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Taking Care of Business

COM students help Worcester Telegram & Gazette build business section readership

From left: Arsineh Ghazarian (COM’07), David Sutton (COM’07), Carolyn Saraspi (COM’07), COM Professor Lou Ureneck, and Darlene Darcy (COM’07) are consulting for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

When Worcester Telegram & Gazette business editor Andi Esposito decided that the paper’s business section needed a face-lift, she didn’t hire a consulting company. Instead, she turned to graduate students in Boston University’s College of Communication business and economics journalism program.

“Business sections everywhere are wrestling with coverage questions because everything is available on the Internet,” Esposito (CAS’69) says. “So I proposed that we assemble a group of graduate students to make a case study of our business pages. What should the business section of a mid-sized U.S. newspaper be doing to satisfy, and dare we say grow, readers?”

The central Massachusetts–based Telegram & Gazette has collaborated with COM students on writing projects in the past, so it made sense for Esposito to pitch her idea to Lou Ureneck, chair of the department of journalism and director of the business and economics journalism program. Ureneck spent the summer developing the project into a four-credit graduate seminar, and in September he and five students went to Worcester to meet with Esposito and her staff.

“The project plunges the students into the real world of daily newspapers by presenting them with a serious and fascinating challenge to evaluate the paper, learn about the market, and do a thorough analysis of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses,” Ureneck says. “And at the end of the semester, they will deliver to the Telegram & Gazette a set of recommendations backed up by a rigorous analysis.”

The students meet with Ureneck each week to discuss the paper’s coverage and readership and trends within the newspaper business. Additionally, they visit Worcester frequently to collect information from the staff and the business community. “Students haven’t been in the industry for 40 years, so they aren’t encumbered by the institutional baggage that a lot of us carry,” Esposito says. “They also belong to a reading demographic that we as journalists typically don’t reach.”

By the time the semester is over, the group will have worked hundreds of hours on the project, according to Carolyn Saraspi (COM’07), a former business and technology reporter. She says the team’s first question was, “What’s driving the news?” To answer this, the students spent the first six weeks analyzing the paper’s business coverage and gathering information from the editors, the reporters, and local business leaders. 

With an average daily circulation of just under 100,000, the Telegram & Gazette features a pull-out business section six days a week, compiled by three full-time reporters. “In general, we’ve been finding that the paper is pretty strong in their editorial content,” Saraspi says. “The mantra of the paper tends to be ‘local, local, local,’ and they do a good job in covering the community. But the reality is that papers nationwide are losing readers, and young people are just not interested in business news.”

One way the students hope to improve the paper’s readership is through its Web site, says David Sutton (COM’07), who has an undergraduate degree in economics. “We see the Web site as a resource that is costing the least amount of money and having the greatest amount of impact,” he says. “If the paper utilizes it a little more effectively, I think they could get a lot more hits.” Another suggestion is to run more business stories on the front page.

While the class itself is far from traditional — the textbook is the Telegram & Gazette’s business section — Saraspi and Sutton agree that this type of hands-on learning is invaluable. “This is the type of thing that papers hire consulting firms to do,” Sutton says. “Companies will take a year to complete the research alone, and we’re doing it in a single semester.”