Three threats for student newspapers

Sometimes it’s difficult being the web guy at a student newspaper. Although you’re absolutely certain “online” is going to play a significant role in the future of your organization, you’re not able to articulate the urgency of your position well enough to make the decision making wheels turn. It’s frustrating, to say the least. From the thinking and idea stealing I’ve done in the past week, I think there are at least three threats facing student newspapers who don’t reinvent themselves as multi-medium digital news organizations:

Threat one: Monetary. Advertising revenue dries up on the print side, print costs go up, and your online product isn’t compelling enough to generate the same type of revenue. That, or your online product is College Publisher and you can’t even boost the advertising revenue if you wanted to. One counter argument is that student newspapers could just go to student government to up their funding, a “bailout” of sorts, but I don’t think that could ever be a long term solution.

Threat two: Staff disappearance. Students no longer want to work at their student newspaper because their industry of choice has a bleak future. Jessica DaSilva is already facing this challenge at the Independent Florida Alligator and, as I commented, this could be the greatest short term threat, especially if your paper isn’t perceived as all that digitally progressive.

Threat three: Dearth of talent. Publishing and monetizing news online is quite different than print, and requires a skill set that potentially isn’t represented by current staff. The further a newspaper gets behind, the more it will have to invest when it does decide to make the gigantic leap in the future. This financing to buy talent might have to come out of its investments or from a significant fundraising drive.

At the moment, this is threat identification and analysis. I don’t have exact solutions to any of these issues right now. My hope, though, is that by studying and mapping out the specifics of each threat we can develop strategic plans to make the transition and keep campus journalism alive.


Jared Silfies November 3, 2008 Reply

I’d add one big one: student newspapers generally don’t have competition.

Most student newspapers have a relatively captive audience. I know at The Temple-News our paper racks are empty the day after distribution, and I see students reading and grabbing them constantly.

I know this isn’t the case everywhere, some college papers — whether from other student publications or similar coverage to local dailies/weeklies — do have competition and need to work to capture more readership. I believe these papers are better off than the others.

Why is that so? Because competition drives innovation. Without the need to recruit, cultivate and innovate with talented journalists, these papers are stagnating.

Stagnating papers face those threats you posted. They need to find a reason to innovate and create their products and models over again.

Unfortunately, that’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Jessie November 3, 2008 Reply

I think the biggest problem here is definitely people jumping ship.

The Alligator isn’t perfect, but we have a very solid team that consistently produces quality multimedia projects, and even that doesn’t seem to entice any more students.

I think the problem here is that a lot of students want to be writers and not journalists. Now that newspapers are tanking, they’re changing majors and going to law school so they can pursue a hobby alongside a stable career.

Adam November 3, 2008 Reply

Threat one: I feel that student government funding has already been established as and is considered a long-term solution. That’s the real problem in that it breeds complacency instead of progress.

Threat two: see threat one. Naturally, people are going to go where the money is. If student media does not pay and is staid sedentary in its practices, it won’t attract anyone. Which leads to…

Threat three: this is affecting not just college media, but the industry as a whole. The solution is to throw a ton of money at the problem or, yes, cross your fingers and hope there are still some passionate people around.

Adam November 3, 2008 Reply

And a quick design suggestion: note which HTML tags are allowed in comments. It would, at the very least, save me from looking like I made a typo.

Daniel Bachhuber November 3, 2008 Reply

@Jared, I think competition is a huge, unconsidered threat right now, although in a different way than you describe. I’d like to explore this more in the future, but student newspapers have a tremendous achilles heel right now. If their online product isn’t robust, they are completely vulnerable to a start-up competitor. Bring together a developer, a designer, several people to cover beats, a publisher, and a business manager to sell advertising, and your newspaper’s online product is suddenly second tier to another news organization on campus. Bam.

Jessie November 3, 2008 Reply


I don’t necessarily agree with you on the SG funding issue. Not all college newspapers are funded by their universities. The Alligator is completely independent and in a very stable financial condition.

However, if we were suffering, we might call on our alumni for help or start some kind of fundraiser, but I’m about 90 percent sure we would never turn to SG for a handout. It would be a conflict of interest for us.

Jessie November 3, 2008 Reply

Also, I agree with Jared. The Alligator competes directly with the local paper, The Gainesville Sun. However, after layoffs and “real world” issues have gotten to it, the paper doesn’t even pose a threat to us anymore. This doesn’t halt innovation, but it definitely loses some of its luster.

Adam November 3, 2008 Reply

On what don’t we agree? I didn’t say that I think student government funding is a good solution (and in fact, I think quite the opposite). I believe it is certainly a common occurrence, however, and those that employ the practice consider it to be a somewhat stable situation.

Jessie November 3, 2008 Reply

That it’s a problem facing many college newspapers. I just have a problem with blanket statements.

Karah-Leigh November 3, 2008 Reply

I’m the Editor-in-Chief at The Spectator at Valdosta State University and I agree with all of the points above. The staff thing is really what’s hitting us right now besides advertising. We’re up from last year, but it’s still icky.

Also, I think something else that is a treat is the online portion. A lot of journalism students don’t have the online capabilities that some of us have. They don’t know and aren’t taught about blogging, videos, etc. Everything is moving to convergent journalism and some students aren’t up for the challenge.

Anthony Pesce November 3, 2008 Reply

I agree 100% that the monetary threat is real, persistent, and going to kick many of our asses in the near future. But I don’t think the connection between reinvention as a digital news organization and fixing the economic problems of a paper has been established. That’s what I’m trying to do with Populous, but it’s at least a year off before we can start to seriously tackle the issue. In the mean time, print advertising is still the most profitable business for newspapers.

The vast majority of news organizations could not support themselves on online advertising alone, and it’s not because the online content isn’t compelling enough. Online advertising is just undervalued in this market, and newspapers are going to have to do something to drastically increase their site traffic or otherwise increase the value of their ads. That may have to do with reinvention on the editorial side, but it could also just be a problem of the market needing to catch up.

The other issues I feel are more situational. UCLA doesn’t have a journalism department, but we’re turning people away over here. Well over 800 people downloaded our applications (for every department) and we received several hundred applicants for a class of about 125 fall interns. Not many people come here wanting to be a journalist, but there is still a huge interest in participating on the newspaper staff. We just create an environment where people want to work and contribute, and we pay very, very few of our staffers.

I think you’re spot on with Threat Three, but all that means is that papers need to do a better job of training their staffs in social media tools. From my experience, people who are sophisticated photographers and photo editors don’t have trouble learning the software required to make a slide show or even picking up a video camera. Writers don’t have trouble doing breaking news updates and filing a print story at the end of the day, and many of my writers have wholeheartedly embraced blogging. There’s a bit more to it than that, and you have to work on changing attitudes, but it is certainly doable in a year or two of focused effort.

But I would say that it can be difficult to get an editor to prioritize these issues. As Editor of the Bruin I have about 10,000 things on my plate every day, and sometimes things just have to take a back seat. But I guess I don’t need convincing that these issues are important to work on. I hear from a lot of people that college students, in particular and contrary to popular logic, are actually more inclined to romanticize the older days of journalism and emphasize the print product more than the web. Unfortunately, few of those people will get jobs.

What, specifically, are trying to propose at your paper?

Anthony Pesce
Twitter: anthonyjpesce

Daniel Bachhuber November 3, 2008 Reply


At the Daily Emerald, the most significant, immediate change I would like to make is switching our CMS. Our contract with College Publisher, however, isn’t up until June, and we are apparently unable to prematurely terminate it.

The other ideas I have are probably worthy of another blog post. Largely, it’s about changing up the print and online product to better integrate the two. I might even go as far as to say we should drop at least a couple of days of printing each week. Our workflow, I think, would be better suited as online first, and then run the best articles (and comments) we produce in the print edition. I’d also like to integrate closer with the campus radio station and TV crew. Newspapers, in an effort to “own” their content I believe, have attempted podcasts and video, but the natives at those mediums are more likely the better producers.

I completely agree with you regarding the difficulty for EIC’s to prioritize these issues, and the necessary changes associated with them, when it’s hitting the fan. We’re running into the same staffing issues faced at the Alligator, which makes it hard enough to produce a daily paper. On top of that, the EIC doesn’t even necessarily have the power to instigate some of the ideas I have. It requires board action. Personally, I think it would be quite nice if the board called an emergency retreat to start developing a strategic plan, but we won’t have a publisher to lead and follow through with the vision for at least 6 to 8 months.

In short, I’m not entirely confident about our short to medium term ability to make any significant changes to publishing, workflow, and strategic vision. It’ll be an interesting year.

Ben Leis December 16, 2008 Reply

Colleges and universities are too shortsighted when it comes to school media. Colleges and Universities have loyal followings to support huge growth potential in the way of college media. If schools made the commitment to creating something valuable (usable) for these followers they could turn these communications into huge financial gains and create a new professional industry for their very own students to intern at and enter into after graduation. However, they are outsourcing all of their communications (Sports-CSTV, News-College Publisher, etc) which control the revenue.

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