College Media / Interviews / Multimedia views

ICM Discussion: print and college newspapers

Reading the newspaper: Brookgreen Gardens in P...Image via WikipediaEditor’s Note: Last week, I chatted with Dan Reimold, college media scholar currently servin as a Fulbright Scholar in Singapore (read more of his bio here), about the current strength of the college newspaper print product. Our discussion was prompted by an earlier post Dan wrote on his weblog College Media Matters. What follows is a transcript of our chat (conducted via Gmail Chat). As always, comments and further discussion is encouraged.

Dan: My basic argument: A print newspaper death watch at the college level is either premature or inaccurate. The financial state of the student newspaper universe is “fundamentally sound,” according to a recent feature in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The papers also remain strong on the content side, producing influential, innovative work that is still being gobbled up in print by campus readers.

Is this a knock on new media or online student news outlets? Absolutely not. In many respects, the most creative, significant student journalism is taking place through new media and on the Web. Do I think the new voices are as influential as the old standby, the student newspaper? No, I do not. Do I think that the online versions of student newspapers are as influential as the print versions? No, in most cases, I do not. (Although there are obviously lots and lots of exceptions.)

Bryan: I think we basically agree that the print product on the college campus is “fundamentally sound” in terms of readership and advertising – for the time being. I am not quite as certain that the content on the print side is necessarily “innovative.” Influential, yes. The question of the online product is challenging, since so many newspapers are still basically repackaging print stories for online distribution. True innovation in online storytelling is only just developing.

In terms of “influence,” the online edition is obviously behind, although it has a greater potential for maximum impact because it can reach a much wider audience. There is a great economic incentive to focus on print to the detriment of online, and that hampers efforts to make the online side more influential on campus.

Lastly, I said the fundamentals of the economics of campus news are strong “for now.” With the world economy going through a tremendous turmoil, that could change over the next 12-18 months. I have already heard of papers where advertisers have cut back their ad buys. I suspect we’ll be seeing more of that in the near term. As well, as college budgets come under the axe, there is a potential for cuts in student funding (where many newspapers get a majority of their operating funds). IMHO, the key should be to improve the web presence while milking the print product for revenue as long as you can.

Dan: We are especially in agreement on your latter point. I think the persistence with which many student staffers and faculty advisers work on their print product indicates a more general resistance to change and a willingness to accept that online will be the principal medium for news production and consumption either sooner or later.

What is interesting to me, in a larger sense, as an individual interested in student media: There seems to be a reversal of fortunes and a growing appreciation among the professional press about college journalism’s print staying power. So much in collegemediatopia is geared toward preparing students for the future, supplying them with the skills and understanding to make it in the professional j-world. I think this is one case in which the professional print press especially might benefit from taking a closer look back at what Washington City Paper recently called its “farm system” to see how student print papers are succeeding or at least doing better at weathering the storm.

Bryan: Which, I suppose, is the real question: why? I see at least three factors at work in the success of college print media in retaining print readership: coverage, history, and presence. The coverage of campus news is frequently the most comprehensive available. The coverage includes stories about students who are known entities (your friends) and administrative issues that directly impact students’ lives. There is also a long history that goes with that. Students are familiar with the paper and it has maintained a presence on campus.

The final reason is the most controversial for most people to accept: presence. The print product is read because it’s there – it’s there when students are waiting for the professor to unlock the door to the classroom. It’s there when they want to occupy time during a boring lecture, or over lunch in the union. Right now, the online site does not have that presence, and so it is not read as much by students. It’s read mainly by people who are not present on campus.

That captive audience aspect cannot be duplicated by most professional newspapers. BTW, I think some of those reasons are also why you see many small and medium sized professional papers who are maintaining profitability while their larger siblings are watching revenue decline.

There is another aspect that we should address at some point, and that is the economics of staffing. Many college newspapers pay a pittance, if anything at all. Were they to have to pay prevailing wages …

Dan: I agree wholeheartedly with the factors you list in respect to college print media’s sustaining of readership. Along with those, I think another principal one still emanating from the student newspaper newsrooms: Many college newspaper staffers still aspire to a career in newspapers (?!). As crazy as that might seem to those of us reading the doom-and-gloom updates daily on Romenesko, a recent piece in American Journalism Review noted that many j-students still view newspapers as the most pervasive, influential entity in which to make a living as a journalist. And so they are working hard at their college print newspaper as a means to that end.

On the readership side, college newspapers are just different. In recent semesters, I’ve taken to asking students in my classes the cliched question all of us profs and instructors have asked to show we’re “with it”: How many of you actually regularly read a print newspaper? The answer of course is invariably low to none. Students’ hands, again predictably, raise more passionately when YouTube, PerezHilton, and among j-students sites like MediaBistro enter the mix. My last question, as a counter to the seeming online-print divide among the young: OK, so how many of you read the student print paper? A majority of hands normally go up. There seems to be some subsequent confusion when I point out that the college newspaper is a print newspaper also, so their initial lack of hand-raising was erroneous.

Students don’t seem to have as much of an awareness that reading their college print paper is indulging in the very old media their generation is supposed to be avoiding. As a student said to me last year, “The college paper is just different.”

Bryan: Agreed. And studies show that readership of the college newspaper doesn’t translate after they leave college to readership of a city paper. There is a definite disconnect there, and I don’t see how city papers can find many hopeful signs for gaining readership from the college experience. You have some suggestions?

Dan: Other than the bubble in which many student papers operate, the principal advantage many papers have over their professional counterparts seems to be financial: They are not under as much pressure to make as a high of a profit or in some cases to really make any money at all. Can the professional press learn from and even adapt to this model in which less is more in terms of profit margins? That I don’t know.

Also, just in case relevant, to play Sarah Palin for a moment and circle back to the earlier point, I think another main reason print has sustained itself as the principal medium for student news production: College journalists don’t seem to really know quite yet how to handle new media as a news reporting and presentation platform. Obviously, that might be true across the board, student and professional. And it’s certainly where individuals like you and places like CICM come into play. But I think we may be overestimating just how many students are truly adept at new media, and just how high their level of adeptness runs.

Bryan: True. The transition is as slow as it is in the professional press. When you’re challenging tradition that often dates back 100 years, it is a high hurdle. On the economics, I do believe there will have to be some news orgs that find a non-profit model for producing the news. Having to satisfy quarterly profit margins is eating newspapers alive. Also, the huge debt loads of some of the consolidated entities will be an albatross.

However, the one thing college newspapers have going for them is the strength of the print product. I would argue that this allows them greater opportunity to try innovative things online, if they would seize that opportunity. OTOH, there are several places where online-only news sites are competing with the print campus paper and doing well. For instance, swarthmore’s daily gazette (daily.swarthmore.edu/) apparently has higher traffic than the print newspaper, and yet has minimal overhead.

My concern for many college newspapers is that someone who is web-savvy is going to find a way to corner the online market for campus news before them. Student journalists are going to turn to an online-only entity and end up beating the campus paper with stories. For such a site, I could see a “reverse-publishing” model coming into play, where they sap away print ads for a product that was first published online.

Dan: I definitely agree. Many of the most impassioned online start-ups initiated by students themselves at this point have aimed to be complementary rather than competitive. They have tried to fill a perceived niche in student newspaper coverage. They operate with gusto but no true sense of direction or genuine oversight, as advisers struggle just as much as the student staffers with what they should be, what they should cover and how they should cover it.

Obviously the cipher to the online puzzle still lurks in the mist. It is most likely though only a matter of time until it is uncovered. I helped advise a student-run outlet that still operates at Ohio University called Speakeasy Magazine (www.speakeasymag.com), started by j-students unhappy with the coverage in the student paper. They boast a staff of more than 100 and update basically daily. The attendance at the first meeting at which I stopped by shocked me. Even a decade ago, all these students would be passionately pitching in at the student newspaper without second thought.

College journalism 2.0 is definitely in the works, if not yet fully realized. And it worries me also that so many of the most new media-savvy j-students consider the student newspaper un-hip or unfit for their skills of reinvention. As you mention, it may leave the papers lacking in online innovation a few years from now.

BTW, there is one other thing I had in my notes that I wanted to share before our chat concludes, just in relation to your earlier question about what the professional print press can learn from what is working well with college print papers. There is the CHP model (coverage, history, presence) you mentioned. There is the “bubble” factor, certainly, and the less-pressured financial outlooks. One last important component that I think makes college papers especially popular among students and that professional journos might want to take note: They are truly peer voices.

In a media landscape littered with faux-youth pubs and programming, the college papers stand out as genuine, peer-to-peer content providers. Students are reading about themselves in publications created by individuals like them. What does this mean exactly for the professional press? I’m not entirely sure. I had a student tell me recently his idea was a reversal of hierarchy: Have the older journos serve as interns and let the twentysomethings run the show and attract younger readers.

A bit extreme. 🙂 But I like the sentiment. Even the hippest city papers seem to strain to echo the current generation’s voice and at many traditional media outlets youths or younger adults are catered to in special sections or columns in which sarcasm and snazzy graphics are held up as seemingly the only ways to get the eyeballs of the young. Student print newspapers show that in the right situation and with the right content provided by the right people, young adults still will endure ink-stained hands to consume serious news.

Bryan: The one flaw in the equation is, of course, the transitory nature of many journalists. It will take journos who are committed to stay in a city and embrace it in the way college students embrace their school, which would require a financial commitment from newspapers to reward those journos appropriately. It is perhaps a great weakness in modern journalism that the goal of a journalist is to climb the ladder, not to stay in one place and record the first draft of history. I think there is a generational question that will need to be confronted. I’m not sure that large general-interest papers will crack that nut.

In the end, college newspapers will have to adapt to train students for the future, even as the print product continues to succeed, because those new media skills are going to be required. I’ve always maintained that student newspapers have both an economic and an educational mission – sustainability and training. This is perhaps a unique time when the two missions diverge for a while.

Dan: Wonderfully put. The one thing I’d like to add: I hope if nothing else that is a discussion student journalists themselves will also take up or in some cases continue, maybe at the convention later this week and in the blogosphere and newsrooms. And thanks for the chance to chat. I’m sitting in an Internet cafe in Phuket, Thailand right now, rain pummeling the streets outside. It just shows college media can bring people together. 🙂

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