• October 20, 2014

Planned Shutdown of U. of Missouri Press Underscores Shift in Traditional Publishing

The University of Missouri will soon be without a university press. The university announced on May 24, that it would phase out its press, beginning in July. The news was made public in a larger statement about the university's shifting strategic priorities.

Such announcements about other university presses have often spurred protests and attempts to save them, but so far at least, the news about the Missouri press has been greeted quietly.

One close observer of scholarly publishing, Peter Brantley of the Internet Archive, noted in a blog post for Publishers Weekly that "the impact of such closures is mediated by how the academic community handles the larger transformations in publishing." He wrote that while closing university presses might lead to "a diminution of the number of outlets for scholarly work, it could just as easily be a more positive bellwether for a healthy shift in emphasis from one model of scholarly publishing to another."

The Missouri statement suggests that the university is shifting its emphasis away from traditional publishing. Although the Missouri legislature did not cut its budget for higher education this year, Timothy M. Wolfe, the university system's president, said it was essential "to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities, and to re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission."

According to the statement, the university wants to focus on "exploring dramatically new models for scholarly communication, building on its strengths in journalism, library science, information technology, the libraries, and its broad emphasis on media of the future." It will train students "to prepare for careers in scholarly communication in the new-media world." The statement also invokes "a new business model" under which publications "could include much more than text, such as simulations, audio, and other elements."

Hughes, Twain, and Truman

Established in 1958, the Missouri press concentrates on the kind of monographs that traditionally have been university presses' bread and butter. The press publishes about 30 books a year in a variety of subject areas, including regional and military history. It's home to the collected works of Langston Hughes and to series like "Mark Twain & His Circle" and "Give 'Em Hell Harry" (on its native son Harry S. Truman), and on Missouri history and biography.

"Similar to other industries, scholarly publishing is dramatically changing due to emerging technology, making traditional publishing very challenging," a university spokeswoman, Jennifer Hollingshead, said in the statement.

In an interview, she held out no hope of a reprieve for the press. "As you can expect," she said, "this was a big decision for the university, and one we didn't take lightly."

Several consultants over the past few years have advised the press on how to cut costs, according to Ms. Hollingshead. "They made some changes in business practices, but ultimately it wasn't enough," she said. The press currently gets a $400,000 yearly subsidy from the university. That will cease on June 30, when the university's fiscal year ends.

No timetable has been set for winding down the press's operations. The press employs about 10 people, who learned about the closure last week, Ms. Hollingshead said. The Chronicle was unable to reach the press's interim director, Dwight Browne, by e-mail or telephone on Friday.

Threats to Other Presses

The news from Missouri may still be too fresh, but there hasn't yet been the kind of outcry that erupted in 2009, when Louisiana State University Press's then-shaky financial status almost got it shut down. "There's been maybe a handful of calls from concerned folks," Ms. Hollingshead said. "But I think, for the most part, people understand that in the budget situation that we're in, tough changes were required."

With budgets tight everywhere, university presses are no strangers to threats of closure. In 1998 the University of Arkansas tried to shut down its press; in 2010, Southern Methodist University Press suspended its press's operations, although its provost said last year that the university plans to reconstitute the publishing operation in some form.

Financial challenges don't always spell doom for university presses. Several have had their death sentences commuted, either because supporters campaigned for them or because they were able to come up with more-sustainable business plans.

In several instances, the Association of American University Presses has sent other press directors and personnel to help figure out how a financially challenged press might be saved. Douglas Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press, has often been part of those consultations.

"Many of us in the AAUP have been involved in advising universities when their presses have run into financial or managerial problems," he said by e-mail, "and I can't think of a time when that process hasn't resulted in bringing a publishing operation back from the brink."

"The digital environment is not the first challenge university presses have faced and emerged from stronger than when we went in," he went on. "I'm a little concerned that this decision at Missouri sounds as if it was made in isolation and perhaps hastily as well."

In its 50-year run, the Missouri press has published much notable work, "including great books on the state's history and culture," Mr. Armato said. "Missouri is an awfully significant university, and an awfully large state, to be without a press."

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.