Facing print cutback decisions, college papers look to restructure

As more college papers begin to cut back on their print issues, most cite the same reason: It was a business decision.

The cutback of print has been more of a slow fade, as editors-in-chief of college papers have resisted cutting back on physical editions of their papers.

It was the medium where they were so used to meeting their audience: scattered across campus, sliding out of newsstands, free for students to grab as they bustled between classes. Now, cutbacks are happening, but not everywhere and not in the same way.

As student journalists tackle the online world, the picture of where their paper fits in is different according to each brand’s specific resources and demands.

For many, that means cutbacks in print. Reductions in publishing days — mirroring those seen among national media outlets such as the New Orleans Times-Picayune — have been happening for the past decade, College Media Association President Rachele Kanigel said. At this point, Kanigel said there are only a handful of daily college papers left.

“For a lot of papers, it’s cost versus income revenue. So a lot of papers find if they cut the print bill, that’s saving them,” Kanigel said.

Just this year, at least 10 papers, including University of Alabama’s Crimson White, Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times, The University of Kentucky’s The Kentucky Kernel and New Mexico State’s The Round Up, have all cut back on their printing days. The cutbacks have taken a different shape at every paper, with daily papers becoming twice-weeklys to weeklys becoming monthly magazines.

But producing a paper that meets readers where they want is tricky for college journalists, particularly since it is harder for them to track their readership. Since most are offered free to the student body, student editors don’t have dwindling subscription numbers to point to, and they must rely on anecdotal evidence from copies they’ve seen left in stands across campus.

Brett Fera, the interim director of Arizona Student Media, has recently hosted several live Twitter chats with college journalists across the country with the #collegemedia hashtag. In these chats, he’s heard students discuss the places where their respective papers are bleeding from, and how they’ve tended to those wounds.

“I don’t think there’s any smoking gun as to what the real answer or solution is,” Fera said.

After the initial panic that may come with breaking from such a deeply embedded tradition at many universities, these papers have to find ways to service a community that has now moved online. For most, this means website overhauls and increased pressure on online-first and online-only content. Some, like the Arizona Daily Wildcat, have added additional multimedia editors to increase content production.

As each paper starts to wade deeper into the multimedia world, Fera said they are struggling to find which solution is the best fit. Every paper has its own unique relationship with its readers and demands from its staff, and with no one-size-fits-all solution to the new media environment, papers have invented their own.

Cutback, no money issues

At the paper Fera advises, the Arizona Daily Wildcat, readers seemed strongly attached to a print edition of the paper. The Wildcat’s editor-in-chief Jessie Webster said unlike most college papers, their decision to cut back this year from their status as a daily to three times a week was not instigated by bleak finances.

“Our decision was not a financial one. We have an extremely local and engaged readership, so that wasn’t really a strong factor,” Webster said.

The paper is also held up by a student media fee, which bills each student $6 per year, adding up to an annual $250,000 for the paper. Students at the University of Arizona do have the option to opt out, though Fera said that most students don’t. Despite the help from the student fee, between 80 and 85 percent of the funding comes from advertisements, and the paper remains independent, Fera said, since the fee is from the students and not the university.

The Wildcat’s financial status meant the paper could have continued printing at the same rate. When Webster considered her goals for the paper, she realized that rapidly growing online readership, coupled with a staff mostly considering journalism careers in an online environment, meant it was time for a change.

Using a model she learned in a marketing internship, Webster crafted a new workflow structure that emphasized online priority. In this new system, a reporter whose story makes it to both print and the website works with both a production and online editor separately.

“Really it’s a mindset. You can have more fun and freedom online when you aren’t as restricted by word count,” Webster said.

Cutback, money issues

For papers that aren’t bolstered by student fees or large legacy groups of alumni bringing in money, adapting to the online world is all about the money.

Ricky LaBlue, editor-in-chief of Virginia Tech’s The Collegiate Times, said the paper’s switch from daily to twice-weekly this year was “primarily a business decision.”

“We had to make decisions to help us be sustainable moving forward,” LaBlue said.

He had noticed an uptick in their online readership while their paper pickup rates remained stagnant.

The decision has shifted focus in their newsroom, too: now with less print space, reporters are more competitive to see their stories appear in print.

“It’s harder to get into the print edition now. There’s a lot more stories to choose from,” LaBlue said.

The new workflow has also made the job hours a little more ambiguous. There is even less of the 9-to-5 structure than ever before, making an editorial position at the paper “a 24 hour job.”

“It’s something you do all the time now…you don’t clock in and go to work,” LaBlue said.

Cutback, structural issues

Louisiana State University’s Daily Reveille has also seen a good portion of its advertising money dry up, but student media leadership’s push to cut the paper’s daily print edition has sparked some controversy among the editors and alumni.

The new LSU student media director, Steve Buttry, floated the idea late this summer of cutting back the Reveille’s printing schedule. Alumni and current students have criticized the proposed cuts, and no official decision has been made yet.

Editor-in-chief Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez said this decision would be particularly problematic because she has no control over her paper’s online presence. Even though Zamudio-Suarez has complete control over her paper’s content, LSU student media is set up so all the individual organizations — including the TV and radio stations — share one website.

For the Daily Reveille, this means a completely separate staff of students for their online team, something Zamudio-Suarez has no control over.

“So while other schools can make these digital shifts, I don’t have a say on what goes on in that website,” she said. “I don’t have full control over my brand’s name.”

No cutback, no money issues

For Penn State’s The Daily Collegian, editor-in-chief Shannon Sweeney said the inevitable transition to the online world has not been about cutting the print edition but rather, about bolstering and prioritizing their multiplatform presence, which includes a website and an app.

Sweeney said she recognizes how unique her paper’s approach is.

“I have friends from internships and students always asking about how the Collegian is still daily,” Sweeney said.

The “how” comes from steady advertisement purchases and a strong alumni network that reaches outside the campus and city to bring in funds.

Now with an online focus, their paper mostly runs second-day follow-ups or features in their news section. The paper also compiles their “Top 5” articles and promote the links on social media. Sweeney created a position of the digital managing editor to oversee the paper’s website and app, which also allows them to send out push notifications to subscribers.

While this model has seemed to sustain their brand so far, Sweeney said “it’s hard to predict” what could happen to the paper in the future.

“I really hope it stays daily and there’s a lot of potential for it to stay daily, but it depends on how the rest of the industry is changing,” Sweeney said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Allison Kowalski at 202-478-1926 or by email.

(Correction 9/24/2015: The original version of this article misstated the name of the University of Arizona. The article has been updated to reflect this change.)