One case against College Publisher

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When you control the platform, you also control the content and innovation associated with it.

In the school news industry, College Publisher, now branded as the College Media Network, desperately needs a competitor. Owned by MTV, a subsidiary of Viacom, College Publisher provides a content management system now used by “550 going on 600” student newspapers across the country. It offers under-staffed and under-funded newsrooms an easy way to get their content online at a price that can’t be beat.  

Why is Viacom interested in managing the online platforms for as many college newspapers as possible? To deliver advertising, of course. As a part of the contract for a cheap, if not free, way to get your stories and images online, College Publisher reserves the top placements on your site for their own use. This allows an even bigger media giant (Viacom) to directly make money off a school newspaper’s content, either by selling advertising slots to big corporations like T-Mobile and Bank of America or by running advertisements for their other properties. Student newspapers are especially valuable to Viacom because they largely produce for its key demographic: the college student. Most, too, are held captive to this partnership because there isn’t the motivation, manpower, or vision for more innovative options.

Should any independent student newspaper want in a part of this? No.

College Publisher, unfortunately, is not the innovation aspiring journalists and reporters should depend on in this changing media environment. Claiming RateMyProfessors.com and a CMN Facebook app are “national media outlets” is not creativity. Rather than outsourcing the heavy-lifting to College Publisher, student newspapers need to allocate resources internally to running and developing their own platform. This can seem somewhat paradoxical, adding to your staff when you’re losing more and more revenue, but it is a necessity for survival. The future isn’t all that bleak, we’re just in a time of transition.

At Publishing 2.0, Scott Karp argues that newspapers need to take a hint from General Motors and learn how to innovate. Most newspapers have had roughly the same business model since the 1950’s which they’re now largely attempting to reapply to the internet. It’s not the same medium, though. Advertising and classifieds were king in past years, but the playing field is now open to the most ambitious entrepreneurs. Maybe a model like Spot.us will succeed, maybe it won’t. Without trying new things, there’s no way to find out.

Part of the innovation that has to happen, I would like to add, is how you manage, display, and distribute your content online. For student newspapers, the solution isn’t College Publisher. It’s too restrictive, poorly developed, and proprietary, locking innovative students to a platform that limits creativity. Page load times are atrocious because of far too much Javascript, and if they go out of business, your website goes down. The answer, instead, is open source.

One component of a strategy for student newspapers to move forward is a consortium dedicated to collaboratively building an open source content management system which best fits everyone’s needs. We need a robust, free to use platform that thrives under many of the same values which the open source movement holds dear. The growth of such a community around the publishing software used by student newspapers would be of tremendous value to everyone, especially because most papers aren’t in competing markets. Collaborative innovation is a win-win for these types of organizations, a fact I think few have realized.

As the start for a transition I hope to begin with the Oregon Daily Emerald in the winter, I’m taking steps forward. At this point, my work involves researching mature platforms already in the ecosystem, such as WordPress, Drupal, and Django, contacting people at what I think are progressive school newspapers, and working to identify the crucial features for any online newsroom (like managing media assets and placing advertisements). While I recognize there are already many content management systems on the market, my paradoxical goal is for a platform as easy to use and install as WordPress that also offers advanced management features. Software that any student newspaper can install, but also be able to develop further if they have the resources to do so.

I’m passionate about making this happen. Let’s do it.

Ironically, the College Media Network blog runs WordPress. They obviously aren’t drinking their own Kool-Aid.

Comments

  1. It goes without saying that you should probably take a very close look at Plone; it’s powerful, open-source, very mature, focused on content publishing workflows, etc.

  2. Give me a couple days, but I’m going to be getting in contact with about 300 college newspaper advisers and asking their thoughts on College Media Network. Is there anything that you’d particularly like to have asked?

  3. Thanks for the link, Greg! I have heard of the project, although my impression from the Knight grant application was that it was more focused on mobile. This article seems to imply it’s more of a CMS that tries to do everything. I would be interested to see how far along they’ve gotten with it.

  4. I don’t want to come off as a CP apologist but really think it is easy to bash CP with out looking at the full picture. So if you don’t mind Dan, I would like to present a view from a school who has hosted their own and used Campus Engine, New Digital Group and College Publisher:

    In the school news industry, College Publisher, now branded as the College Media Network, desperately needs a competitor.

    I would say, and so do you, they have plenty of competition. Want to pay for your CMS, use Ellington or get your own instance of Polopoly or other “pay for use” CMS systems. Need a free version? As you point out:

    …my work involves researching mature platforms already in the ecosystem, such as WordPress, Drupal, and Django,…

    These are all free systems. Paid, free or even with the semi-free/semi-pay model of CP there IS competition. The problem as I see it, there isn’t a one do-it-all-like-media-wants-it system. Perhaps that is the problem – we are looking for a swiss army knife CMS but given the rapid changes in technology and media in two years we will need a new one! Maybe the answer isn’t an all-in-one system?

    Most, too, are held captive to this partnership because there isn’t the motivation, manpower, or vision for more innovative options.
    Should any independent student newspaper want in a part of this? No.

    Well, not exactly. Let’s be honest, what is right for you or the ODE may not be right for any other student newspaper. More importantly, it may be right for the ODE or some other college newspaper right now but what about after some one like you (you come across as a well informed, active and excited student) graduates? Graduating seniors is a problem for more than just football programs! Lose a great programmer or just interested student and your site can stagnate in one year as technology changes around you.

    Even you pointed out:

    It offers under-staffed and under-funded newsrooms an easy way to get their content online at a price that can’t be beat.

    And there is the attraction for many college newspapers and some students who aren’t more forward thinking like you. Even for those who are more forward thinking, things like budget cuts (ours for example was cut 25% this year) can be limiting (and I’m not talking ad revenue alone). Problem we experienced wasn’t convincing students to do more, it was convincing administrators and student government why a college newspaper should be more than just a printed product.

    You do make a very good point:

    …student newspapers need to allocate resources internally to running and developing their own platform. This can seem somewhat paradoxical, adding to your staff when you’re losing more and more revenue, but it is a necessity for survival. The future isn’t all that bleak, we’re just in a time of transition.

    Give an Amen to that! We do need to be allocating more resources, no question, but this presents some interesting economic issues as well. How do college newspapers fund such investments? College newspapers largely rely on either free or cheap labor. Minimum wage increases, rising food, transportation and general living costs are all making it more difficult to recruit, retain and compete with the other bigger money backed media outlets (who seem to like college students because they aren’t afraid of the term blog or podcast) not to mention typical college jobs like hostess or barrista. This problem requires more than a CMS for a solution such as re-tooling of internship programs, training programs, pay adjustments, finding new revenue opportunities, using student citizen journalism and just trying new things. A problem which was neither created nor can be solved by CP, Drupal or any other competitor.

    You go on to mention:

    Part of the innovation that has to happen, I would like to add, is how you manage, display, and distribute your content online. For student newspapers, the solution isn’t College Publisher. It’s too restrictive, poorly developed, and proprietary, locking innovative students to a platform that limits creativity.

    There are some rather innovative and creative things which the CP4.0 system does offer. I would not say it limits creativity, rather it is the students you have on staff who know what to do with the tools that limits your creativity more than CP4.0. The Daily Pennsylvanian has done some very creative stuff in the LAMP environment, which is open source. The Daily Tar Heel has also figured out an interesting work around for blogs, granted done via WordPress but the 4.0 system and the students figured out how to “fit” it in. More importantly, the creativity of any system is likely to be more limited by the people you have on staff who know how to use and program the features, than the system itself.

    … page load times are atrocious because of far too much Javascript, and if they go out of business, your website goes down. The answer, instead, is open source.

    Page load times certainly can be an issue with any system. The Javascript implementation in one system might be slower where another is it faster so that is something to be aware of which ever system you choose. Open source though has nothing to do with “fixing” any Javascript issue. Network bottle necks also can affect your traffic/page load times. If I were to host arbiteronline on our internal server our load times would be very slow due to the bottle neck in our old campus building. The University won’t host it on their servers and moving the site off campus has money and its own bottle neck issues. Case in point, Va. Tech. Shortly after the shootings the collegiate times website was not accessible. If I understand the situation correctly, their off campus host had some issues which made the site unavailable to a large number of people outside Va Tech and Va in general. How important is it to have your site accessible when more people than normal would like to look at it? There are advantages with either side but open source an off site hosting don’t provide fix all solutions either.

    You also mention losing your site if CP goes out of business which is some what true. You will “lose” your active site but should have backups of everything you have done, and based on some recent examples (Temple moving from CP to WordPress) they do work. With an open source system you don’t get, and most people forget to think about making or implementing a professional long term backup solution. These systems cost money and having done several consulting jobs for video and data backup systems I can tell you the external USB2.0/FW400/FW800 hard drives have a high failure rate when used in an environment like is needed for a media outlet which will rely on digital media storage and retrieval going forward.

    CP isn’t for everyone, but for some it might be a good solution. I find most recent discussions on a college newspaper CMS solution focus on CP problems and gloss over what it really takes to provide a solid CMS. I like your idea for a consortium as the more options available, the better – in my opinion.

    Editor’s note: Minor formatting changes were made to this comment.

  5. It’s not a CMS problem, frankly, it’s a hosting problem. Too much discussion and, quite frankly, reinventing the wheel is spent focusing on developing a content management system when there are several good CMS’s out there. What it really boils down to is the hosting. Many schools use CP not because it’s the best solution but because it’s basically a turn-key hosting solution.

    They don’t have the resources to devote to dedicated staff to maintain server space, upgrade and patch software, and those types of things. Relying on students is an iffy proposition, since they graduate and your next computer geek may not be as well versed.

    Realize we’re talking about hundreds of small to mid-sized college media outlets who may have one adviser and a handful of students putting out their paper. The ONLY solution that would meet the hosting requirement and be equitable to all the parties involved is a non-profit cooperative that would be paid for by membership dues from large and small media groups based on the amount of traffic/bandwidth they use.

    Unless and until that happens, these types of issues will continue to arise.

  6. CBS/Viacom’s goal was to capture the youth market in the online space. Something that they had struggled to do for a long time in the television space. That meant buying up college news properties. College Sports (CSTV) and College News (College Publisher, UWire).