Why college newspapers need a revival and what we’re starting today

Steve Buttry is blunt.

“The choice for student media is simple,” he wrote last week in an analysis for the Nieman Journalism Lab, “Slide into irrelevancy even faster than professional media that fail to adapt, or race into the digital future and help show them the way.”

Dan Reimold agrees but is emphatic on one point of tradition.

People still love reading campus newspapers in print,” he wrote in response to Buttry.

Emerald front page first day fall term 2012

The Emerald on the first day of school on Sept. 24, 2012.

I think both are right. Here’s why and what we started here at the Emerald today on the first day of fall term:

- About print: This is the most controversial and complex. Yes, people still love reading campus newspapers in print for all the reasons Reimold offers. Done right, print newspapers are relevant, fun, free, convenient and fill the time between (or during) class. That said, people love reading campus newspapers in print less than they used to, as Buttry pointed out. Just like the pros, college newspaper circulation has been in decline for years. Circulation is falling even as the student body is growing. Here at the University of Oregon, the Emerald printed 10,000 copies for about 18,000 students in the late 1990s. Now we print 6,000 for about 24,000 students. Similar trends have played out at most universities. While print penetration has declined, the print newspaper still remains a powerful voice on college campuses and a viable marketplace. The question we all face now is: How do we re-position the print product into a format and frequency that is right for our campus? Here at the Emerald, we chose an alt-weekly format and a twice-a-week frequency. It fits for our campus but others will figure out what works for theirs.

Emerald front page 9.26.12

The Oregon Daily Emerald on the first day of school on Sept. 26, 2011.

- Students and local news online: Students today must be the most wired generation in the history of the world. But they aren’t exactly wired to local news on the web as a daily habit. I often walk through the student union during the lunch hour to find students with a laptop open to Facebook or YouTube and a phone on the table for texting. One of our students last year said something that sent a chill down my spine: “Why would you go digital first? Your news feed can’t compete with people’s feed of Facebook friends.” I took that as a challenge for our student journalists to produce content that is so compelling that we can compete for people’s time on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. And even more than that, it’s a challenge we have to accept to build something completely new.

- The campus hub: College newspapers have strong brands and instant credibility with students. They provide news and information in raw, relevant language and without the polish and politics of the administration. We need to use that position to build new information networks that make students’ lives better and complement the traditional public interest journalism. The Daily Bruin’s BruinWalk has created a model we should all learn from. UCLA’s independent newspaper created student-driven rating networks for professors, housing and more. The result: Useful information that makes student media essential to being a Bruin. That’s exactly what we’re spending our time focused on here at the Emerald.

None of this means that college newspapers are dying. Or, that print isn’t relevant. What it does mean is that it’s past time for us to change. The best thing we can do is to wake up every day and try something new. Before lunch. In college newspapers, all of us are now media startups. Let’s start acting like it.

  • http://twitter.com/stevebuttry Steve Buttry

    Excellent points, Ryan. The student who chilled you is right that you aren’t going to compete with the Facebook feed. Your challenge is to produce outstanding content that students will be sharing on Facebook. The Facebook news feed is your goal, not your competition.

    • http://twitter.com/rfrank_emerald Ryan Frank

      Thanks Steve. And thanks for investing the time to write about college media. We’re all better off for it. Totally agree with you on Facebook. We need to make it our friend and put it to work for us, too.

  • http://twitter.com/RileySnyder Riley Snyder

    Ryan, you continually make me wish for the opportunity to work and learn with people at the Emerald that not only understand the problems that journalism is facing, but are actively working, experimenting and trying to build new models and techniques. Student journalists can make a difference – they need the help of people like yourself to implement and use that innovation and new ideas they bring to the table.

    • http://twitter.com/rfrank_emerald Ryan Frank

       Riley, we’d love to have you here. We’re lucky to have students in news, advertising and marketing who have the skills and ambition necessary to make such a crazy idea viable.

  • Rebecka

    I’m a Web Editor for a university newspaper, and we’re facing the same problems. We’re printing 4,000 papers for 12,000 students, and failing miserably. But I can’t figure out why! We have a fast-paced website, our Twitter and Facebook presences are lively, and we try our hardest to put out good content. Still, students are determined to ignore us. I’m hoping we can find solutions like yours.