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Black, White and in the Red

I spy: Bryan Keogh with his brainchild
Craig Lassig

Idealism and perfectionism, while laudable attributes, can sometimes trip each other up. No one knows this better than Bryan Keogh, the founder, publisher, executive editor, and very often the one-man force behind The Campus Observer, the fledgling weekly newspaper at the University of Minnesota that Keogh hoped would provide an alternate voice to the dominant Minnesota Daily. Launched in September with the high- minded goal of offering in-depth, investigative stories about the University--and the world surrounding it--the Observer has run into considerable snags that threaten to quash it before it really gets a chance to take off.

On this December afternoon, Keogh is looking at the October 8 issue of his paper. It's the fourth edition, and it may turn out to be the last that ever appears in newsprint (the paper's accompanying Web site continues to be updated regularly, at least for the moment). He gestures toward the photo at the top of the page; it's a block of dark gray shapes that are only vaguely discernible as students. "I look at that and I'm cringing," Keogh says. "Who wants to look at that?" He then points to a neighboring headline and chastises himself for inserting an unnecessary r in the middle of "Bemidji."

At 23, Keogh is a small, slim figure, with feathery blond hair and light blue eyes that create an almost elfin appearance. Yet when he speaks about the Observer, there's a certain world-weariness in his tone that belies his age. "Every week was a tragedy waiting to happen," he offers with a wry smile. As a student-run, student-financed operation, the Observer has been something of a seat-of-the-pants creation. With no actual office space, Keogh and his skeletal staff work out of Keogh's apartment, above a Dinkytown coffee shop.

And although Keogh managed to cobble together a small group of editors and writers, he often found himself doing most of the work--everything from writing stories and taking photographs to picking up the papers (anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 each week) from the printer in Shakopee and distributing them around campus. All this while balancing college courses for his double major in journalism and philosophy.

Running the Observer has been an educational experience, Keogh says. Though he had long tossed around the idea of starting a paper to compete with the Daily (Keogh worked as a reporter there and served as editorial editor through the fall of 2000), he didn't really start planning and recruiting staff until last summer. The editorial content he scrounged up was an intriguing mix, including articles on campus issues, op-ed pieces from university professors, and even ongoing reportage from Sarajevo by a former U of M student now living there.

Keogh brought $2,500 of his own money to the project, but he thought his modest paper could easily be financed through advertising. He researched ad rates at the Daily and the Southwest Journal and he hired a sales staff, but he didn't focus on it. As a result, the Observer managed to sell only a single ad, to the Asian American Student Cultural Center ("I always thought I should send them a plaque," Keogh quips). By the time the fourth issue was printed, Keogh had run through his entire nest egg. Unless he finds an infusion of funds during the coming semester, the Observer will likely remain a Web-only production.

"I thought it would be easier than it was," Keogh muses. "I learned a lot about people, a lot about management. Things I didn't really want to know. There just wasn't enough interest in keeping it going. It defeats the purpose if it doesn't last."

And therein lies the challenge. Keogh's vision was to create a thoughtful, thought-provoking weekly paper that would bring some competition to the Daily. The genesis of the idea, in fact, sprung out of the Daily, or more accurately, disillusionment with the 101-year-old student-run paper.

In the fall of 2000 there was a much-reported controversy when the Daily shut down its freestanding arts-and-entertainment section, A&E, citing financial woes. "We weren't very happy with the way the editor in chief was running things," Keogh recalls. "They were making some bad decisions. We felt the business side had too much influence."

Plenty of other Daily staff grumbled about the changes, adding to a growing belief that the venerable institution was going downhill. "It just didn't seem like they were covering the campus really, as it could be, with real scrutiny on the administration," Keogh explains. Despite the complaints, Keogh was the only person to quit and seriously consider starting a new paper (after Keogh did the initial planning, Jende Huang, Keogh's successor at the Daily, quit this fall to become opinions-page editor for the Observer).

Keogh admits that he didn't really know what he was doing, and his original ideas about becoming a student organization didn't come to fruition. In hindsight, he says he probably should have started to recruit staff much earlier than he did--especially some business-minded people to manage the financial aspects of the operation. "Things I did right before we started printing I should have done months ago," he says. "I just wanted to start, you know?"

 

Those who've observed the Observer are quick to point out that Keogh's lack of business acumen appears to have been his biggest obstacle. "Bryan is a nice guy and I like him, but he was really operating under the principle that he wanted to find writers who were so passionate they didn't care about being paid," says Charlie Gerszewski, a journalism major who analyzed the Observer as a project for a class on media management. "As sad as it is, that's not how the world works."

For the class project, Gerszewski and a group of students took on the role of consultants to the Observer, breaking down the costs of the operation and outlining its direction, editorial content, ad market, design, staff, and budgeting. The editorial content, Gerszewski stresses, seemed promising. "There definitely is room there," he says. "There's a hole in the university community. The Daily doesn't have the depth The Campus Observer could have. It doesn't have the quality of writers."

But, he adds, in order for a new paper to survive, it needs substantial capital--enough to float for at least two years before breaking even. "Coming in as a student with no money, you just make it that much harder," Gerszewski says.

Another classmate who participated in the media-management class project was Benjamin Exley, president of the Daily. He says part of his original interest in the project was to see what steps the Daily might consider taking in light of the Observer's presence on campus. But when it became clear that the Observer wasn't much of a threat to the Daily's ad base, Exley explains, the project shifted its focus to examining what it would take to sustain a new student-run weekly.

Though Exley is aware of the criticism of the Daily that led to the Observer's founding, he stresses that the Daily leadership changed after Keogh quit the paper. The president, business manager, and editor in chief--who form a team that performs the jobs usually belonging to a paper's publisher--each serve one-year terms; Exley and the current crew started last May and will finish their tenure at the end of the current semester.

"I'd be pretty confident that it's a lot better here," Exley says, although he adds that lower ad sales have forced the Daily to cut its budget by 20 percent this year, which in turn means the student staff has had to work harder. "They're burned out," he admits. "People are working way, way more than you can expect a college student to work."

As far as the general direction of the Daily, Exley bristles a bit at Keogh's criticism. "There is no one paper that's going to please everybody," he says. "When I saw the Observer, I thought, 'This is a neat idea.' It's a weekly, it's in-depth, it's opinionated. That's not what the Daily is, and we have no plans to do that.

"The number-one goal has to be to make enough money to keep printing," he says. "Unfortunately that's what Bryan wasn't able to do."

But Keogh hasn't given up yet. The paper and Web site have been on a hiatus for exams and winter break, but Keogh still hopes to find some funding this semester to get the Observer going again, albeit on a monthly basis, or just on the Web. At the very least he'd like to bring in some people who can manage the business side, as well as some committed writers and editors who want to keep the Observer alive after Keogh graduates this spring.

"I need someone who wouldn't need to be paid right away," Keogh says. "Someone I trust, and someone who can dedicate himself or herself to it. It's hard to get experienced journalists to commit to these things, unless you have a passion for this and you think there needs to be another paper on campus. A lot of people think that, but they don't necessarily want to do the work it takes. And it's a lot of work."

Nonetheless, Keogh, an aspiring foreign correspondent who's toying with the notion of law school, says he's not sorry he tried--even if the Observer fades away. "I don't really regret it. My parents think it's a bad idea, but I think it was worthwhile for me," he says.

Still, he adds, "It'd be nice to have something last. It's a huge campus. It's much too big for one newspaper."


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