January 2016 Podcast: The Future of College Media

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By Student Press Law Center

Chris Carroll, director of student media at Vanderbilt, and Will Drabold, college journalist at Ohio University, speak about the future of college media and the challenges the field is facing. 

Frank LoMonte: Hi everybody, welcome to another installment of the Student Press Law Center’s monthly podcast, a run down of developments affecting the rights of those working in student media. I’m Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center. The SPLC is an advocate for student voices at the high school and college level. We have educational and legal resources available free of charge on the web at www.splc.org, and we encourage you to contact us with any question on your legal rights. The easiest way to get in touch with us is by email, splc@splc.org.

As we were recording this in the early part of the start of 2016, we’re looking back on closing the books on a rather forgettable year for those working in college media. Many highly qualified journalism advisers lost their jobs under circumstances indicative of retaliation, including Michael Kelly at Fairmont State University and others like him around the country. It was a year of continued economic turmoil for many college publications, many of which began reassessing the viability of publishing on a five-day-a-week basis, all of the same economic factors that have buffeted the professional media for many years are now coming home to roost for the student media as well. And our guests today on the SPLC podcast, Chris Carroll and Will Drabold, have convened on their respective college campuses in Tennessee and Ohio, upcoming summits looking at the future of student media, assessing the threats to the independence and continued viability of student media and the possible solutions.

Chris Carroll is probably the most decorated man in the history of college journalism — if there is a position to be held or an award to be won, you can bet that Chris has it. He is a former both executive director and president of the CMA, College Media Association; he’s sat on the board of the Student Press Law Center, which awarded him a distinguished service award; he’s a member of the college advisers’ hall of fame; and he serves as director of student media at Vanderbilt Student Communications, where he also runs an initiative at the College Media Institute, which is involved in providing training opportunities and professional development for people at student media. The College Media Institute is the umbrella organization for a february event at the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center that Chris will tell us more about.

Will Drabold is with us, a very impressive college journalist, working at the Ohio University Post. Will is a senior journalism major at Ohio University in Athens, he’s the director of editorial initiatives at the Post, he has served as both a staff writer and also the campus editor at the Post, he’s had five different internships, including working on the investigative reporting team at the Seattle Times this past year. He’s also an active and avid digger for public records which we always appreciate. And like any good 21st century digital-first journalist, Will’s bio also includes his Twitter handle, which is @WillDrabold.

Will and Chris, thanks for being with us, and I’m just going to throw this to the both of you but starting with Chris, talk about what it was that led to the idea of convening at the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center in Vanderbilt this February for the Future of Student Media Summit — what were the issues, the problems, the concerns, that led you to believe that it was time to call people in the field together?

Chris Carroll: Well, I should begin by giving credit to Will, it was his initiative, he contacted me, and had been confronting issues that he’ll draw attention to in Ohio that are true across the country. But he had the idea to have a summit to get folks together to try and come up with solutions and I was immediately in. That’s something I believe in as well, and what we thought what might really draw more attention to this is to tether it to an introductory one here so we can tackle as many topics in different regions of the country. So really, Will gets credit for this, at least in this iteration.

It’s something that we tried in 2005 and we’ve tried off and on as we have dodged and weaved with the media industry to try to determine what our identity will be. And really that kind of centers on what the challenges are. You said in your introduction that college media is no longer insulated from the market forces and real world technological changes that have impacted commercial media and it’s hitting us with full force. And in many cases, sadly, I think there are peers of ours who haven’t really prepared well. These summits are really aimed at trying to find some common ground about what the problems are, and really walk out of the room with some starting points for solutions.

Super quickly because there are really a range of issues that are confronting us and the things that are absolutely troubling that are in your wheelhouse, Frank, are the challenges to free expression and to actually having access to do reporting on campuses — specifically talking in reference to Missouri and Yale and Brown and a cascade of other places. That is something that’s frightening. The attitude toward press in general but student press specifically and how that has, I hate to say it this way, but has been devalued almost in society and on campuses as well — that has probably had a peripheral effect on people who have lost their jobs and fewer people who are there as advocates for the people who do what we do. That’s been a challenge but one of the ones I struggle with the most that you also talked about is trying to find our place in order to maintain relevance and the economic model that’s necessary to do that so that we can find both our community and find our practitioners and find the means to sustain this in a way that actually has positive impact. I’m convinced that the sort of heritage-legacy model of media and certainly college media is waning. So that’s a quick round up.

LoMonte: Yeah. No highlight reel of 2015 would be complete without mentioning the demonstrations on the quad of the University of Missouri where very memorably, a communications professor called out and confronted a student journalist who was just doing his job in a very lawful manner, recording a historic event, actually, a protest by African American students that led to the ouster of the chancellor and the president of the university. It came quite close to violence against the student photojournalist for standing his ground and insisting on his First Amendment right to keep on filming. And Will, as a jumping off point, was what happened in Mizzou part and parcel of your impetus for wanting to pull together the Future of Student Media summit, which I should go ahead and plug, is April 8 and 9 at Ohio University.

Will Drabold: Yeah, it’s definitely part of it and again I think it is a good jumping off point and it’s more related to what Chris is doing. I think the best way to think about this, like Chris was kind of saying, you have what’s happening in Vanderbilt in February, and that sets the stage, that talks about these First Amendment issues, that talks about these core reasons why we need student media. These are questions and topics that we need to address and we need to talk about, and I give many kudos to Chris for putting that on and wanting to have that conversation. What we’re holding at Ohio University in April, which Chris has also been supportive of, is basically looking at two areas: How can student media adapt on the business model front? How can we make money? As you said, we’re cutting days of print, many places are no longer five days in print, some are once a week, if at all, some are online only. So looking at that and also looking at, how can we engage with our audience? Our audience is college students, they’re on their iPhones, they’re on their mobile devices, they’re on their tablets, and interestingly even though we’re college students and we’re on those things too, many of us face challenges in terms of figuring out how to produce content for those platforms that can engage our peers. Really, this is the future of student media by looking at why student media is necessary, why we need it, why it serves such an important role and what role it does fulfill, and also looking at how can we keep it around and how can we keep it relevant by engaging with the different audiences on these different campuses.

LoMonte: Well, we mentioned the economic issues and we’ve mentioned some of the legal issues including the unfortunate string of retaliatory removals of journalism advisers that plagued us in particular in 2015, but the issue that seems maybe the most difficult to solve because it’s not one solely within the power of those working in journalism is the audience issue. We saw that play out in this year quite memorably at a number of campuses where the audience actually rebelled against student media — Missouri might be regarded as one example of that, where people on the campus began to see the student media as an adversary and as an antagonist. So I wonder if you could both, maybe starting with Chris, address that, the issue of the relationship with the audience and creating a greater sense of the student media as an asset on campus rather than an adversary.

Carroll: Yeah, I think what we’re seeing is just this evolution of generations of folks who have a different consumption and different approach to media when they arrive on these campuses. It’s reflective in the larger culture where media is demonized for political gain, we’re seeing that in this political campaign a great bit. I think that it’s a misunderstanding of the role and it’s hard to break through when you have a generation — the Pew report came out just a couple of days ago that talked about how from 2005 to 2010, millennials, the percentage of those who valued the impact of news media on society fell from like 40 percent to 27 percent over the past 5 years. So there’s fewer people who I think view the press, the student media, as an institution of good. I think we’re fighting that, and part of the answer to that may be a recognition that some of the brand orientation is dismantling where the individual stories, the work itself, I think is still powerful and it’s finding its audience, but the institutions are viewed with skepticism. It’s kind of cooked into the culture for some of these students I think. There are certainly other overtones here that relate more to some other societal issues, but I think with media specifically there are some automatically built-in antagonism almost with some of these students.

LoMonte: Will, you have a ground level on this. You’re a student and you’re surrounded by people of this generation. What are your thoughts about the attitude of the campus audience toward the student media, whether they still value student media as a public good and what you see being done out there to build a stronger audience relationship?

Drabold: Yeah, I think what Chris said is excellent and just to piggyback off that, I’m no stranger to the issues with the student government, we’ve had that at Ohio University, with the administration, with some of the faculty. But I think you make a good point. You have an interesting relationship with your peers, your fellow students, that isn’t necessarily as positive as you would hope. And it seems really difficult sometimes to get them to take an interest in what’s happening on student media. And I think what Chris said is absolutely true and obviously backed up by facts on the issues of millennials and college students no longer having the kind of trust that their parents did in the media, but I believe, as a 21-year-old consumer of media on the campus and in general, that a big part of the problem and something we want to address at the summit in Ohio University is how are we engaging with this audience of college students and are we doing it well? Is print the best delivery model? I’m not saying it’s not, there are people who argue it is, but you need to rethink it. What can outlets be doing on mobile, what can outlets be doing in general, digitally?

Chris hit on a really powerful point, there is still really good story-telling going on in college campuses, how do you get those stories in front of students? How do you show those students, hey your peers wrote this. This isn’t biased, this isn’t aggressive, this is just good, honest journalism that is reporting on an important campus issue. I still believe that if you get those stories in front of people, they create buzz, we see them explode on social media all the time on our campus and elsewhere, but it’s a matter of getting those stories in front of the students and then like Chris said, building the brand and having students recognize that wow, this is a place I can come back to for compelling journalism that’s relevant to me. I think that the need is just as great as ever for journalism that matters and journalism that connects with an audience. We have to think about how to get that journalism to connect with the audience in ways we’re not used to thinking about it, and that’s something I think we really want to address at both Vanderbilt and Ohio University this spring.

LoMonte: Well starting with Chris, just walk through the mechanics of how you envision this. I know that you said that there are spaces for 100 participants to come, who are you hoping will come and what are you hoping will come out of this two days?

Carroll: Right, well the event that we’re having in February is limited to 100 because of space and we’re asking that no more than three folks per school come. We’re inviting speakers to our iteration of this that are non-traditional, [non] heritage-legacy newspaper media people on purpose because we’re really looking more to some of the innovative, progressive fringes, some folks — well, some not so fringey I guess, but with some fringe ideas that are being adopted — like Will Federman [Audience Engagement Editor at Fortune Magazine] and folks from the Awl, John Herman, who if you read Content Wars at the Awl, is pretty fantastic. The hope is that it’s a collaborative discussion, if you can work through some of these problems and apply some new-age thinking and see if at the end, there are some suggestions that might have some action items that we can test. So we’re hoping for students certainly and some advisers and anyone who’s eager to open their mind to some experimentation and take some risks.

LoMonte: Well, I should mention that Will already has a partial agenda up at futureofstudentmedia.com which has information about attending, and you’ve got folks who are both presently and in the recent past involved in college media, including some of the programs like the University of North Carolina and the University of Oregon who have been known as some of the leaders in innovation and experimentation. So, Will, same question to you, what are you hoping to get out of these two days, April 8 and 9 at Ohio University?

Drabold: Thanks for that, I would just say again that the futureofstudentmedia.com is a really good place to go for information on this. Very similar to what Chris was saying — we want people who are the editor of their college newspaper, magazine or website, people who are faculty advisers or professional advisers to student media. Business managers too is a key, if you’re a business or sales or advertising manager for a student outlet, we want you to come. And again what Chris was saying, we really have gone after people who have a track record of innovation within college media. There are some people who have done work mostly in the professional world. We have someone coming to talk about targeted social media advertising and managing the ad spend of local businesses. For example, how can college publications tap into some of that money? He doesn’t have a college background per se, but some of the other people, like Ryan Frank who was the publisher for a couple years at the Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon when they basically blew up their model and went a completely different direction, what did he learn and what can you learn from that? Rachel Bowers, who was the editor of the Red and Black at the University of Georgia when they were doing the same kind of thing, what did she learn and what can you learn from her? That’s the kind of flavor that we want to bring and it will be a combination of panels and sessions of these people, all the documents that they bring and all the things that they discuss will be on the website, you’ll be able to download them and look at them with them and then take it with you. The goal is really to come and attend and take something away from it that you can apply.

I should also note that the university is paying for some cutting-edge research both on audience engagement and on advertising. Anyone who attends the summit at Ohio University will get a free copy of this report, I can tell you that this a deal because it will have information about how current college students at campuses all over the country will actually read student media, do they read it, do they not, and many other questions and interesting data points, combined with research conducted by a national advertising firm on where are the advertising and college media markets spending their money and are they spending on college media? If so, why? If not, why not? And these are going to have detailed takeaways in this report for people who attend the summit to walk away with. So we’re really trying to do everything we can to get people to attend — like Chris said, about 100 people is what we would like to bring. Again we want students and professionals and faculty and we want a good mix of people who are interested and interactive and create a really aggressive, forward-thinking discussion of these topics.

LoMonte: Well, I’m curious about Chris’s perspective from someone who has been in this field for a couple decades now and has watched the evolution of this industry to where we stand today. I’m hoping you’ll say something optimistic. [Laughter] Do you have anything optimistic from your vantage point in looking at where college media as an industry is positioned? Will we be looking back in 20 and 30 and 40 years and saying, thank goodness we survived the worst of times and we’re much better off now? Or will we be looking back and saying we only thought it was bad in 2016?

Carroll: Gosh, it’s such a definition of what is bad. I just think it will be very different. I think unquestionably, we saw this coming — many of us thought we did 10 years ago, and much of what we thought was going to happen did, and we were surprised by a lot of other things, and some of it accelerated. I feel as though we passed the tipping point in some respects with the things we’re all comfortable with, like print newspapers.I just cannot, forgive me people who love print, fathom a campus that has folks 2 years, 3 years, 5 years from now walking around picking up print newspapers. So it’s just going to have to be a rethinking. But I’m incredibly optimistic about it because there’s just such an abundance of journalism now, there’s such an easy access to storytelling. Some things are going to have to wash out, there’s unquestionably going to have to be a leveling, it’s not going to raise all boats. But I think there’s a lot of smart people on these campuses who will find a way to still have incredible impact, it’s just going to look very different than it does right now. I don’t know if that’s the optimism you’re after, but i certainly hope to still be working with really bright students, doing some innovative things, well, not 20 years from now, but several years from now. I think some of it has yet to be imagined, I really do, how it will be delivered, how it will be consumed. But I am optimistic.

LoMonte: Well, we gave the website for the April event at Ohio University. Chris, how can somebody get involved in the Feb. 26-27 event if they want to be one of your 100 attendees.

Carroll: Sure, just visit collegemediainstitute.org. That is the umbrella site for the College Media Institute which is really just an outreach training arm from Vanderbilt Student Media. That event is there, you can sign up and there are also some workshops that will be happening simultaneously that weekend if you have more students than can fit in our summit who can learn some other things as well. We have a couple of exciting ones, I hope, if we can confirm them in the next couple of days — folks we will bring that have a unique perspective to share.

LoMonte: Well, I want to thank Chris Carroll and Will Drabold for organizing these important events and starting an overdue conversation. I’m personally looking forward to attending and I’m going to throw out one more website as well, for those who are concerned about the welfare of college media. The New Voices campaign to provide enhanced legal protection in states that lack it currently is off and running in 2016, bills have been filed already in New Jersey and Missouri and are in the works in a half a dozen states at least. NewVoicesUS.com is the gathering place for the advocates in the student media community working on this iniative and we encourage those of you concerned about the rights of student journalists to visit newvoicesus.com and if there’s not a movement going on in your state, contact the SPLC about starting one.

So thanks again to Chris Carroll from Vanderbilt and Will Drabold from Ohio University. I encourage you to follow the work of their respective future of student media summits and to contact us at the Student Press Law Center with any question about your rights as a journalist or journalism educator. That website is www.splc.org, email is splc@splc.org and you can connect with us on Twitter @SPLC. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll talk to you next month.