How to Keep the Freep
A spectrum of suggestions, and some surprising consensus
After scores of interviews, lengthy historical explorations, insights gathered from this campus and across the country, perspectives as old as the Daily Free Press itself and as fresh as this year’s new editor, here’s the top-10 list of suggestions aimed at keeping the Freep alive and well.
About this key point, there’s consensus. That may be surprising, but even those who have been the target of student ire and criticism say that the Freep’s mission and credibility remain crucial. “They’ve filled a very important channel of communication,” says Joseph Mercurio, BU executive vice president. “Do they always do it well? No, they’ve done it like inexperienced students would be expected to do it, sometimes well, sometimes not. But they can be the voice of the students — that’s important. A big, prominent research university really needs that student voice.”
Mary Beth Earnheardt, president of the Society for Collegiate Journalists and an assistant professor of English at Youngstown State University, in Ohio, offers a national perspective, and context: “Any model that threatens the rights of student journalists will be met with fury from the Society for Collegiate Journalists, and other organizations like this. I can’t stress enough that the major concern of any press business model is that it not interfere with the work of the journalists. This is the most important issue.”
Define the editorial mission
“Our job is to be the watchdog of the University,” says Vivian Ho (COM’11), this semester’s editor in chief. That’s a great role. But even the toughest watchdogs need to run around sometimes; renewed focus on becoming the comprehensive go-to place for fun stuff to do next weekend, with intriguing profiles, cultural insight, and sports coverage, would pump up the paper (and rebuild the advertising base).
“There’s a key question that needs to be asked over and over,” says two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Fiedler (COM’71), dean of the College of Communication and former editor of the Miami Herald, “and this is it: what’s of real, ongoing interest to the readers?”
Quality versus quantity, content over form
Scaling back to four issues a week was a blow, but as Lou Ureneck, chair of COM’s department of journalism, says, “I think it was a very responsible decision. There are a lot of businesses, General Motors comes to mind, that weren’t able to cut costs. What Freep staff has done is cut the cloth to fit the form.”
Some observers argue that it’s not so much how often you publish, but what you publish. The Freep could transform into a more comprehensive, thoughtful weekly, cutting back on printing costs, producing a heftier publication with more impact. It could even take a more radical restructuring, as Christopher Callahan (COM’82), founding dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University (and former Freep news editor), imagines:
“I would love to see someplace where the university would say, here’s X number of dollars for X number of years, blow it all up. We’re dying from these incremental changes. What if you got rid of your newspaper? And what if you put those resources into a really robust online product that certainly has a robust Web presence, but more importantly, is focused on mobile devices. Students all have computers, sure, but the time they spend is not reading a newspaper, not on television, not on their laptop, not on their desktop — it’s on their phone. The capability to deliver information via these devices is there now. You could have a student newspaper that can get out in front on that.”
Mix it up
“We need more multimedia, more slide shows and video on the Web site,” Ho agrees. But abandoning the print format is not the answer, she argues: “People are saying print’s dead. No, print’s not dead, and journalism will never die.”
Traver Riggins, a senior at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and managing editor of the student paper the Hilltop, supports Ho’s perspective. The Hilltop, in economic crisis, stopped printing during the spring 2008 semester, but resumed that fall.
“Right before we came back, people started to realize the value of the student newspaper,” she says, “because they didn’t know what was going on. We did our best to run stories online … but students don’t go online to read their campus newspaper. They might go online to read the New York Times or the Washington Post, but a campus newspaper is supposed to be there when you’re walking to your classes; it’s supposed to be there when you’re walking out of your dorm.”
Absence made the heart grow fonder; the Hilltop now operates in the black, says Riggins.
That said, a newspaper that can’t be found and read — each and every day — is like the proverbial tree in the forest that makes no sound when it falls because no one’s around to hear it. Stacking a pile of Freeps in the George Sherman Union isn’t enough. The paper should be easy to grab coming out of a dorm in the morning, on the way to a class in the afternoon.
Take control of the Web
The Web site is in the hands of national company College Media Network (CMN), which provides structure and controls most of the advertising space (contracting with major advertisers who reach hundreds of colleges with one ad). The site needs to become more local, flexible, and creative, with more BU-based advertising and revenue.
Freep management has discussed this and is considering changes. If the paper does make a shift to a self-managed site, it will be joining peers around the country, according to Logan Aimone, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association.
“My sense is that CMN has been a great model for a long time, especially a few years ago,” says Aimone. “But what we’re seeing now is that there’s definitely a movement for colleges to question this arrangement.”
Build a stronger business structure
A publisher focused solely on the bottom line should drive the business side the way an editor drives the journalism. A full-time professional business manager has worked in the past and could work again. A serious, aggressive sales staff focused on selling advertising, with ambitious goals, clearly defined territories, and commissions as incentive, should be nurtured.
“If they want their editorial independence from the University, which is the goal, then sharpen up the business side and use the expertise that’s available,” says Mark Jurkowitz (COM’75), formerly at the Boston Globe and now associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Charitable Trust. “That’s the engine that will keep you from coming to the University hat in hand to survive.”
Callahan agrees. “While those guys I worked with at the Freep were great journalists,” he recalls, “I still wouldn’t want any of them doing a budget for me.”
Push for more University advertising and consider other kinds of support
This doesn’t mean abandoning critical judgment or feisty positions. “I’ve told them that sure, I’m going to pressure them once in a while,” says Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore, which might mean trying to convince the paper to write a story, or not write a story, or frame a story a certain way. “But they have to stand up to that. That’s called professional journalism.” Elmore also is ready and willing to advocate for a University loan to tide the paper over and would pave the way for support and guidance from other University staff.
Ureneck worries that the current economic model is simply not viable. “It’s really hard to sustain a student newspaper without a subsidy,” he says. “Can you think of another student enterprise of this scope that operates without any University dollars? I can’t.”
Earnheardt says that the Freep’s arm’s-length relationship with the administration is best case, but other models can work: “Some college media pay all their bills with ad revenue, some use ads and university support, some are paid for up-front by the university. I can’t stress enough that the major concern of any press business model is that it not interfere with the work of the journalists. This is the most important issue.”
Create a serious, working advisory board
To assess all these issues, and move forward, a better support structure is crucial. That could an advisory board of faculty, staff, students, and outsiders with strong business experience or even two boards, one that explores journalistic issues, the other financial issues.
Fiedler says that during his time as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University, he joined an advisory board that worked with editors of the Harvard Crimson. “They assigned each member of the board a day of the week,” he says, “and the role of the advisor was to do a written critique on what had been printed. The decisions had already been made on what to publish, but this provided professional feedback. And then the advisory board got together a couple of times a year, over pizza, to talk philosophy. It became thoughtful, outside input without compromising the mission.”
The well of affection and potential support among alumni, many for whom the Freep was their professional springboard, is all but inexhaustible. An alumni group pulled together a fundraiser for the paper last spring that exceeded its goal of $2,000, but everyone needs to think bigger and add a zero or two. Many great publications have relied on philanthropy to stay alive. So have great universities. It would be no embarrassment if the Freep continued to exercise its version of the First Amendment — grooming yet another generation of journalists — with help from an extended, functional family.
“Everything has to be done it keep it around,” says Katie Zezima (CAS’02), a full-time Boston freelancer for the New York Times. “It’s made us the professionals we are today.”
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