A new direction for campus media
College newspapers look at paywalls, reducing print publication to help keep the books balanced; some still not convinced
Student journalists have heard doomsday predictions of print journalism’s demise for years now as professional newspapers are continually being forced to adapt to a changing industry climate or shut off the presses for good.
Many factors, including the explosion of the Internet and 24-hour news networks, have made the daily newspaper seem antiquated and delayed — literally yesterday’s news.
But are student newspapers facing the same financial challenges? Dan Reimold, a college journalism scholar who runs the College Media Matters blog, follows and reports on student press trends from across the country. He said student journalists generally are not experiencing the same degree of gloom and doom as their professional brethren.
“I would not say by any means that we are in a freefall financially among major and minor student media across the U.S.,” Reimold said.
In the past few years, Reimold said some student papers have cut back on the number of issues per week or reduced the number of pages in each issue to address a number of concerns — fewer ads, shifting readership, increasing paper returns. But the student press differs in one major way: funding.
“The main difference is that instead of having to rely solely or at all on advertising and other outside financial support, a majority of student media in this country continue to rely on the support of their schools, either through student fees or literally some sort of administrative arrangements,” he said. “In general it’s the funding mechanism which is probably going to allow student papers in decades to come to be the last bastion of the print press when all around them professional papers are falling.”
Still, Reimold said student papers, regardless of size and funding, are not seeing the financial greener pastures of years gone by, giving some an incentive to be adventurous with new endeavors.
“I do think there are ever more cracks around the edges and a few different ideas that are beginning to be taken more seriously, including paywalls and doing a ton more online, possibly at the expense of print,” Reimold said.
2011 might go down as the year when newspaper paywalls went mainstream. The New York Times launched its divisive metered system allowing 20 free articles before readers are told to pay. In practice, the system encouraged readers who wanted unlimited online access to subscribe to the print edition, resulting in an increase in print subscribers and circulation.
Press+, a paywall platform launched in 2010, received a great deal of attention in student media circles when the Knight Foundation announced in October a grant encouraging college papers to add the service to their sites. The grant covered the $3,500 set-up fee, available to the first 50 papers that signed on. Through its agreement with the Knight Foundation, Press+ would not release figures on how many colleges signed up for the service.
The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University was the first student paper to implement Press+ in March, even before the grant, and General Manager Ray Catalino explained how the system works.
“When you go to our website, if you don’t have a ‘.edu’ (email) address and you are farther than a 25-mile radius from campus, you get three free clicks in a month,” he said. “After that, a pop-up window and says do you want to subscribe to a year’s worth of this for $10.”
Catalino decided on the $10 fee, thinking it’s what people would be willing to pay for a year of access, but said he thinks it undervalues the content. Press+ takes a commission on each subscriber, but Catalino said it isn’t all about the money — he wants the paywall concept to be introduced and adopted by users before considering a higher price.
Catalino is “pleasantly surprised” with the adoption rate, especially since the paying audience is very limited. He said he hoped to have 100 subscribers in the first year but had nearly 90 subscribers by early November.
Reimold, however, was critical of the underlying concept of paywalls and cautioned that papers need to be realistic in their expectations that readers will open their wallets.
“We need to be excited to get people to our website, any way shape or form,” he said. “By putting up any sort of hurdle to that, it will be very easy for people to simply go elsewhere.”
Reimold also expressed concern that “accidental readers,” one-time visitors who get to stories from search engine or social media referrals, can be shut out from sites. A worldwide audience, Reimold said, is an important motivator for student journalists who can get “feedback and sources for follow-up stories that can only come if you allow (access to) the site by anyone who is able to come across it.”
Press+ has various granular options to decide who pays and who doesn’t. Press+ is also used as a donation system for websites such as the TuftsDaily.com and ProPublica.org, another revenue stream student papers can consider.
Shifting the focus online
The University of Georgia’s Red & Black newspaper surprised many in collegiate journalism last summer when it announced it was shifting the paper’s focus online, cutting its print publication from daily to weekly and adding a monthly magazine.
The move responded to a growth in online readership, and editorial adviser Ed Morales said the mindset of critics needs to change as well.
“People say, ‘Well you got rid of the daily newspaper and added a weekly.’ We actually added a weekly and a magazine, and we kept the daily newspaper — it’s just in digital form,” Morales said. “I think the word ‘newspaper’ is catching everybody, because there’s really news, all the time, everywhere. Whether or not it’s in a paper form with ink on it or if it’s on a computer screen, doesn’t negate the fact that something like that is being created.”
Morales ran through several striking statistics. Mobile traffic increased by 500 percent since the switch. More than 20 stories hit the site each day. At least 50 videos went online by early November by 10 different staff members — up from the output of a single videographer last year. Sunday page views on the website surged from about 12,000 in fall 2010 to more than 30,000 last semester, though the football team’s improved performance likely helped.
Morales said the new publication system prepares students for the online-first environment of many professional papers, and from the business side, Red & Black publisher Harry Montevideo said it was good financial move.
“Bottom line, it seemed to make sense from a profit-and-loss business aspect that we would end up saving more money in expenses than we would lose in revenue,” he said.
The Red & Black management started looking at different publication options the year before the switch, and analysis showed most advertisers bought space only once a week. Montevideo said the paper approached 25 advertisers to hear how they felt about moving to a weekly print product and only “one or two expressed any concern at all about no longer being daily.”
The weekly print product is considerably heftier than the daily — a 24-page, four-sectioned broadsheet feels more substantial to advertisers than a six- or eight-page broadsheet, Montevideo said. But it also presented problems: Racks can’t fit the same number of papers as they could before, so the paper had to change some of its distribution procedures.
Though just one example of a successful transition to an online focus, Montevideo said the Red & Black’s circumstances may not exist at all papers.
“I don’t think by any means it’s a one-size-fits-all model,” he said. “We’re in enough of a financial shape to experiment and not feel like it would jeopardize the future of our organization, and we’d done enough research to where we felt pretty good with the premise. It might not work elsewhere.”
Morales said UGA’s large journalism school makes it easy to recruit students eager to enter journalism, regardless of the paper’s publication frequency. The paper itself is completely financially independent of the university and has its offices off campus.
The paper mainly covers campus news since Athens, Ga., has its own commercial paper. Montevideo noted that Chapel Hill, N.C., for example, has no daily commercial newspaper. Therefore, the Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill serves more of the community so a similar switch to a weekly could be problematic for readers and advertisers.
Reimold sees a major shift in the coming years: “I would make the bold prediction that within a decade or so, we will see almost as many papers adopting the [Red & Black] model as we will still see student papers publishing daily,” he said.
However, he said a Red & Black model of reducing print frequency in favor of a larger online product could create a problem where the readers don’t follow the priorities of the newsroom.
“There’s a lot of worry that if you lose the print presence on campus, if you’re not screaming in students’ faces via the headlines glaring out them at them from the newsstands that it’s going to be a lot tougher for them to sign on to the online arm of what you’ve got going,” he said.
A change in mindset
Paywalls and the shift in priorities from print to online show new financial innovations that arrive amid a transitioning journalism industry. For the latter in particular, fewer printed bylines might leave student journalists concerned in a tough economy and job market – and for that Reimold offers some advice.
“What really needs to change is the mindset that the printed and photocopied clips are still what hold the most value for internships or potential jobs post-graduation,” he said. “The college media-sphere is following the professional media community, and in some cases leading the way, to the idea that the online portfolio is really students’ biggest selling points these days.”
By Peter Velz, SPLC staff writer
reports, Winter 2011-12