Archive for January, 2009

In an interesting new post for MediaShift, Bryan Murley summarizes the bitter truthiness of the economic downturn for college newspapers.  At least for the biggies, the dailies, the pubs that actually have an advertising team and non-student staff with fancy titles like general manager, times are tougher than ever.

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The portion of the post that most intrigued me focused on the identity of visitors trolling student papers’ Web sites.  Who is reading student newspapers online? Apparently, it’s not students, at least according to the two sources cited.  First, the general manager of Syracuse’s Daily Orange: “Students read the print edition, not the online edition anyway.  Online is for parents, alumni, sports fans not in our distribution area for the most part, so they would not be reading the print edition.”

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Similarly, Andrew Sawyer, “executive vice president for media services at Alloy Media+Marketing, a company that sells national advertising in the college newspaper market”:  “Online college newspaper readership hasn’t really been proven to me that it is a college student.”

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Hmmmmm.  How does one prove he or she is a student (or non-student) reader of the sites?  There is no registration required for most (if any?).  As President Bartlet told Mrs. Landingham on “The West Wing”: “If you want to convince me of something, show me numbers!”  (And I mean that: Any eds. or researchers have actual data/memories of a related research presentation they once saw that might prove this?)

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The claim that there is a student-nonstudent divide online for student papers is startling, and one that if true should impact student pubs’ Web presence, one way or the other.  Either papers can push for a greater mix of online content and services that will draw in more students or they can accept that students still love the print version most and instead cater to the non-student demographic who apparently are the ones eating up the online offerings.  Add an alumni news section?  Features on parents of students?  A special, non-administration-approved guide to the school for prospective students and family?

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In its latest issue, American Journalism Review documents the first few years of an interesting arrangement between the University of Alabama and the Anniston Star, a newspaper covering a community about two hours from UA’s main campus.

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The basics: A small group of students enrolled in UA’s journalism master’s program spend a year in the Star newsroom, mixing coursework (some of it on the UA Tuscaloosa campus) with professional experience at a community daily while receiving a small stipend (basically on par with a graduate assistantship).  AJR says the Star is “the first newspaper to house a degree-offering master’s program in its newsroom.”

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Glorified internship?  In some ways, on first glance, it appears that way.  Slave labor for the newspaper?  Again, yes, I do think the financial advantages for the paper are fairly clear-cut and potentially undercutting to full-time (higher-paid) staff, a concern the AJR article mentions.

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While not touched upon by AJR, the arrangement also raises the eternal question: What is more valuable for j-students- coursework or practical experience?  The program description lists a few courses that students need to meander through (when you cut through the siders, it’s basically just research methods, comm theory, community journalism, and j-history) but it is undoubtedly a learn-by-doing approach.

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My take: I’m ambivalent.  I don’t worry so much about the slave labor argument.  It stinks for the regular staffers obviously.  (Will all full-timers simply be replaced by the cheaper students  at some point?)  But undergrads and grad students have long been paid less to do more- all part of the move up the ladder and paying dues.  I just wonder if the Star‘s obvious precedence in the class-work collaboration too greatly removes the academic elements.  I mean, is UA really anything more than a beard, a backdrop, in this experiment?  But hey, maybe these types of agreements (among a uni, a news outlet, and a private foundation) will be what saves journalism as we know it. 

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Otherwise as a college media advocate, I must state my objection to any arrangement that removes quality j-students from their campuses.  My argument: Produce award-winning, impacting reports that hit home, but do it at UA, not two hours away! :)

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As part of my research into the Singaporean student press, I have been conducting long-form interviews with every current and former Singaporean college journalist who matters.  The sitdowns so far have taught me some interesting truths about journalism in Singapore certainly, but even more than that they have revealed that certain tenets of college journalism are shared worldwide.  One biggie: what I call the SOS SASS (same old stories, semester after semester syndrome).

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There are simply some stories that on a scroll through the archives of any student media outlet pop up again and again and again, sometimes with a fresh spin, but always with the same core issue or topic intact.  Some are universal and others are school-specific.  At Nanyang Technological University, which houses the lone college journalism program and the longest-running college student newspaper in Singapore, the SOS are about busing.  Specifically, they deal with the inefficient transportation system to and from and within the school.  The most recent issue of the NTU student newspaper voiced a spirited related complaint in an opinion piece.  During a recent interview with a former chief editor of the newspaper, I showed him the issue.  His first reaction upon seeing the article with the busing reference: “Well, the headline’s different, but we basically wrote the same thing five years ago.”

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Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying SOS SASS is necessarily a bad thing.  I mean, the college media audience (at least the core student one) is ever-changing.  Student press staffs are also always turning over as well.  And some issues deserve repeated reporting or editorializing, sort of like the incarcerated main character Andy in Shawshank Redemption writing his weekly letter for years  in order to secure funding for the prison library.  But within my research, I haven’t come across an instance in which SOS SASS has been the result of such an organized, long-term undertaking.  Instead, the same old stories tend to get written simply because j-students aren’t aware or don’t care that they have been written about in the past.

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What can we learn from our student press predecessors? What is the value of yellowed student newspaper issues or now-archived Web pages displaying past student media efforts?  A flip through these print-and-Web treasure troves can provide a history lesson about how and how much things have changed at your school and also, more importantly, in my opinion . . . what things have stayed the same.

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And so, along with ensuring all issues of a student press outlet are archived and available online or in the newsroom or campus library, I contend that all student staffs should consider mining those archives for story ideas, seeing what’s been covered and how it’s been covered.  The potential for present content is tremendous!  Timelines of important issues, more direct compare-contrasts, This Day in School History siders, and strengthened arguments galore.  For example, it’s one thing to complain about university busing at present.  It’s quite another to quote a mid-nineties article in the same student publication making the same plea for better campus-area public transport that apparently continued to fall on deaf ears.

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I am back from a trip to Bali (where The Bali Times reports that Obama’s childhood friends in Indonesia always knew their young expat chum “Barry” had a “go global attitude“).

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My return to Singapore comes only one day after the launch of an interesting new feature from The Washington City Paper involving collegemediatopia: The College Rag Wrap-Up. In a brief intro at the start of the first post, City Paper describes the wrap-up as a weekly summary of “the most interesting stories from college newspapers” operating at schools in and around D.C.

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https://i2.wp.com/www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/citydesk/files/2009/01/2598816622_048093aecb-300x199.jpg

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The idea is sound. It’s a nice localization of The Paper Trail, one my favorite blogs, updated daily by a witty reporter at U.S. News & World Report. Paper Trail promises to “sift through thousands of student newspaper headlines every day to bring you the latest, most important, or just plain weirdest news from campuses across the country.”

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https://i0.wp.com/www.usnews.com/blog_dbimages/93/PaperTrail.jpg

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At first glance, my suggestions for College Rag Wrap-Up:

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1) Include actual summaries of the stories! Give us context. Why should we care? Right now, it’s just a blah link listing.

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2) Talk about the journalism involved. What was especially fresh about the selected stories’ reporting, angling, or new media use?

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3) Think New Media! Why just a listing of college newspapers? A number of alt, indy, and Web 2.0 student press outlets are doing their thing in D.C. and beyond. If they’re generally trustworthy, highlight the news they’re presenting as well.

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4) Why weekly? Give people a reason to tune in more regularly. Instead of a link listing only the most rabid college news junkie will want to go through, summarize and link to a more palatable one or two stories a day.

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Running a student newspaper, big or small, daily or weekly, is a full-time job.  It is a practical, hands-on educational experience that teaches a student just as much as (and usually more than) even the best of classes.  In an editorial published today, top editors at The Chronicle, the student daily at Duke University, are pushing for more recognition of their hard work and the educational benefits accrued from it.

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Through an interesting “underloading” policy, certain leaders of campus organizations at Duke are being allowed to lessen their coursework demands by having their leadership positions count for one-credit each over two semesters.  The goal is to give these students a bit more time to pursue their work, learn from doing, and in turn hopefully improve the university with their achievements.

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The top editor at The Chronicle is included among the student leaders who are eligible for what is basically a course reduction.  The newspaper’s leadership though wants more than two semesters of reduction.  The arguments: The top editor normally serves a year first as a higher-up of a specific department within the paper, a full-time job itself; current top editors are already “unofficially” reducing their coursework through easy electives such as phys. ed.; the university lacks a “true journalism program,” making the newspaper an incredibly important learning vehicle on par with coursework; and a university the size and caliber of Duke deserves a daily paper and in turn a staff with a bit more time to put it together.

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This dilemma is in the end unsolvable.  Why?  Because it represents the fascinating engima that is the college newspaper.  It is both the heartbeat of most elite campuses while at the same time technically relegated to a mere student activity or an independent side pursuit.  It is of course officially an outside endeavor, done in free time by students who are at university for another main reason (classes/graduating), yet often represents the very core of j-students’ passions and reasons for being.  The time and effort it takes to produce would stun almost anyone curious or courageous enough to spend even a week in a typical student newsroom.

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Does this time commitment, the quality of content, and the necessity of its existence on university campuses deserve greater recognition and respect from the hand that feeds it (with information) and that it at times bites?

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The campus press and the campus athletics program have long co-existed at the epicenter of student life at schools worldwide.  Think about it: What other two entities on a typical campus bring students together as passionately and as regularly, entertains them or informs them quite as well, and creates a collective college experience that goes beyond the classroom and dorm?

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One grabs eyeballs and another plants butts in seats.  Both provide students with shared things to talk about.  Both ignite passions and stir debates.  Both give students something to do other than studying or paying attention in class.  And one needs the other: Especially at larger schools, the sports section is the student newspaper’s bread-and-butter.  While at smaller schools, student press coverage may be the only attention teams can hope to generate.

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All this by way of an introduction to a rah-rah editorial that I randomly came across and really enjoyed.  The Signpost student newspaper at Weber State in Utah ran an editorial in mid-month about the paltry attendance at student sporting events and the need for greater undergrad support, not simply for athletes’ sake but for the spirit of the school itself.

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The editorial’s start especially caught my eye.  Although aimed at introducing its pro-athletics pitch, the words to me ring deeper as the very purpose of the student press in general: “Being the student newspaper of Weber State University, The Signpost has an obligation to help students get the most out of their experience on campus.”

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An open letter to Mindy McAdams, purveyor of online journalism teaching tips and tools and creator of that wonderful timeline noting significant moments in online news reporting:

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Inauguration Day 2008 was considered historic even before it happened (literally, with CNN.com imploring Web surfers before the big day to be sure to “Watch History Unfold”).  In the end, however, from a media perspective, it wasn’t WHAT we watched (Obama’s oath stumble and so-so speech, Cheney’s wheelchair entrance, Aretha Franklin’s big hat, Yo-Yo Ma’s amazingness) but HOW many of us watched it that has etched a place into online news history.

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Three words: Live.  Streaming.  Video.  LSV has been battling for a greater stake in the media cosmos for a few years now.  With Obama’s inauguration, it has arrived.  As CNN reported yesterday, close to 8 million people watched the festivities online, making it “the single most-watched event in the history of live Web video”:

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With many workers stuck at their desks during the late-morning swearing-in of President Obama on Tuesday, more people than ever went online to watch live video of the historic inauguration.  News sites, including CNN.com, shattered records for viewers watching live streaming video online. And, sometimes for the first time, news sites carried video feeds on their front pages.

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I am officially one of these new LSV junkies.  I watched the whole shindig from Singapore at 1 a.m. via the live video on CNN.com.  Steady cameras, commercially-uninterrupted, nice sound quality, and only fits and starts of the loading hiccups that have always been the death of LSV in the past.  I also loved the CNN video sider showing your Facebook friends’ status updates (which were all variations of “Inauguration woo-hoo!”), in a way making me feel connected to the moment with those I know back in the States who were also watching (in their case while pretending to work).

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And so Professor McAdams, I humbly submit this suggestion: Time for an update to the online news timeline.

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All my best,

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Dan

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