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Nationwide, a Reckoning

A coast-to-coast tour of campus newspapers

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The news appeared late last summer in the Daily Californian, the independent student newspaper of the University of California at Berkeley. Because of a “difficult financial situation,” it would no longer put out a Wednesday edition.

Continued budget troubles also forced the newspaper to cut the few dollars it paid staff reporters and photographers. Print ad revenue was tanking, and the newspaper had almost no other income — no university support, no stream of checks from rich alums, no major grants.

“For better or worse, we’re on our own,” says Will Kane, the paper’s editor.

Much of this would sound familiar on the Boston University campus. While the Daily Cal’s degree of independence (like the Daily Free Press’) is a rarity among college newspapers, its financial troubles are all too common. Yet a national sample of student-run print publications, members of the loose family to which the Freep belongs, reveals some surprising optimism. Unlike their professional counterparts, not all college newspapers are staring obsolescence in the face. They maintain a core of loyal student readers, who, despite their much-hyped technophilia, enjoy print. And that audience remains attractive to advertisers looking for campus customers.

That said, advertising revenue is diminishing everywhere, siphoned off by online classifieds and evaporating in a recession. The writing on the wall may not be as clear for university journalism as for professional counterparts, but it’s still there for the reading. A new, sustainable model is needed, editorially and financially. But while most innovation is online, nearly all of the revenue remains in stodgy newsprint. And the ink-stained elders, fairly or not, are looking to the younger generation for answers.

Crisis context
The number of paid newspaper subscribers nationally, declining for decades, fell off a cliff in the last few years, and with it went advertising revenue, plummeting 23 percent between 2006 and 2008.

But relatively speaking, college publications are hanging in there, according to Rachele Kanigel, a professor of journalism at San Francisco State University and an advisor to its student newspaper.

“Readership of student newspapers is not down the way it is at professional publications,” says Kanigel, author of The Student Newspaper Survival Guide. “There’s definitely some financial pressure, but not a state of crisis.”

One advantage for college papers is that they aren’t chasing stockholder profit expectations. Whether part of a university or independent, nearly all student papers are operated as nonprofits. Labor’s much cheaper, too; students often work for “clips” — in other words, for free. Usually there are a few part-time nonstudent staff for essentials like accounting, and maybe small salaries for top editors or a few freelance dollars for reporters and photographers.

According to Alloy Media, the biggest national advertising placement service for college newspapers, nearly 80 percent of students read their campus daily at least once a week. University students are a niche market with a desirable demographic, says Logan Aimone, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association (which includes the Associated Collegiate Press), and “printing a newspaper and distributing it around campus is still a pretty good way of reaching that market and communicating with that group.”

This doesn’t mean college newspapers are flush. The recession is killing a lot of retail businesses that once were reliable advertisers and squeezing the ad budgets of the survivors. Tax filings for a handful of prominent college papers show that typical ad revenues for a student paper range from $400,000 to $700,000 a year, but almost every one of these publications has seen a drop in gross revenues of between 10 and 25 percent over the past couple of years (the Freep included). Budget crunches are forcing a lot of newspapers to make tough choices.

“I know we ended up with a $250,000 deficit this year,” admits Jillian Sheridan, editor of the Daily Texan at the University of Texas, Austin. The paper, which shares staff with the yearbook and other student media, consolidated several professional positions and sold a printing press (staffed by five people) it had owned since 1973.

The recession slammed New York University’s daily independent paper, the Washington Square News, early last year, says Rachel Holliday Smith. In her first weeks as editor in the spring semester, she was forced to stop the Friday print edition, reduce circulation, and curtail inserts.

“I think we got hit first out of a lot of college dailies,” she says, “because we’re in a national market; 70 percent of our advertising came from national advertisers, which meant that it was real estate and the banks that dropped. Bank of America pulled out immediately when the stock market tanked.”

Last year, weak ad revenue forced other papers, including at the Daily Orange at Syracuse and the Minnesota Daily at the University of Minnesota, the aforementioned Daily Californian, and the Free Press, to cut a day of publication.

“We’re in pretty dire financial straits,” says Charles Whitaker, chair of magazine journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and chair of the board of directors for the Daily Northwestern, noting that ad dollars dropped by about 25 percent in the last fiscal year.

Working it out
Some college papers have a cash cushion, and/or steady income other than advertising, which is helping them weather the economic storm and hold on until advertisers return.

“We’re not going anywhere, and we’re not cutting back,” promises Alex Comisar, editor of the Daily Trojan at the University of Southern California (USC). No cuts are planned at the Harvard Crimson, which supplements ad revenue with tens of thousands of dollars in interest on investments, contract printing, and subscriptions to parents and alums.

College media are thriving in some college towns in part because they have the students’ undivided attention. The Red & Black, in Athens, Ga., takes the student-run independent model to another level, pulling in more than $1.1 million in advertising a year.

“The University of Georgia is one big cable car. We have a captive audience — we don’t have a problem with people reading our paper and that’s how we make our money,” says Ed Morales, an editorial advisor and one of the paper’s nonstudent staff.

It’s the same principle that apply to any community newspaper: people want to see their friends in print and know what’s going on in their own backyards, says Morales: “The small town paper will stay around forever, because it’s connected to the people.”

“I think advertisers will return to college media when the economy recovers,” says Aimone. “Businesspeople aren’t stupid. If advertising is working at the college level, they’ll keep doing it.”

Still, editors of many papers are planning changes they hope will keep their publications healthy. A few are considering a sustained alumni appeal, including the Daily Cal, which hopes to launch a campaign to fund an endowment for the paper this fall. It also replaced its student ad manager with a full-time professional last December.

“With the economic climate the way it is, we decided that advertising is way too important and we needed to bring in some expertise,” says Kane.

Several college newspapers are also looking to revamp their Web presence. The trick is to think of innovative content for the paper online, says Kenneth L. Rosenauer, president of College Media Advisers. “This means creating additional material dedicated to the online experience. They have to show there is value beyond the print product.”

A significant percentage of college newspapers (including the Freep) outsource Web development and maintenance to College Media Network (CMN), a company started by Emerson College alums in 1999 and purchased by MTV (in turn owned by Viacom) in 2006. With more than 600 college newspaper Web sites in the fold, CMN offers a free Web publishing platform known as College Publisher and tech support. But nothing is really free: in exchange, the company gets a two-year contract and exclusive rights to two prime advertising slots, which it fills with advertisers attracted to the national market it has put together. CMN keeps that revenue; any remaining ad spaces are controlled on campus.

“That’s how we cover the costs of operating this business,” says Carlo DiMarco, MTV’s vice president of university relations and campus programs. He declined to say how much revenue or profit these aggregated ad placements generate.

But some papers are moving away from CMN, seeking control over the look of their Web sites — and the ad revenue. Alternative “open source content management systems” have emerged, such as WordPress and Drupal. And there are increasing numbers of savvy students on campus who can handle the technical side.

“My sense is that CMN has been a great model for a long time, especially a few years ago,” says Aimone. “But we’re seeing a movement for colleges to question this arrangement.”

The Daily Trojan is one paper making the switch to WordPress. “Our current Web site [run through CMN] is limiting to say the least, because it’s basically a premade thing and we just stick our stories in the slots,” says Comisar. “We want more versatility.”

“It has been a little frustrating to not be able to control the site when our readers have trouble with our archives or commenting on articles,” says Sheridan, whose paper, the Daily Texan, also plans to leave CMN and rebuild its Web site this year.

Many student editors say they’ve been trying to enhance their Web multimedia content and interactivity. The Harvard Crimson, which “tweeted” coverage of an on-campus shooting last spring, has been building slide shows, investing in video equipment, and recruiting more tech-savvy staffers. The Washington Square News launched a redesign this fall (“we may even cut print in the future,” Smith says). The Daily Cal started blogs for news (“not very successful,” according to Kane), sports (“marginally successful”), the arts (“pretty successful”), and a blog written by their sex columnist (“very, very popular”). Papers at schools with big sports programs are producing sports videos. Others are proposing to stream video of high-profile campus events.

The Daily Northwestern recently added an online managing editor, in part a response to direct online competition from a student-run magazine called North by Northwestern that began as Web only. The site has won several Society of Professional Journalism awards and started a print edition last year.

Still, DiMarco says the latest (and fifth) version of College Publisher will provide the versatility that newspaper editors crave.

“It’s going to allow our partner sites to add new depth, such as student housing, dining guides, and commerce,” he says. He adds that new software will also use “tags” to pool and link stories from college papers to other media online, “to make all this good journalism bubble up and get greater exposure.”

But if CMN takes most of the online advertising revenue off campus, the potential upside disappears. “We definitely need to increase our Web presence and find ways to jump-start our revenue online,” Kane says, “because most of our income is in paper and clearly that’s not sustainable.”

Free to be
One option not on the table, editors say, is giving up autonomy for fiscal security.

“I think you could ask any member of the staff, and they’d rather sacrifice a day of publication than their independence,” says Kane, whose Daily Californian is among many that became independent in the early 1970s.

Josh Barone, editor of the Maneater at the University of Missouri, Columbia, says the paper’s decision in the 1990s to move from daily publication to biweekly was about holding onto control of content.

“Everything is student-made,” he says, including the Maneater’s Web site. “Every story is made with original reporting. Some college newspapers use wire services and that allows them to come out daily, but when you have to pay every single writer and pay for the newspaper every day, it gets costly.”

Even among college papers with an independent tradition, autonomy is on a sliding scale. The Daily Texan, for instance, is part of Texas Student Media, overseen by a board of representatives that includes elected students, faculty, and media professionals appointed by the university president. The paper gets 10 percent of its funding from student fees and is housed for free on campus. The chief of USC’s media board, which oversees the Daily Trojan, is the university’s vice president of student affairs. The Washington Square News has its rent waived by NYU, and the Maneater’s payroll is shepherded through the University of Missouri’s payroll system.

Despite these gray areas, editors such as Sheridan say their mission is “central to democracy” on campus. “It’s our primary responsibility to let students know what the administration and the board of regents are doing,” she says.

Medill’s Whitaker says he knows young journalists are “frightened” by the fact that “old media appears to be dying without anything to replace it.”

“I tell them that in many ways we are all looking to them to find the new model,” he says, admitting to the cop-out, but insisting that his generation is “too rooted in the old models to find something that will work.”

Student editors feel the pressure of trying to create training grounds and breakthroughs, while handling life as undergrads. College students often are seen as the hope of the future; in this case, it’s the future of journalism.

“We’re apparently the generation of Twitter and blogs, and all these papers are latching onto this,” says Kane. “But is this really going to save journalism? I don’t know. Nobody knows.”

Want to share your thoughts about this story, or any part of the Daily Free Press series? Leave a comment below, or even better, go on the record and be featured in our feedback gallery. You can e-mail us and we’ll get back to you for an interview. Or Skype us (leave a voice mail at “bu-skype-1). We’ll share your responses ASAP.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.

Read more from the Freep series.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Nationwide, a Reckoning

  • Michelle Johnson on 09.15.2009 at 1:31 pm

    As a journalism professor I found this piece very interesting. Well, researched and sourced.

    One small nit to pick: This story needs a “web hed.”

    Online and without the context of supporting material around it (graphics, etc., as it would appear in print), the reader has no clue what this story is about, and neither will a search engine.

    Needs more description. I just happened to luck up when I clicked on a topic that’s clearly of interest to me.

    As for journalism students saving the industry, I have no doubt that they’ll take it in new directions. It’s less about saving old models and deploying new ones.

    It’s actually a very exciting time for the industry, despite the economic troubles. I’m really looking forward to what’s coming next.

  • joanie on 01.27.2010 at 2:30 pm

    Wordpress and Drupal

    I think open source content management systems are the key here. Not only are they cheaper to maintain, but they are easily accessible since most students will have access to computers and or a cell phone to read current updates.

    In addition, an unlimited amount of advertising dollars can be raised and it would open the doors for other students to help, like computer science majors, arts & communication, etc.

    I think this is a great idea and look forward to other universities make the change. Plus with a system like WordPress, typically known as a blogging platform there are limitless possibility of what can be done with it. For example, here are about 15 sites that are quietly running on WordPress in the background and look completely awesome!

    http://www.brandbuildsell.com/how-to-make-a-website/make-a-blog-vs-make-a-website/

  • Scott R Nordheimer on 08.23.2017 at 1:38 pm

    I wonder how these papers are feeling in 2017 with the current political climate and seeming war on the press.

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