College Media News / hope for the future / innovation

Red & Black takes innovative print/online strategy to new level

randb20The University of Georgia’s Red & Black (previously mentioned here and here and here) has long been an innovative campus media outlet. This semester, they’ve taken that innovation to a new level, abandoning their daily print product in favor of a weekly print/online hybrid and the addition of a monthly full-color magazine. You can see what the new weekly print edition looks like here. The R&B‘s web site is still powered by the WordPress CMS.

Dan Reimold outlines the strategy in a very complete article for PBS MediaShift: Revolution in Georgia: Student Newspaper Goes Digital First.

I interviewed Red & Black Publisher Harry Montevideo about some of the behind-the-scenes details of the development of this new publishing model.

I’m including a transcript of the entire interview below the fold, but I did want to mention a few of the top-level takeaways from the discussion:

  • The Red & Black spent a lot of time looking at the issue before deciding to go from daily to weekly.
  • The staff and board of directors spent a lot of time researching the issue before making a decision.
  • Students were understanding and accepting of the change – a key buy-in.
  • The staff interviewed advertisers and received assurances that the advertising income would be similar even in a weekly format.
  • The Red & Black hasn’t had to spend a lot of extra money on equipment to upgrade.
  • The student staff structure is pretty much the same as it was, with the exception of a few fewer page designers.
  • The new Ampersand magazine is an effort to pull in students who normally wouldn’t work for a newspaper, and provide another vehicle for advertising income.
  • The primary goal of the Red & Black is still training students for their future careers in journalism, no matter what format/publication schedule they have.

Here’s a look at the cover of the first issue of Ampersand:

magazineonline

The full version will be online at the Red & Black web site next week, says Ed Morales, editorial adviser. The magazine might get its own dedicated web site next year.

I’m paraphrasing the topics that we discussed, rather than transcribing my questions. It was a bit of a wide-ranging discussion, and I think this format is easier to follow.

Discussions about changing the Red & Black’s publication format

It’s a conversation that’s been going on for probably 2 or 3 years, along with the industry. Nobody here has been unaware of the issues that are affecting newspapers, newspaper readership, the delivery of news.

At what point did that conversation turn in to “Hey, let’s go digital first, and print weekly?” Officially, the board approved it at their June meeting a couple of months ago. Unofficially, the discussion has been going on since November last year.

It’s a relatively a big change. There’s a couple of ways you can look at it. Going from a daily to a weekly sounds on the onset like it’s a big change, but when you get into it and start to look at what the mission of the paper is and the community we serve, the end result is it’s kind of a big deal, but it’s kind of not a big deal.

Buy-in from the board of directors

There was a huge amount of work involved in persuading a 15-member board whose average age is probably approaching 70 that life as a student has changed so dramatically that our business model needs to change. It took a tremendous amount of research … e-mails, reports, communications to give them the information that they needed to make sure that this was a sound decision for the Red & Black.

And the board was diligent enough in their responsibilities to say, “Hey, we need to make sure that we’ve crossed the t’s dotted the i’s that we’ve done everything we need to do to make the best decision for the Red & Black.”

Buy-in from student journalists

One of my big reservations was that my perception that a majority of the staff was still print-centric and would want to hold on to a daily print edition. When we did sit down fairly early in the process and talk to them about it, I was pleasantly surprised for them to realize that they knew the industry was changing – how they were consuming news, how their fellow students were consuming news – and they were actually kind of relieved to get out of the cycle of creating the ‘daily miracle’ and packaging it up in a weekly and be able to devote more time to delivering the news digitally.

So, to my surprise, it was very well received among the student staff. I thought it might take more convincing, more selling them on the idea. They grabbed it immediately.

Inspiration or ideas for the new format?

I follow the industry fairly closely through various listservs, Poynter Institute, and trade publications.

We’ve been doing the same thing the industry’s been doing, looking for the golden egg or the magic pill that was going to solve all our problems, but what all of us have found is there is no one right solution or easy path going forward.

Part of this started with a little bit of a “What’s a worst case scenario: what does the Red & Black look like 5 years from now?” Maybe at some point in time we’re only able to afford to print once a week. It almost kind of came in a backwards sense.

Once we started looking at some of those things, and looking at the pros and cons and seeing how many of the pros outweighed the cons, we said, well, maybe if this happens in 5 years, it’s not such a bad idea. Maybe we should look at having it happen now rather than having this decline continue, being forced down that path.

One of the key factors for us was, we actually went out and did interviews with advertisers, and asked them how would they value the Red & Black as an advertising vehicle if we published once a week versus daily. And the feedback we got from the advertisers was that they were most interested in reaching that market in the most efficient way, and that they saw the value of being able to put their ad in one product that reached a larger percentage of the market through a longer shelf life, through increased pickup.

And basically, it told us that they would spend in essence the same amount that they would spend whether we were daily or weekly. They are interested in reaching what’s a very affluent 40,000-plus demographic in a relatively small marketplace. The university community is a huge player in the economic portion of Athens. That didn’t change anything.

That kind of gave us some confidence that the business model … that we could support ourselves financially. We’re pretty confident that that’s going to hold up.

Campus response

Honestly, there hasn’t been a huge response. I’m not sure we were expecting anything. There hasn’t been a lot of “Gee, I want my daily Red & Black back,” there hasn’t been a lot of that. We’ve got the largest freshman class ever at the University of Georgia, so we’ve got 5,500 students who don’t know any different anyway. They’re new to the university, they weren’t expecting a daily newspaper, didn’t know there was a daily newspaper. Close to a third of the student population on campus isn’t familiar with the fact that the Red & Black wasn’t a daily product.

We took a fair amount of time trying to promote it, trying to explain it, so maybe we did a good enough job in saying what we were doing and why.

Staff restructuring

We’re breaking news every day. We’ve got pretty much the same staff structure that we had before. The one area that it’s impacted is page design. We’re putting a few fewer pages out, and spreading the work out a couple of days. So I think we’ve got a couple of fewer page designers, but by and large, they’re still working some on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights getting the weekly product out.

If you were inside the Red & Black, you wouldn’t see things much different than it was when we were printing. We’re just delivering the news digitally versus in print.

Online traffic

We’re seeing about a 20 percent increase in unique visitors and a tad bit less than that in page views. Our local traffic is up as well. We’re expecting this to be somewhat of an evolution as people who had been daily readers some of them will convert and read us online daily, some of them probably won’t.

That’s something we’re going to promote over the course of the year, we’re going to try to encourage people to get their daily news, to keep in touch with what’s happening at the university on a daily basis by either going to the web site or viewing us on their mobile device or following us on Twitter or getting our e-mail headlines or even interacting in Facebook. social networking, all those things are part of the plan to stay engaged with our audience, basically.

(Print circulation) has gone up to 14,000 each Thursday. It was 12,000. We feel that with the paper being out there over the course of a week, we’ll be able to distribute 14,000 papers.

Ampersand

We’ve got a 32-page 4-color magazine going out. We’re excited about that, to see how that’s received. Some of that will be distributed in the racks that would normally have a Monday paper in it, but we’ll also be distributing them through retail channels, hotels, visitor’s center, so it’s a little bit different distribution channel than just sticking it in news racks.

We expect that to go a little bit quicker. We may increase that circulation as time goes on. We wanted to start the product with a fairly low cost of entry for the advertisers and just gauge how well it’s picked up. Not having anything like that on campus now, the first issue covering football, football being so huge here, we’re pretty optimistic that it’s going to be picked up fairly quickly.

We’ve never done a magazine before, and it’s one of the largest disciplines in the journalism college here. We’ve tried to encourage them to work in the newspaper in the past, but the magazine is more of an attempt to give the magazine students their sandbox to play in so to speak. If we can make a little bit of money, we’re happy to, but for the most part, the magazine is put together with a  volunteer staff with some oversight from the regular newspaper/online core of students that make up every media operation.

The idea from the educational standpoint is to provide the tools and the infrastructure here so that students to get all the experience that they need so that when they graduate they’ll be more marketable in the marketplace. That’s kind of bottom line what I think the mission of student newspapers ought to be.

We want to serve the community and give them dynamic products … but our real mission here is focused on giving the students the training and experience that they need so that they can go out and get jobs when they graduate. We try to add software, hardware, whatever, that enables them to do more, to deliver news as it’s currently being delivered.

I think the shift to weekly is a pretty big shift in itself, the magazine is a pretty ambitious product. Where we’d like to focus this year is to try to get those done as best we can, and deliver those two products solidly, and obviously deliver more content online.

We’ve made a few minor improvements in the web site. But we’re looking at it as kind of an evolution, not just a big shift – here we are. It’s going to take some time to build more online-savvy students, it’s going to take time to get more magazine expertise, the weekly newspaper will probably be tweaked over the course of the year. I think for the next year, we’ve got our hands full with what we’re doing.

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