Taking the plunge

When students at Eastern Connecticut State University arrived for school in September, copies of The Campus Lantern, the school’s student newspaper, were noticeably missing from news racks, replaced only with fliers that read “Where Is It?” 

The cryptic message was not a prank, but rather part of a campaign to let students know that the newspaper was switching from its weekly printed editions to an online-only daily. The clever advertising campaign created the buzz staff members of The Campus Lantern were looking for.

“It got the campus talking, it was really great,” Editor in Chief James Gibson said. “We [also] got the administration talking, they’ve never seen a campaign like that.”

Since its launch in September — thecampuslantern.com — boasting news, opinion, entertainment and sports sections has recorded about 72,000 individual pages viewed.

As media sources increasingly use technology and the Internet to disseminate up-to-the-second information, experts say that student media groups may lead the way. While many student newspapers have online versions of their paper, The Campus Lantern is the first college student media organization to cease print publication and create an online-only daily newspaper, said Consultant Bryan Murley from The Center for Innovation of College Media, a think tank assisting student media in adapting and flourishing in the new media environment.

But the road from print to online has been anything but smooth. Staff members clashed with members of their Student Government Association, which initially withheld funding for The Campus Lantern after they learned of the change. Student government leaders objected to the fact that the newspaper had ceased its printed editions.

While the student government eventually restored some funding, the debate continues on the advantages of new media both on and off Eastern Connecticut State University’s campus. Some are also asking whether controlling the medium a student media organization uses can be classified as a form of censorship. 

Murley said that the student government’s funding cut could be called “indirect” censorship.

“The student government is attempting to exercise control over a decision that should rightfully be the decision of student editors — how to disseminate content,” Murley said. “That plays out, ultimately, in content decisions.”

Campus Lantern staff members first decided to make the leap to the web to create room in the budget to pay staff. In the 61-year history of the newspaper, writers and photographers had never been compensated. An online newspaper, they thought, could use money allocated to printing costs toward paying the staff. Gibson said over the years the lack of pay has often resulted in the newspaper losing quality writers and photographers.

Gibson said the staff went to work quickly, extensively researching online resources. He said the facts pointed to an increase in consumers getting their news online.

“If all these signs are pointing to the fact that advertising dollars are going down for [print] newspapers, that people our age aren’t reading newspapers,” Gibson said. “Then why are we perpetuating this printed media?”

Editors created a test site in August and began experimenting on how an online news site would function. The Campus Lantern bought a domain name and software that allowed staff members to turn in work from any location.

But as editors prepared to launch the site in September, they received word that members of the university’s Student Government Association were unhappy with the paper’s plans to go online. Student government members argued that The Campus Lantern should have first consulted the student body about the change.

Student Government Association President Benjamin Sanborn said that because editors did not communicate their plans, funding for The Campus Lantern was withheld. 

“It’s more the process they went about it,” Sanborn said. “It was deceiving because they were passing it off as if they were printing a newspaper, but there is no newspaper.”

At a meeting between the two parties, Gibson said student government members raised concerns about students’ computer access and whether students would appreciate the change. Gibson called the student government’s reluctance to give the newspaper its yearly funding “baffling,” and reflecting an attachment to the physical newspaper. 

Sanborn said there were negative consequences with the change — students who were paid to deliver copies of the newspaper to news stands, for example, lost their jobs. But Sanborn said the new site does allow for quicker and more regular news updates.

“I’ve heard both positive and negative,” Sanborn said. “I heard some people who say that since the newspaper went online, I’ve never checked it.”

But Gibson said that student government members ultimately disliked how staff members bypassed the group in the decision to move exclusively online.

“It was kind of like a loss of power,” Gibson said. “They don’t like the fact that we’re not printing a newspaper.”

The initial launch of the Web site was funded through the newspaper’s advertising revenue, Gibson said. But The Campus Lantern was still tied to a $19,000 contract with its printer, which allowed them to print 13 issues during the school year. Staff members decided to create a quarterly magazine in order to meet its contractual obligations to the printer. 

In October, the student government voted to allocate funding just for the magazine, but would not fund new equipment, essentially cutting the total amount given to the newspaper from about $15,000 to $10,000 per semester. 

Sanborn said the student government is not allowed to give funding to organizations specifically for equipment and that policy prevents them from allocating funds for stipends. He also said that The Campus Lantern got lower funding because the requests were made later in the year.

Gibson said The Campus Lantern still has does not have the money to pay its staff and is currently using its own funds to buy new equipment and to sustain the Web site. Gibson said there is a possibility that the student government will amend its policies to include funding for equipment and stipends for next semester. The Campus Lantern is also seeking a way to void its printing contract. 

Meanwhile, Gibson said the current cut in funding has created another obstacle for his staff members, who are increasingly becoming frustrated with the lack of pay.

“It’s kind of like a slap in the face because essentially they’re saying we’re not going to pay for anything except for something in print,” Gibson said. 

At Eastern Connecticut State University, both student editors and student government leaders said that the funding conflict has nothing to do with content. But Murley, who follows new media trends in college media, said he sees potential censorship issues arising from the user-generated content of online newspapers. Online student newspapers might host forums where students can criticize student government leaders or administrators. The “holder of the purse strings,” could then decide to cut funding, he said.

“Already we sometimes see schools that have been averse to putting up student media Web sites because of the potential for negative publicity about campus crime, administration and student behavior,” Murley said. 

Roger Soenksen, media law committee chair of the College Media Advisers, a national association of professionals who advise media organizations, said censorship occurs when a student government starts using the “purse strings” to dictate a newspaper either through content or its ability to deliver news.

“Any type of budget control over student media has, at least on the perception level, the ability to create a chilling effect as far as the media being able to communicate to students,” Soenksen said. 

Murley said that the key in new media success is finding ways to engage readers, something that is already showing through in the revamped Campus Lantern.

“If you look at the discussion and comments about the SGA funding on the Web site,” Murley said. “You can see editors and students are responding and engaging in the news — it’s something you can’t do in a newsprint.”Gibson said that the new online format engages the campus community more than a print edition. Previously, it was difficult to gauge readership, Gibson said, but with an online format, staff members get faster feedback from students. Gibson said comments come minutes after an article is published and staff members can see which articles get the most reads. 

“It’s amazing what data we can collect now,” Gibson said. “I can’t imagine going back to print.”