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August 20 2012

13:34

Red & Black Lesson: Students Must Balance Business Needs at College Papers

There are no winners in the mess at the Red & Black. But there are lessons.

The Red & Black at the University of Georgia has long been regarded as one of America's finest college news operations. The students' journalism is consistently first class, and publisher Harry Montevideo has a track record as one of the sharpest business minds in the industry. (Disclosure: Montevideo has been a mentor of mine.)

But last week, a clumsy board memo became public, suggesting students focus more on "good" stories and granted more editorial control to professionals. Student editors resigned in protest. And Montevideo scuffled with a reporter at an open house. Montevideo has since issued a written apology for the scuffle and the board member who wrote the memo has resigned.

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How could things go so wrong? And what can the rest of us who work in college newspapers learn from it?

On the face of it, the dispute rests on whether students or professionals "control" the editorial content. Certainly, student control is central to the mission of student media. But the reality of running an independent, self-supporting college newspaper in the digital age is more nuanced than just who controls content.

Boards, editors and publishers must figure out how to evolve from the 1990s model of a journalism lab funded by an advertising monopoly to a 2010s model of a media company fighting in a hyper-competitive market.

"Every paper in the country wrestles with that: How do we deliver what you need to know vs. what you want to know?" said Barry Hollander, a professor at the University of Georgia's Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

"If I knew the answer, I'd be a consultant ... I have no idea what the answer is, and I have my doubts about anyone who says they know what the answer is. We're all trying to feel our way along."

From lab to business

College newspaper boards and publishers must figure out the business model while still giving students the editorial freedom that they deserve and without compromising traditional journalistic values and ethics. In some ways, it's a more complicated balance than professional newsrooms where the publisher and owners get the final say on all business and editorial decisions.

In the 1990s model, college newspapers offered students and advertisers the only option for news and a local marketplace. That opened up a river of revenue that subsidized student-led newsrooms and provided nearly limitless journalistic freedom. I was a product of that system at the Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon in the late 1990s. It was the most fun I've had in journalism.

But I will be the first to admit, we occasionally produced some silly, unprofessional and self-absorbed journalism. In that model, it didn't matter. We practiced the skills we learned in class -- writing, sourcing and beats -- and didn't have to bother with advertisers, rates and readership.

But those days ended long before Myspace.

In the 2010s model, college newspapers offer one option among dozens. They compete against Facebook, Google and Twitter for students' time and advertisers' money. For many newspapers, readership and revenue are down 25 percent or more from the peak in the 1990s or 2000s.

Boards and publishers stare at those trendlines and seek solutions. But they also know they have no direct control over the most important piece of the operation: the content.

Different models at different schools

Each independent college newspaper confronts that challenge differently.

"It's the same as it has always been: education, training, persuading, suggesting. Some combination of all of those things," said Eric Jacobs, general manager for 31 years at The Daily Pennsylvanian.

At the Red & Black, the board believed the newspaper needed more professional oversight, especially online. "You've got to have people there to guide these things," Elliott Brack, the board's president, told the Student Press Law Center. "Each one of those takes its own professional."

But the students believed they were being forced into assignments that were more public relations than newsgathering, including "grip and grin" photos during sorority rush week, said Evan Stichler, the Red & Black's former chief photographer. "I think they were looking at it more from the marketing and advertising standpoint of getting viewers," he said.

At UCLA's Daily Bruin, director Arvli Ward is building a digital advertising network completely divorced from the newspaper. So far, his staff has built 60 mobile apps. His goal: to generate enough advertising revenue to subsidize the student newsroom.

"The monopoly that we owned was not on distributing dead tree products around campus, it was the advertising monopoly," Ward said. "That's what we have to regain. When we regain that, we can funnel money to our newsroom and let students do what they do. It's not going to be The New York Times, and sometimes it's going to be off color, but that's what makes a college newspaper interesting."

At the University of Oregon's Emerald, where I now work again, our student editors went on strike in 2009.

Students walked out after a consultant to the board drafted an organizational chart in which the publisher would oversee the student editor. I advocated for and later chaired an Editorial Independence Committee to protect the newsroom's editorial independence.

But my perspective evolved when I became publisher of the Emerald and was accountable for the company's financial performance. I still believe that students must retain editorial control. However, I also see the need to ensure student editors run the newsroom in a way that fits with the company's long-term business goals. It's a delicate balance that is now reviewed at least annually by an Editorial Advisory Committee led by a former Emerald editor in chief and editor at The Oregonian.

The sense of urgency is intense for independent college newspapers. Now, more than ever, college newspapers need tighter working relationships among news editors, business leaders and board members.

Or as Stichler, the former Red & Black photographer, put it: "Stick to your principles. Have some standards between board, editor and staff people ... You have to make sure everyone is in agreement."

Ryan Frank is president of the Emerald Media Group, formerly the Oregon Daily Emerald, the independent nonprofit media company at the University of Oregon. He blogs at thegarage.dailyemerald.com.

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April 12 2010

16:45

How Going Online Can Help Save Struggling College Papers

In an old episode of "The West Wing," a leader of an AIDS-stricken African nation tells the president plainly, "It's a terrible thing to beg for your life."

The quote comes to mind as I read about the current plight of the Technician, the student newspaper at North Carolina State University. In a recent editorial, the few remaining staff at the newspaper declared that the publication "is looking down the business end of the barrel and is in serious need of student involvement ... Without student support, the paper could cease publication at the end of the semester ... Today's paper was only on the stand because of what the staff would describe as a printing miracle."

The newspaper's decline rapidly accelerated last fall when a lack of staffers in higher editorial positions left the multi-tasking editor-in-chief "overwhelmed and overworked." His extra effort in the newsroom cost him in the classroom, leading to poor grades which, ironically enough dealt him an automatic suspension from the newspaper. So the guy holding the paper together by the skin of his ink-stained hands was suddenly gone. Cue free-fall, or what one editor called, "sort of mayhem."

But the Technician can take heart in the advent of small campus publications that have sprung up online on smaller budgets, often surving and thriving without print editions.

On the Cusp of Extinction

The Technician's mayhem is also an important reminder: College media, on the whole, are not rich, overstaffed, well-oiled machines. In fact, most student journalism outlets are one bad semester, staff shortage or poor leadership transition away from near-extinction every academic term.

And yet, this reality is often overlooked on campuses and within news reports.

A few years back, Newsweek told the story of a young man named David Burrick. As the piece noted:

David Burrick edits a daily newspaper in Philadelphia. When big news breaks he deploys a staff of 200 reporters and photographers, flying them across the country if necessary, keeping an eye toward his $1 million budget. And then he goes to class. Burrick's paper? The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania. "We're a bunch of 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds," he says, "but we operate like a major business and a professional paper."

What the article did not mention: The DP, Daily Northwestern, Independent Florida Alligator, Columbia Spectator, Daily Californian, and a few other big-money campus pubs are the exceptions, not the rule.

For the most part, college media are about the mayhem, not the millions. Many college news outlets are run on shoestring budgets. They are supported by the blood, sweat, and red pens of a small group of unpaid students who juggle competing commitments and operate with little journalistic training. A fair number of papers are run out of dorm rooms and via meet-ups in campus cafeterias -- newsrooms are a luxury that staff or their schools cannot afford. Ultimately, most student media are not looking to break the bank. They are fighting simply to stay alive.

Fortunately, student media survival and success with less -- less staff, less training, less time -- has never been more assured. Need proof? Look online, and onward.

A 'Rogue Campus Blog'

Onward State, a student news site at Penn State University, has been dubbed a "rogue campus blog" and a "sociological petri dish." Its founder, Davis Shaver, calls the outlet simply "a blogging fraternity."

onward.jpg The frat rushed into hyperlinked existence in November 2008, built atop Shaver's frustrations with what he considered the "technologically-phobic bureaucracy" of the campus newspaper, the Daily Collegian. Just 16 months later, even while still "as new as Joe Paterno is old," it has grown into a 20-student operation averaging 40,000 visitors per month, regularly breaking stories, and "giving the Daily Collegian a run for its money."

(A similar online-only publication, NYU Local serves the New York University campus.)

Blueprint for Reinvention

Onward State's "flash-bang success" is a chin-up for college media in mayhem, and a reason for the troubled Technician to take heart -- and take notice. The site's structure and style serve as a potential blueprint for saving (and reinventing) a student newspaper in peril.

The key rules it breaks are as follows:

  • Print, Out: Print publications provide student media an undeniable presence on campus, but they are expensive and require extraordinary care and special design skills to produce. Onward State's online-only push has allowed fewer staff to put out more news with much greater ease. Staffers serving on what I'll call Technician 2.0 could conceivably publish on their own terms, at their own speed, and without the specter of empty pages looming over them, waiting to be filled. As a student editor at an online news outlet at Ohio University told me a few years ago, "Ink stains are so 20th century."
  • Virtual Workspace: Face-to-face meetings and nights in the newsroom can be great for bonding, but are increasingly overwhelming for students already weighed down by classes, club meetings, and upcoming Spring Break trips. Onward State operates digitally, with a (Google) wave and a nod to the online-inspired portability of modern undergrads. Staff can live their lives and balance their outside workloads while still communicating constantly and feeding the site. No last-minute trudging across campus or sigh-inducing newsroom shifts needed.
  • User Friendly: Onward State has 20 dedicated staffers, and more than 40,000 potential contributors. Since its inception, the outlet has focused on generating involvement and content from the student body, in part by using social media. As Shaver recently told Mashable, "We focused on our Twitter presence from the very beginning, and it's paid dividends for us in terms of referring traffic to the site and really becoming a part of the community ... in the sense that people will actually send stories to us on Twitter."
  • Dress Down: Onward State is snarky, personal, occasionally gossipy -- and extremely well-informed. Too many student media think the key is parroting the professionals. One student described it to me as "dress up journalism." A campus outlet with a tiny or inexperienced editorial board should not pretend to be the New York Times. It's a disservice to student readers, and a turn-off to potential staff. Drop the pretense. Do something else, something new. As journalist and blogger Will Sullivan wrote, "College is one of the few times in your career that you can try something totally wacky, fail and it won't really set you back or ruin your career. Try alternative story forms. Learn new technologies. Break the mold of traditional journalism. Your generation and its ability to innovate will save the craft."

Dan Reimold is a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, "Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy and a Student Journalism Revolution," is due out later this year by Rutgers University Press.

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January 28 2010

19:43

College Media Should Ignore Siren Song of Pay Walls

The drumbeats are growing louder, as Rupert Murdoch, Steven Brill, and now the New York Times have confirmed: Pay walls or metered pricing systems for online news content will soon be coming to a high-profile website frequented by you. Too little, too late? Journalism's savior? A final nail-in-the-coffin separation between old and new media?

The implications for the news industry and Internet as a whole are enormous. For college media specifically, meters and walls could be a veritable game changer, a final helium burst in their rise to professional press-level prominence -- provided, of course, they turn them down.

At present, I can see no reason why college media outlets should erect pay walls or enact pricing meters for their online content. Some independent student newspapers with higher bottom lines have endured financial hiccups lately but, overall, college media are holding strong. A majority of outlets are fully or mostly supported. Staff work for free or are paid a pittance. Annual profit expectations are zero to uber-low.

With no pressing need to enhance their revenue streams, my advice is: Keep sites free. By offering readers an open window instead of a wall, college media can become more of a trusted, viable alternative to the pro-press pay plans.

Attracting the Mainstream

Beyond niche outlets like The Chronicle of Higher Education and rich information centers like the New York Times, most meters and walls will only be scaled by the most passionate readers. (For example, I used to read Variety online, but there is no way I am shelling out its new asking price of $248 per year.)

If enacted en masse, the new "walledoffedness culture," as a snarky colleague of mine calls it, will leave general web surfers in the lurch and looking for more affordable options. Cue college media. If they react to the meter/wall onslaught correctly, student outlets can entice these more routine news seekers, who are in the majority.

Making it work will require some changes in student media's editorial approach. Two main alterations are worth consideration.

1. Increase Off-Campus Reporting

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The web-age adage of how to succeed online is currently centered on hyper-localization. Cover a topic or geographic area like no one else, and your outlet will gain value for its uniqueness and market dominance. So far, student outlets have embraced this simply by continuing their long-established focus on campus and student news. But if the new journalism world is going to separate will-pay and won't-pay readers, some extra reporting about local and even national news could be a huge draw.

Last January, The Villanovan, a student newspaper at Villanova University, was criticized for failing to cover much of President Obama's Inauguration. At the time, editors offered a hyper-local response:

The Villanovan is and always has been the student paper of Villanova, not a national newspaper. There are four complimentary national papers on campus; students should turn to these for daily coverage. When you want to read about Villanova and students' reactions and reflections, though, we're your paper.

In the pay-era, this type of thinking might have to go. Readers may not be willing to pay for access to sites belonging to national or city papers. They might be looking for a free alternative, something relatively trusted that captures the pulse of their hometown. Offering some "outside" news may be a wonderful enticement to draw readers to student media sites. Hopefully people will also stay to read about what should always remain the student press's main focus: campus news, with a student-first editorial philosophy.

So, how do you add in this extra news component, especially since it's tough enough already to cover a single campus?

2. Extend Peer Content Sharing

We are living in a post-UWIRE world in which content distribution among college media is tougher than ever. (Though I have high hopes College News Network or a similar future initiative will save the day).

In order for student media sites to become more popular with casual news browsers, they will need to republish more news from their peers -- especially biggie items about, say, the recent special election in Massachusetts or the current Sundance Film Festival.

Most high-profile news events and issues have relevance to a school in some way -- at times simply because they occur near a campus -- so usually at least some student media will provide coverage and commentary. Student outlets looking to fill the gap created by pay walls should seize and display these news items more prominently on their sites, providing visitors a well-rounded glimpse of the world.

Strategy for Success

So to sum up, my three-point strategy for college media success in a walled-off news media world:

  1. Stick with local news reporting depth.
  2. Add national news breadth.
  3. Be an open window, not a pay wall.

In a New York Times piece about pay plans, Rupert Murdoch is described as a Pied Piper hoping to lead a mass of media to pay-walled nirvana. My advice to college media is simple: Do not follow Murdoch the Piper. Remember that in the fairy tale, the children are lured by the lovely music into a cave, never to be heard from again...

Dan Reimold is a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, "Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy and a Student Journalism Revolution," is due out later this year by Rutgers University Press.

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