Student newspapers struggle in a changing media environment

Story posted December 1, 2015 in News, Best of CommMedia by Shannon Sweeney

AUSTIN, Texas –– As rain drenches the orange vending boxes on Guadalupe Street at the University of Texas, students hustle between classes on a gray Friday afternoon in late October. A few pick up free copies of The Daily Texan, one of them using the student newspaper to shield himself from the downpour.

On a campus of more than 51,000 students, the newspaper boxes are opened just 12,000 times a day.

Like so many student newspapers across the country, The Daily Texan is enduring vast changes in readership and huge reductions in print advertising.

Struggling financially, student newspapers are trying to report more of the news digitally, even
though their websites do not bring in the advertising money that the print editions once did. Their professional brethren – from The New York Times to the Centre Daily Times, in State College, Pennsylvania – are going through the same painful transition.

“The issues that national papers are facing are similar to what student newspapers are facing,” said Bobby Blanchard, a Texas graduate and former staff member of The Daily Texan. “But the challenge with student papers is that you have people who are full- time students who are asked to be digitally innovative while also still producing a print product.”

Online traffic for the Daily Texan exceeds that of the print publication, its staff says.

The Daily Texan’s financial troubles began in 2008, editor- in-chief Claire Smith said. In 2013 and 2014, leaders of the organization talked about reducing the number of days that the print edition would appear. However, there was an outcry in favor of keeping the Monday-through- Friday publication schedule.

Gerald Johnson, director of Texas Student Media, which comprises The Daily Texan and other student media outlets, described a “backlash from students, faculty and also a very organized alumni group of former students” who had worked at The Daily Texan. Johnson said there was a concern that “we’d become less relevant with the campus population by dropping circulation.”

Texas Student Media also produces the humor magazine The Daily Travesty, the Cactus yearbook, KVRZ 91.7 FM, and Texas Student Television.

With advertising revenue declining, the university’s Moody College of Communications, to relieve the financial strain, gave “transitional funding” to Texas Student Media and started paying its utility bills. Johnson said Texas Student Media would receive up to $250,000 a year for three years.

The Daily Texan has decreased the number of pages it prints, and it continues to discuss reducing the number of publication days. “That’s been a conversation, and that’s where we’re at right now,” Smith said, adding that she is “really hopeful” of remaining a daily newspaper.

Smith said The Daily Texan had seen an increase in online readership, with a Twitter following of more than 41,200 and a Facebook following of more than 9,900. “Our online traffic is higher than our circulation,” she said. “People are reading us, but they’re just connecting in a different way.” She said the staff was focusing more on special projects, tracking web numbers through Google analytics, and reaching a mobile- driven audience.

Johnson said The Daily Texan’s print circulation had held steady at 12,000 for the last few years.
“I think the challenge is figuring out how to best reach the 17- to 23-year-old students who are walking around campus and do not have a habit of picking up a print product,” Johnson said.

“The challenge is this generation is online 24/7, and they’re consuming media differently.”
Blanchard, who graduated from Texas last year, created an online tool to track how often student newspapers at four-year, public universities in the United States posted news online. The tool used RSS feeds to see how many publications uploaded new content at least five days a week. He found that only about 20 percent of the more than 500 schools sampled did this.

He said he was not surprised by those results, because larger news organizations typically have more resources.

“I think it’s unfortunate that in order to have a good presence, you may have to be at a big school,” he said. “Ideally this would be happening across all universities.”

At other schools across the country, student newspapers are doing what The Daily Texan is doing: pondering how they will survive in the changing media environment.

Down the street from the University of Texas, past the distribution boxes and a few miles away from campus, student journalists from around the country gathered in October for a joint convention of the Associated Collegiate Press and the College Media Association. They attended seminars and heard how their peers are dealing with growing financial pressures.

A clear takeaway from the conference: Changes vary from place to place; no one has a magic formula.

The Daily Wildcat, the student- run newspaper at University of Arizona, saw a drop in circulation from 10,000 issues a day to 7,000 over five years, said editor-in- chief Jessie Webster. The student population of the University of Arizona is 42,236, meaning that the print edition is reaching one out of each six students. Circulation dipped to 6,000 in 2013, but after The Daily Wildcat switched to printing three days a week instead of five, circulation climbed back to 7,000.

Webster said the staff wanted to increase its online presence, “and I didn’t see a way to do that without dropping to three days.” If they want to survive, she said, “student media needs to be wise in where they’re putting their energy.” She has created an additional managing editor position to oversee website and social media presence.

The Minnesota Daily, at the University of Minnesota, transitioned in 2008 from a
Monday-through-Friday paper to a Monday-through-Thursday paper, said editor-in-chief Tyler Gieseke.

The Daily Emerald, at the University of Oregon, reduced print production from five days a week to two days a week during the 2012- 13 academic year, editor-in-chief Dahlia Bazzaz said. On Mondays, The Emerald prints news and a major feature story. On Thursdays, it prints game-day previews of athletic events occurring over the weekend.

Everything else, Bazzaz said, is written specifically for online. With its “online-first” model, The Emerald emphasizes breaking news and social-media engagement. “I can’t imagine doing print every day now, especially when we’re focusing so much on the website,” she said.

For The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, remaining daily is a primary goal. Editor-in-chief Paige Ladisic said the newspaper had been a daily for 123 years and currently has a circulation of 14,000 in a student population of more than 29,000.

Ladisic said the newspaper is also focusing on online-only content, online design and social media. “We’re trying to be more engaging and more present,” Ladisic said. “If we raise our online game, we can kind of save the paper in that way.”

Other college publications see the online game as the only way to stay alive.

The Diamondback at the University of Maryland once printed five days a week. Now it only publishes a print edition on Thursdays.

The Diamondback, the student newspaper at the University of Maryland, now is a weekly paper. It was a four-day-a-week paper in the 2014-15 school year, and was a five-day-a-week paper the year before. Now, the newspaper is published on Thursdays with a circulation of about 9,000 on campus of about 37,000.

Editor-in-chief Matt Schnabel estimated the print circulation of the 2014-15 paper at 3,000. He said the decision to go weekly resulted from the decrease in circulation and print advertising, the increasing cost of printing, and a changing job market.

With the recent transition to weekly, the paper has seen an increase in print advertisement sales of 8 percent, Schnabel said. The number of website hits has seen an increase, too. For the 2014-15 academic year, The Diamondback’s website had a total of 2.6 million page views –– up 400,000 from the year before. To focus on its online presence, The Diamondback has
added more online editors.

The circulation declines at college newspapers parallel what is happening at professional newspapers across the United States. According to a Pew Research Center analysis of circulation data compiled by the Alliance for Audited Media, both weekday and Sunday circulation fell 3 percent from 2013 to 2014. Among newspapers with circulations of 500,000 or more, circulation fell 4 percent.

Lucy Dalglish, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, said the journalism faculty is teaching its students about the importance of going online. She added that The Diamondback, along with other student media, is a recruiting tool for prospective students.

The Diamondback is independent from the university, but, as is the case elsewhere, journalism students predominate on the news staff. Dalglish said both print and broadcast students vitally need experience in order to appeal to potential employers after graduation. “There is no point whatsoever in majoring in journalism if you’re not going to get down and dirty as a journalist while you’re a student,” she said.

The challenge for The Diamondback, editor Schnabel said, is increasing readership and becoming more attractive to digital advertisers. In essence, that is the challenge for all newspapers. Right now, digital ads do not match the revenue that print ads used to produce.

At The Daily Tar Heel, Ladisic said print advertisements are going down – including the loss of “big national clients” – and despite an increase in online presence, the paper is not making up for this revenue loss with online advertising.

The struggle to make up for print revenue is nothing new in the print journalism world. For the past five years, print newspaper ad revenue has dropped 5 percent, while digital ad revenue has increased 3 percent, according to the Pew Research Center’s State of the News Media 2015 report.

Just as in the college newspaper market, the increase in online advertisements is not enough to make up for the decrease in print advertising revenue. Pew’s report said that in 2015 overall ad revenue for professional newspapers fell 4 percent –– to just $19.9 billion. That was a decrease of more than $29 billion since 2006.

Ken Doctor, whose Newsonomics website analyzes change in the news industry, said advertising declines remain the big problem. “No single paper itself is going to reverse a larger structural trend going away from print,” he said. “It’s the nature of the world. You have to figure out how you’re going to meet this new world.”

In the case of The Diamondback, the decline in print advertising was a factor in the decision to reduce production days. The Diamondback’s digital advertising sales are small, but growing, editor Schnabel said. He sees less demand for print advertising and more for digital advertising.
“Student newspapers need to provide advertisers with a product they are eager to advertise on,” Schnabel said. “I definitely think that in order to survive and in order to become profitable ... student newspapers around the country are going to have to increase their digital reach.”

At Western Kentucky University, editor-in-chief Kaely Holloway said the College Heights Herald has been “really trying to find ideas and topics that are going to pull people in and give people what they want to read online.” The staff is experimenting with multimedia reporting, interactive features, and a focus on social media.

The College Heights Herald, which is published twice a week, was redesigned to be more visually attractive. She also said the paper had increased revenue by selling advertisements on its mobile app.

Steve Buttry, since 2012 the director of student media at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, said student media were trying to figure out how to reach students – and how to pay for that outreach, whether through student fees, advertising or other forms of revenue.

“Certainly, the dynamics vary by location and by situation,” he said. “But a huge dynamic facing student newspapers is their primary audience – they are so digitally focused. Even free newspapers that you can pick up on campus aren’t picked up as much as they used to be.”

To combat decreases in advertising, Buttry said some papers are exploring options for student fees and trying to find new ways to appeal to advertisers online.

Buttry said The Daily Reveille, the student newspaper at LSU, has started discussions about possibly cutting print circulation days. He said digital media is becoming more relevant to audiences at universities across the country, and student newspapers need to acknowledge this.

Students are constantly looking at their phones and social media as opposed to picking up newspapers, he said. “To increase digital volume and digital presence, Buttry said student newspapers should be “a place of aggressive experimentation,” with apps such as Snapchat, Periscope and others that provide both longform stories and quick updates.

“People will read long things on mobile devices, but it has to be engaging and it has to engage quickly,” he said. “If you’re not experimenting in student media, you’re not doing it right.”

Buttry said that a digital focus will help student journalists better prepare themselves for jobs in the industry, where the shift to an online presence is also underway.

Cate Barron is editor of The Patriot-News in Harrisburg and vice president of content for PA Media Group, which runs the newspaper and its website PennLive. She said that when her editors hire new staff members, they look at online skills such as shooting video, editing video and doing multimedia reporting.

For college students, she said, “any kind of real-life experience is really helpful beyond the classroom,” including working for college newspapers. She said having online skills should not diminish the need to know the basics of reporting, but she said reporters need to shift their focus to writing for an online audience.

The Patriot-News publishes three days a week but focuses mainly on its daily PennLive website.
“You have to move to online,” she said. “That’s where the industry is going. Our first emphasis is online. That’s the future.”

R.B. Brenner, director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas, said that when Texas Student Media became part of the Moody College of Communications in 2014, the college had no desire to control content of the independently run student media.

He said, however, that the college offers courses to train journalism students in the “digital revolution,” and those courses help student media outlets. These courses include mobile app development, programming, coding for journalists, audience engagement and data visualization.

Brenner said also being involved in student media provides invaluable experience. “You couldn’t imagine someone being on the football team without playing football, or someone who says they want to be a musician just by listening to music and studying music theory,” he said. “Journalism is a ‘doing’ thing. Not only do you have to study it and learn it, but you have to do it.”

As student newspapers contemplate the shift to digital, will there be print newspapers at all on the university campuses of the future?

Paige Ladisic, the University of North Carolina editor, said student newspapers will be still be important and relevant, although she is uncertain what form they will take. While some college journalists are jumping to online, she said, “there are going to be a few papers that just fight and fight until they can’t anymore.”

Bobby Blanchard, the University of Texas alum, thinks the orange boxes dispensing Daily Texan will still be opened – even if it’s during a rainstorm. “The print product is the anchor to campus in many ways,” he said. “It gives newspapers a presence on campus.”