Student journalistshave heard doomsday predictions of print journalism’s demise for years now asprofessional newspapers are continually being forced to adapt to a changingindustry climate or shut off the presses for good.
Many factors,including the explosion of the Internet and 24-hour news networks, have madethe daily newspaper seem antiquated and delayed — literally yesterday’s news.
But are studentnewspapers facing the same financial challenges? Dan Reimold, a collegejournalism scholar who runs the College Media Matters blog, follows and reportson student press trends from across the country. He said student journalistsgenerally are not experiencing the same degree of gloom and doom as theirprofessional brethren.
“I would not say byany means that we are in a freefall financially among major and minor studentmedia across the U.S.,” Reimold said.
In the past few years,Reimold said some student papers have cut back on the number of issues per weekor reduced the number of pages in each issue to address a number of concerns —fewer ads, shifting readership, increasing paper returns. But the student pressdiffers in one major way: funding.
“The main differenceis that instead of having to rely solely or at all on advertising and otheroutside financial support, a majority of student media in this country continueto rely on the support of their schools, either through student fees orliterally some sort of administrative arrangements,” he said. “In general it’sthe funding mechanism which is probably going to allow student papers indecades to come to be the last bastion of the print press when all around themprofessional papers are falling.”
Still, Reimold saidstudent papers, regardless of size and funding, are not seeing the financialgreener pastures of years gone by, giving some an incentive to be adventurouswith new endeavors.
“I do think there areever more cracks around the edges and a few different ideas that are beginningto be taken more seriously, including paywalls and doing a ton more online,possibly at the expense of print,” Reimold said.
2011 might go down asthe year when newspaper paywalls went mainstream. The New York Times launched its divisive metered system allowing 20 free articles beforereaders are told to pay. In practice, the system encouraged readers who wantedunlimited online access to subscribe to the print edition, resulting in anincrease in print subscribers and circulation.
Press+, a paywallplatform launched in 2010, received a great deal of attention in student mediacircles when the Knight Foundation announced in October a grant encouragingcollege papers to add the service to their sites. The grant covered the $3,500set-up fee, available to the first 50 papers that signed on. Through itsagreement with the Knight Foundation, Press+ would not release figures on howmany colleges signed up for the service.
The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University was the firststudent paper to implement Press+ in March, even before the grant, and GeneralManager Ray Catalino explained how the system works.
“When you go to ourwebsite, if you don’t have a ‘.edu’ (email) address and you are farther than a25-mile radius from campus, you get three free clicks in a month,” he said.“After that, a pop-up window and says do you want to subscribe to a year’sworth of this for $10.”
Catalino decided onthe $10 fee, thinking it’s what people would be willing to pay for a year ofaccess, but said he thinks it undervalues the content. Press+ takes acommission on each subscriber, but Catalino said it isn’t all about the money —he wants the paywall concept to be introduced and adopted by users beforeconsidering a higher price.
Catalino is“pleasantly surprised” with the adoption rate, especially since the payingaudience is very limited. He said he hoped to have 100 subscribers in the firstyear but had nearly 90 subscribers by early November.
Reimold, however, wascritical of the underlying concept of paywalls and cautioned that papers needto be realistic in their expectations that readers will open their wallets.
“We need to be excitedto get people to our website, any way shape or form,” he said. “By putting upany sort of hurdle to that, it will be very easy for people to simply goelsewhere.”
Reimold also expressedconcern that “accidental readers,” one-time visitors who get to stories fromsearch engine or social media referrals, can be shut out from sites. Aworldwide audience, Reimold said, is an important motivator for studentjournalists who can get “feedback and sources for follow-up stories that canonly come if you allow (access to) the site by anyone who is able to comeacross it.”
Press+ has variousgranular options to decide who pays and who doesn’t. Press+ is also used as adonation system for websites such as the TuftsDaily.com and ProPublica.org,another revenue stream student papers can consider.
Shifting the focus online
The University ofGeorgia’s Red & Black newspaper surprised many in collegiatejournalism last summer when it announced it was shifting the paper’s focusonline, cutting its print publication from daily to weekly and adding a monthlymagazine.
The move responded toa growth in online readership, and editorial adviser Ed Morales said themindset of critics needs to change as well.
“People say, ‘Well yougot rid of the daily newspaper and added a weekly.’ We actually added a weeklyand a magazine, and we kept the daily newspaper — it’s just in digital form,”Morales said. “I think the word ‘newspaper’ is catching everybody, becausethere’s really news, all the time, everywhere. Whether or not it’s in a paperform with ink on it or if it’s on a computer screen, doesn’t negate the factthat something like that is being created.”
Morales ran throughseveral striking statistics. Mobile traffic increased by 500 percent since theswitch. More than 20 stories hit the site each day. At least 50 videos wentonline by early November by 10 different staff members — up from the output ofa single videographer last year. Sunday page views on the website surged fromabout 12,000 in fall 2010 to more than 30,000 last semester, though thefootball team’s improved performance likely helped.
Morales said the newpublication system prepares students for the online-first environment of manyprofessional papers, and from the business side, Red & Black publisher Harry Montevideo said it was good financial move.
“Bottom line, itseemed to make sense from a profit-and-loss business aspect that we would endup saving more money in expenses than we would lose in revenue,” he said.
The Red & Black management started looking at different publication options the yearbefore the switch, and analysis showed most advertisers bought space only oncea week. Montevideo said the paper approached 25 advertisers to hear how theyfelt about moving to a weekly print product and only “one or two expressed anyconcern at all about no longer being daily.”
The weekly printproduct is considerably heftier than the daily — a 24-page, four-sectionedbroadsheet feels more substantial to advertisers than a six- or eight-page broadsheet,Montevideo said. But it also presented problems: Racks can’t fit the samenumber of papers as they could before, so the paper had to change some of itsdistribution procedures.
Though just oneexample of a successful transition to an online focus, Montevideo said the Red & Black’s circumstances may not exist at all papers.
“I don’t think by anymeans it’s a one-size-fits-all model,” he said. “We’re in enough of a financialshape to experiment and not feel like it would jeopardize the future of ourorganization, and we’d done enough research to where we felt pretty good withthe premise. It might not work elsewhere.”
Morales said UGA’slarge journalism school makes it easy to recruit students eager to enterjournalism, regardless of the paper’s publication frequency. The paper itselfis completely financially independent of the university and has its offices offcampus.
The paper mainlycovers campus news since Athens, Ga., has its own commercial paper. Montevideonoted that Chapel Hill, N.C., for example, has no daily commercial newspaper.Therefore, the Daily Tar Heel at the University ofNorth Carolina-Chapel Hill serves more of the community so a similar switch toa weekly could be problematic for readers and advertisers.
Reimold sees a majorshift in the coming years: “I would make the bold prediction that within adecade or so, we will see almost as many papers adopting the [Red & Black] model as we will still see student papers publishing daily,” he said.
However, he said a Red & Black model of reducing print frequency in favor of a larger online productcould create a problem where the readers don’t follow the priorities of thenewsroom.
“There’s a lot ofworry that if you lose the print presence on campus, if you’re not screaming instudents’ faces via the headlines glaring out them at them from the newsstandsthat it’s going to be a lot tougher for them to sign on to the online arm ofwhat you’ve got going,” he said.
A change in mindset
Paywalls and the shiftin priorities from print to online show new financial innovations that arriveamid a transitioning journalism industry. For the latter in particular, fewerprinted bylines might leave student journalists concerned in a tough economyand job market – and for that Reimold offers some advice.
“What really needs tochange is the mindset that the printed and photocopied clips are still whathold the most value for internships or potential jobs post-graduation,” hesaid. “The college media-sphere is following the professional media community,and in some cases leading the way, to the idea that the online portfolio isreally students’ biggest selling points these days.”
By Peter Velz, SPLC staff writer