College Newspapers Go Digital-First, Innovate To Stay Relevant

College Newspapers Go Digital-First, Innovate To Stay Relevant

NEW YORK -- This fall, the University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald -- a print publication for more than 90 years -- will ditch the daily for digital, publish a twice-weekly magazine, and launch a mini-tech start-up called The Garage.

It's a digital-first strategy similar to one adopted at the University of Georgia, which killed the daily Red & Black last year in favor of a weekly publication. Meanwhile, student newspapers like UCLA's Daily Bruin aren't giving up the daily print edition, but are planning to churn out thousands of apps for every aspect of student life to help supplement lost print advertising revenue.

College newspapers, facing economic pressures similar to their off-campus counterparts and hoping to stay ahead of the technological curve, are growing up fast. "Real world" newspaper trends of declining advertising and print readership have led many student newspapers to rethink business models in an increasingly digital media world. The Emerald, coincidentally, announced plans to cut print frequency on the same day as New Orleans' revered daily, the Times-Picayune, according to Nieman Journalism Lab.

College newspapers traditionally have served a dual mission: to inform the student body and help train future journalists. Emerald publisher Ryan Frank said his paper's shift will best achieve both, along with more lasting financial stability.

The Emerald actually finished last semester with a budget surplus, so the upcoming change wasn't motivated by depleted resources, Frank said. Rather, the paper’s staffers looked to a 2010 Pew Research Center study that has tracked daily print newspaper readership by age group over the past several years. In the 18-24 demographic, the study’s numbers dropped from 20 percent in 2006 to 7 percent in 2010.

“Every time we did our presentation and put the 7 percent number on the screen, you could hear a gasp in the room,” Frank said.

“The question we asked after that is, ‘In the next three to five years, do you believe that number will go up or down?’” Frank continued. “We could be ahead of it or sort of [let it] dictate how we changed.”

So the Emerald is launching a twice-weekly magazine that allows reporters to write more in-depth, feature-type analysis. Monday’s magazine will focus on news, while Thursday’s will tackle entertainment. The paper's website will be the source of up-to-the-minute and service-oriented information, including local drink specials, housing guides and professor ratings.

“For a couple years, the Emerald has tried to be digital-first, and it’s been extremely difficult to do because of the daily print newspaper that has to go out,” said Andy Rossback, who will be the paper’s editor-in-chief in the fall. “Not having to do that daily newspaper every day is going to allow us to do that real-time reporting.”

Harry Montevideo, longtime faculty sponsor of the Red & Black, which was established in 1893 and underwent its digital-first "revolution" last year, said the publication is "fighting for the attention of our audience, just like everyone else.”

“You’ve got to become more of an innovator,” Montevideo added. “You’ve got to make sure you’re delivering the content they want [on] channels that you’re sure they’re operating on.”

In pre-Internet days, college newspapers enjoyed near-monopoly status, not unlike the primary newspaper in cities and towns across the U.S. If advertisers wanted to reach students, they turned to the student paper.

But that's no longer always the case, as Arvli Ward, director of student media at UCLA, can attest. The Daily Bruin was pulling in $2.5 million in advertising revenue in 2000. Today, it makes half that.

At the Daily Bruin, Ward has designed a platform with a professional developer that allows students to easily create iPhone apps. Ward said he envisions apps for student interests like housing, Greek life, and the intramural soccer team, with the Daily Bruin able to promise advertisers a direct connection to a key demographic believed to be increasingly less likely to pick up a newspaper on campus.

In the past eight weeks, the platform has produced 65 apps, and Ward -- who touts mobile advertising as the fastest-growing industry -- said he hopes to publish thousands more. There are three new apps coming soon, including one that allows students to do “real-time reporting” on campus with their iPhones, taking videos, and streaming them to the paper’s website. Ward expects the platform will bring in about $30,000 in revenue for the Daily Bruin.

As college newspapers seek new ways of boosting revenue, non-student employees often play a key role.

Ward, who worked in editing and design before starting at UCLA in 1995, does not characterize his job as an advisory role. “My campus hired me not to just sit there,” he said. “You have a revenue goal every year. You’ve got to figure out how to make it. It’s your job to think of new ways to generate revenue.

“Should professionals on the staff be responsible for creating solutions? Yes, I believe so,” Ward continued. Referring to the app platform, he explained, “No one on my student staff is going to be able to create something like this. Does that mean that the organization should not do it because you can’t get a college sophomore to figure out how to do this?”

Kevin Schwartz, general manager at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel, called his role “pretty hands-on.” Schwartz, who's worked at the paper since 1988, said professionals are essential to a college newspaper the size of the Daily Tarheel’s operation, with more than $1 million in revenue last year. Non-student staffers are needed to produce the expanding number of digital platforms -- now at nine -- and the daily newspaper, he said.

The professionals -- whether in advisory or more active capacities -- emphasized that they do not interfere in the newsroom, where students continue to have full reign. And as the media industry evolves, student editors said they recognize that mastering the old student journalism model may not allow them to compete in a new media world.

“A lot of it is about building a journalist who not only can write for print, but can write this blog, maintain an audience, who knows how to build an audience, who knows how to curate, aggregate things for that audience,” said Rossback. He said he plans to revamp the newspaper’s beat system in the upcoming semester to create “microbeats” to focus on specific areas like fashion, technology, music and sex. “The idea is to build a specialization,” Rossback explained. “Those are the type of people who get hired.”

Callie Schweitzer, editor-in-chief of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s news site Neon Tommy until graduating in May 2011, now deputy publisher at Talking Points Memo, said student media has morphed from simple “writing and reporting” to a whole world of features that include photos, slideshows, audio and video add-ons that “make the story come alive."

College journalists hoping for a future in a competitive media market, Schweitzer said, need to “really get their hands dirty and see how journalism is changing.”

(Disclosure: The author is managing editor and vice president of the Brown Daily Herald.)

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