses, but one that’s of interest nonetheless, Jeff Jarvis has the following to say, which darkly foreshadows what many may be asking over the coming years as more and more changes erode content businesses:
Oh, yes, there’s still a business in content. But it’s an increasingly difficult business to survive in. It’s a limiting business. It’s an expensive business. It’s a business with more and more competitors and more and more price pressure. It’s a business that still requires blockbusters but they are harder to come by. It’s a business in which the bar to success is constantly rising.
As you *sure* you want to be in the content business?