Archive for the ‘Future of Journalism’ Category

Student newspapers are struggling financially.  The decade-long plights of the professional press have at last weaved their way into the land of collegemediatopia.  If not quite a time of reckoning for some campus papers, we have definitely entered a prolonged period of profound change– cutbacks, weary sighs, and hopefully some spirited reinventions.

That is the gist of what I told Connecticut Post reporter Linda Lambeck late last week when contacted for a quote.  She was wrapping up a story on the financial woes of The Daily Campus at UCONN, and the paper’s attempt to add needed funding through a slight rise in student fees.  (In a campus-wide vote, students rejected the proposal.)

As part of the piece, Lambeck wanted a wider-angle view on the economic dilemmas of student papers nationwide.  Below is the response I sent her, a statement I feel needs to be taken as a wake-up call for the j-students, j-profs, and advisers swearing everything is still status quo or A-OK.

A Boot Camp of Sorts

My Take on the Current Financial Status of the Student Press

For years, student newspapers have been immune from the financial downturn plaguing the professional press, thanks to their lack of overhead, the support of their schools, advertisers’ love of the student market, and their need to only break even.  But those days are over.  A growing number of student papers are struggling financially.

The hardest-hit segment at the moment are the daily papers that operate independently as their own businesses.  Some have cut the number of days they publish each week.  Others have reduced the number of pages they print or their page sizes.  Many are pulling back on staff pay and perks like conference travel.  A few have appealed directly to students and alums for funding help.  A small amount have launched magazines in hopes of broadening their readership and ad appeal.  Still others have aligned with a service that requests donations from all readers who visit the papers’ websites.  A few papers have even gone dark entirely, mostly at smaller schools or community colleges in which related journalism programs have also been shuttered due to state funding cuts.

Students are still reading their campus newspapers in print, by all accounts at a reliable, surprisingly high rate.  But advertising is tougher to come by.  Related school budgets in some cases are tightening or disappearing entirely.  Student governments are getting occasionally restless as they look at papers’ financial bottom lines.  And the seemingly inevitable shift toward digital-first publishing looms large in many editors’ and advisers’ minds.

At a recent major college media conference in New York City, a pair of student newspaper advisers spoke in a packed-house session about the opportunities and challenges of becoming an online-only news outlet.  The close of the session description in the program stated plainly why attendees should stop by: “[B]ecause your newspaper will probably have to consider it eventually.”

Student editors’ financial battles might be a boot camp of sorts for what they will face after graduation.  Or the troubles might be a blessing in disguise, motivating members of the young, mobile, and wireless generation to step up and help reinvent, truly reinvent, journalism.

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Less than three years after its launch, Her Campus, the national student culture and news site billed as the “collegiette’s guide to life,” is a millionaire.  The site boasted 1.2 million visitors in February, its first month breaking that landmark amount.

In an announcement about the accomplishment, HC editor-in-chief Stephanie Kaplan wrote, “[W]e had over 1.2 million visits to HerCampus.com during February– WOW! I mean, we knew you liked to spend time on your laptops, but… ;) Basically, we are floored by the incredible milestone our site has reached, and so grateful to all of you– our readers, writers, commenters, Facebook-sharers, tweeters, pinners (you get it) who made this fantastic feat possible.”

A trio of Harvard University undergraduates started the site in fall 2009, seeing a niche for a smart, sassy, female-centric digital magazine run by and targeted toward students.  From the beginning, HC caught on and prospered mightily.  Along with the impressive visitor data, Her Campus has roughly 190 localized sites run by students on campuses across the country.

Back in July 2010, I selected the student founders– Kaplan, Windsor Hanger, and Annie Wang– for CMM’s College Media Hall of Fame.  At the time, I wrote:

Her Campus has impressed me since its start last fall.  Its founders, Harvard students at the time and now recent grads, are fearless.  They spotted a national niche– an opening for a student-produced “hub for everything college women need to know”– and they dove in with gusto.  The site now sports fresh content daily, dozens of student writers, significant social media followings, lots of unique visitors, growing media coverage and ad sales, and an expansion that includes school-specific My Campus branches.  Most impressively, through it all, its trio of founders and continued overseers seem to be having a great time.

Left to right: Stephanie, Windsor, and Annie. Photo by Katerina Stavreva.

To read more of the Hall of Fame post– including write-ups from the young women discussing their fellow founders– click here or on the screenshot below.

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Amid an ever-gloomier financial outlook, The Daily Campus at the University of Connecticut is apparently in serious danger of folding without an immediate increase in student fees support.

In an open letter of sorts to UCONN students published on Huffington Post, the paper’s editor-in-chief Melanie Deziel outlines the crippling budget woes befalling the Campus and the many cutbacks staff have made in recent years to keep operations in the black.  The piece’s headline: “SOS: Save Our Student Newspaper.

As Deziel writes, “The Daily Campus runs on a combination of student fees and advertising revenue. While our fees have remained constant since 1999, the failing economy led to a sharp decline in ad revenue that, with inflation, has left us in dire straits. . . . We’ve cut more than $100,000 in expenditures since 2005 by cutting wages, travel, equipment purchases, professional development and more. We no longer pay to submit our pieces for awards, we don’t attend conferences and we’re working on a playlist to replace the DJ for the year-end banquet. We do it because it’s not about us. It’s about our paper.”

The paper is asking UCONN students to support a $3-per-student-per-semester fees increase.  According to Deziel, part of the goal is ensuring the Daily Campus does not turn into the Weekly Campus or cease publishing in print at all.

A screenshot displaying most of yesterday's special front page of The Daily Campus.

As she notes at the close of the letter, “Most of the current staff will graduate before the paper goes under.  We’ll take our clips and our experience to graduate schools and publications across the country. But for most of us, our time at the Daily Campus wasn’t just a means to that end. Our pride won’t fade after we graduate. It will always be our paper, it will always be important and we refuse to let it die.”

Deziel’s SOS post directly resonates with the recent letter written by movie critic Roger Ebert on behalf of The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois.  In his letter, Ebert, a former editor-in-chief of the student paper, wrote, “It is possible the Daily Illini could cease publication. . . . Many, including myself, would say that they owe their careers at least in part to their experience at Illini Media.  It’s now time to give back.”

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Eagle’s Eye student staffers at Sierra Nevada College are boldly producing journalism without precedent.  The current incarnation of the biweekly campus newspaper is aiming to be much more hard-charging, professional, digital, and visually polished than any of its predecessors.

It doesn’t yet boast a website.  It does not have the funding to pay staff.  It does not enjoy the advantages of an affiliated journalism program.  And it does not yet bask in the glow of editorial freedom– operating instead under the watchful gaze of an administration apparently not yet sure what to make of a gung-ho student news team.

But the paper has noticeably come a long way since issues four years ago that managing editor Savannah Hoover confirms were hand-stapled and Xeroxed in the school library.

The current quality of Eagle’s Eye is a testament to the passion, vision, sweat, and sleeplessness of its core editorial staff and adviser Tanya Canino.

In a podcast chat recorded during the tail-end of the ACP convention, Hoover and news editor Jason Paladino spoke with me about the maddening, invigorating experience of growing a publication with short-term deadlines and long-term dreams.

As a quick note from editors atop the front page of the paper’s first issue of the academic year stated simply, “Welcome to the Adventure.”

Interview: Savannah Hoover & Jason Paladino, Eagle’s Eye Editors

Eagle's Eye editors Savannah Hoover and Jason Paladino pose against a wall of the Renaissance Seattle, site of the 2012 ACP National College Journalism Convention.

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In what has to be regarded as huge news within collegemediatopia, The Daily Universe at Brigham Young University will begin publishing its print edition weekly by the end of April “[a]fter decades of daily publication.”

In the immediate sense, it means a quick shift to a “digital-first news lab format” and, sadly, impending layoffs for eight professional staff who help the paper.  (Fewer professional staff positions requiring different skills will be created to support the students during the new venture.)

As BYU’s student media associate chairwoman tells Utah’s Daily Herald (hat tip Romenesko), “The plan was developed and voted on by all of the journalism faculty and staff.  This new digital-first format will include texts, images, audio, video, mobile and tablet app formats, and we will continue to explore other news applications.”

According to a Daily Universe report, the switch was motivated by financials (specifically a sustained ad revenue drop for the print edition in recent years) and a desire to modernize the curriculum and ensure students are learning skills needed in the current professional field.

The Universe is the second more prominent paper to announce a shift from weekly to daily printing this academic year.  The Red & Black at the University of Georgia made a similar move this past fall.

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Can the student press turn a profit?  Michael Westendorf says yes, and he operates a newspaper aiming to prove it.

The Saginaw Valley Journal is an independent paper covering Michigan’s Saginaw Valley State University, an 11,000-student public school less than an hour’s drive from Flint.  The paper is a grand experiment of sorts– aiming to kick more than 100 years of college media wisdom smack in its bottom (line).  Westendorf started SVJ on the premise that it can not only earn money, but run long-term in the black.

A majority of student media operating today make barely any money.  Instead, they are produced, published, and distributed thanks to the financial largesse of their host schools.  A small number of campus outlets make enough through advertising and other support to run independently as non-profits.  For-profit, though, is not a status considered for even a second by most of the student press.

Westendorf– who started the publication small-time while a student at SVSU (he has yet to earn his degree)– is striving to buck that economic trend.  From an editorial perspective, he also appears to be attempting to embody SVSU’s motto: “Something More.  Something Better.”  In this respect, the key is a focus on substantive news.

In Westendorf’s words, “This newspaper was established for the SVSU community; for students, faculty, staff, and the administration.  It will be a newspaper’s newspaper, and by that we mean straight, hard news. . . . [W]e want to serve the faculty and staff as much as the students.”

Even its design– seemingly directly inspired by Wall Street Journal— screams serious.

The paper's most recent front page.

I admit, until I see actual revenue reports, a breakdown of how student staffers are compensated, and hear him speak and be vetted at a national or regional ACP/CMA convention, I am skeptical.  But slightly optimistic.  Westendorf is laser-focused on this venture like a tiger who’s spotted raw meat.  On spec, the content produced by him and his student team seems solid.  And Columbia Journalism Review deemed the effort worthy of a recent write-up.

In the Q&A below, Westendorf discusses the ins-and-outs of the paper’s for-profit, hard news, and independent statuses.

Michael Westendorf

These are tough times in the print news world, and advertising revenue alone does not seem to be cutting it.  How do you see SVJ turning a profit and staying afloat in the long term?

We’re really excited about the opportunities we’re seeing in the college newspaper market.  We believe we’ve found a profitable model for campus newspapers, and much of that comes from observing existing student newspapers and asking ourselves ‘What’s done right?’ and ‘What’s done wrong?’.

Our business department is in the unique position of being able to completely examine profit models, while ignoring the education aspects that other student newspapers must confront.  An admittedly cursory examination of most student newspapers nationwide would reveal bloated salaries and staff– all in the name of education.  We don’t do that.

How does the student employment component actually work?

We don’t differentiate between student-employees and employees.  If we think you’re qualified, we’re going to hire you.  We don’t limit our reporting work to students.  However, as it turns out, the editorial staff is composed of all students.  I’m sure that’s due to a number of factors, most of which is location.  We do not disclose salary/payment information to the general public due to strategic competitive concerns.  We take our competition seriously, and I’m sure they do the same with us.

You told CJR the paper would focus on more than “sex columns, Lady Gaga album reviews, and unresearched and disconnected opinion pieces.”  Why is the time for hard news now?

I don’t think the time for hard news is now (or vice-versa).  It’s just simply what we do.  I don’t think it’s any more relevant today than it was yesterday, or then it will be tomorrow.  In higher education and student newspapers, however, it seems to be sorely lacking.  At our university, at least, we’re seeking to fill that gap.

Do you worry as an independent, outside entity– and one described in CJR as occasionally combative toward SVSU– that your access might be stymied over time?

We actually don’t worry about access being stymied as much as we used to worry about it.  We’ve learned how to become diplomatic and to develop relationships with senior administration officials.  We’re also increasingly focused on community engagement.  Those two things (building relationships and community engagement) weren’t focused on as much as they should have been by us early on.  But now that they are, we’re finding that the university is actually starting to embrace us, instead of trying to avoid us.

Finally, as long as we continue to consistently put out a quality product, I think more and more administrators will start to look at the other newspaper and say to themselves, ‘Gee, this newspaper’s better, and it’s not being infused with $22,000 of student money each semester.  Maybe it’s time we start examining a better use for this money.’

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Based on last year’s census data, the median salary for journalism majors now in the professional ranks: $50,000.  My first reaction: Wow, honestly, that is higher than I thought it would be.

According to a great Romenesko+ post summarizing Wall Street Journal data, “Journalism majors do slightly better than English majors in the job market. . . . The median annual salary for both is $50,000, the same as it is for advertising and PR majors, history majors and communications majors.”

My second reaction: How many are actually working as journalists?  The WSJ breakdown does not provide an answer to that query.  But it does present an interesting nugget that should be at least slightly heartening to j-students, profs, alumni, and advisers everywhere: “[J]ournalists make up a slightly larger portion of the U.S. workforce than in 2000.  At that time, .055 percent of the U.S. workforce was made up of journalists; in 2010, journalists were .058 percent of the workforce.”

Of course, this produces more questions than answers.  Chief among them: Who is being counted as a journalist?  (I imagine the definition has changed since a decade ago.)  And how many people are in the workforce overall compared to 10 years ago?  (I’m guessing there are a ton less jobs than in 2000, meaning there are probably less working journalists as well.)

Yet, regardless, it’s nice to see j-majors are financially competitive after graduation and that I can look students in the eye when I tell them journalism’s foothold in society is holding steady– at least in a baseline numerical sense.  Journalism within higher ed. also remains strong– listed as the 25th most popular major among the 173 included in the WSJ report.

The bad news: The unemployment rate for journalism majors after graduation is slightly higher than those who major in one of its rival disciplines.  And diversity in the journalism workforce is embarrassingly low– especially in respect to women and those in the racial minority.

What do you think of this data???

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