The future of student publications and journalism programs

October 19, 2020
Peering into a possible future

When I was in my 30s and early 40s I was fascinated with the future and how I might best prepare for it. I subscribed to several futurist magazines to learn more.

I’m not talking about crystal ball and tea leaves future, but determining future general directions in society that might affect my lifestyle and my teaching. One of the things I learned from serious futurists is that you never predict THE future, but instead develop POSSIBLE futures based on a look at trends developing today.

I especially found that helpful in my teaching community college journalism students for the next few decades. And it still piques my interest as I sit on the sidelines of retirement watching what is going on in the world around me and how it can affect those still teaching journalism on high school, community college, and university levels.

I know more about community college level than the others and am more in tune with adivising student publications –I loved my career of working with students who found meaning in life by working for the student newspaper– than I do about many other areas of a journalism education, though I respect them as much.

So my thoughts lately have largely concentrated on the impact of COVID-19 to student publications. What long term impact will shifitng to remote instruction, however temporary (or not), have?

I am no longer in the trenches and am not dealing with the day-to-day, but that gives me the opportunity to look beyond my own program and observe more. I do this by monitoring student publications across the state on a daily basis for my Online Elsewhere project that results in my reposting interesting high school, community college stories, on my Online Elsewhere Facebook page and in develioing my five-day-a-week journalsim education newsletter aimed at an instructor audience. As a part of the project I use RSS to review hundreds of student stories each day from more than 150 high school, nearly 50 community college, and a couple of dozen university publicaitons in Calfornia. All that and talking to my colleagues still teaching.

So, what do I see as the possible future of student publications? Well, I have so much more to learn about high school and university publications, so I will focus on the community colleges that I know best.

I see a dire possible future for student publications advised by instructors (like myself) in love with print publications. Print publications are in trouble and long-time advisers, especially, are not doing enough to prepare students for a digital future. Many are talking about it, but most have not infused it in their programs enough and still put most of their efforts to teaching print journalism. The pandemic is going to chew up and spit out print publications and entire programs with them. Only the psychological and legal difficulties of laying off tenured instructors may keep some programs around longer than others.

That’s a tough prediction to make. I admire the work being done by California community college journalism instructors and their students. If I were not retired mine could be one of those programs I’m talking about.

Here’s some backgorund on why I make that prediction, though.

  1. The industry has been slowly making a shift to an onlne-first distribution, with some publications shifting to online only.

Community college programs have almost all created online versions of their publication, but they have not embraced those sites.

a. Some use the sites only as an archive of print stories, posting stories in batchs online only after or just before the print edition rather than recognizing the daily nature of their websites. Besides, websites are so last decade; today they serve as hubs for mobile, social media, and other distribution methods.

b. Even those who make an attempt to publish online first tell their stories with a print-only mindset. They seldom look at how to leverage online tools, such as linking, to their stories, and they often do not pay attention to readability of their online stories. They seldom look at other ways to tell stories, such as with audio, video, interactivity, or other multimedia.

c. Wonderful web templates for student publications, such as those provided by Student Newspapers Online and other professsional web hosts, make it easy to create a publication site and then forget about it except for uploading content to fill in the holes. Once set up, the online sites are pretty much out of site and out of mind for most publication staffs. Few staff members even look at their own websites, much less pay attention to analytics. And faculty are not moving them that direction because they are focusing too much on teaching print. How many faculty include their website in critiques of their publications?

  1. The student publication is a major factor why California community colleges even have journalism programs. There is value in a journalism curriculm beyond the student publication, but the publication is an anchor for those programs. (Remember, half of the community colleges in Calfornia do not have journalism programs and are willing to steer that course without a publication because it requires thinking about a full program. One of my former college presidents once confided in me, “Student newspapers are a pain the ass.”)

Campus readership of student newspapers at community colleges has been declining for years.

Even when I was teaching we’d see half of the print copies we distributed on campus being left on the stands and ending up in recycling. Each year the percentage of leftover print copies increased unless we decreased the print run. This begs the question: What is the role of the print edition?

a. Obstensibly, there are only a few reasons to keep a print edition these days: Campus visibilty, tradition, “pick-up-because-it-is-there” readers, advertising income, the tactile satisfaction of a completed product in the hands of publication staff members, and the family cohesivenss of working long hours to produce that product.

i. VISIBILITY – Campus visibility for your program is important. But these days no one is on campus to see a print product.

Some publications distribute off campus, and there may still be visibility value for them, but if you only distribute on campus, there is no visibilty.

Many hope the current remote instruction that has campuses closed is just temporary. They thought it was just for the end of last school year, only to find that it included the first semester of this school year. Only, it turns out that for most it is all school year. They hope that the 2021-22 school year will be back on campus. That may be wishful thinking. A COVID-19 second wave this winter and next spring, which is quite likely, will result in another school year away from campus.

ii. PICK IT UP BECAUSE IT IS THERE – Even 50 or so years ago when I was a student working on my college publication we’d take polls about what people liked in the student paper only to find that the most common answer was, “We have a student paper?”

California community colleges are largely commuter campuses and the general student population is on campus only for classes and then those students are gone. They are aware of the student newspaper only if you have a good distribution process that places the publication in their sitelines as they enter and leave the campus. Those increasingly leftover issues each week are a sign that the “pick-it-up-because-it-is-there” strategy is a dying one.

iii. TRADITION – I respect tradition. I love tradition. But traditions evolve. And the days of a print product publicaiton are numbered for most. I don’t enjoy saying that, but I believe it. Print products are costly and the pandemic is reaking havoc with college budgets. It is getting harder and harder to justify the cost of print publications when there are fewer and fewer readers of thos eprint products.

Unless new readership engagement strategies are developed, the print edition tradition needs to be changed. Colleges are also printing fewer editions as a result, dropping from weekly to every other week; dropping from every other week to monthly or semesterly. That’s just another way to say that the print edition lacks the value it once had.

iv. ADVERTISING – Gone are the days when half or more of a student pubLication’s operation budget, aside from faculty salaries, came from advertising income in the print edition. The decline of print advertising in commerical newspapers has finally started affecting student publications. Few community college pubications these days have ANY non-campus advertising in it. And with publication cutbacks to monthly or semesterly can you blame advertisers who want to reach audiences in a timely manner?

v. THE TACTILE PRODUCT – The tactile feel of a print product is still very powerful. Students LOVE putting together the print publication, though they, like their own readers, dont’ read the product once it is put together. I don’t know how we replace that powerful force, but am convinced that in a possible future we can if we switch our focus to put more importance on our digital products.

It won’t have the tactile feel, but it can probably replace it with a stronger emotional pride in our digital products.

Some programs today continue to put huge efforts into developing digital versions of their print product. As an enlightened dinosaur myself, I enjoy that because I actually enjoy reading my newspapers as thoughtful packages.

I am not convinced that there is a large audience for a pdf verison of a student publication or even an interactive one as cheesy as issuu or yumpu. They look nice and provides us with something emotionally tactitle, but unless we can create affordable versions with better readability, they will not last. They are merely archives.

Those programs putting effort into pdf versions of their print product in these pandemic times are banking on a return to normal soon. The longer remote instruction keeps students from campus, the more likely these products will fall by the wayside, unless we find a better way to utilize them and market them. They still provide value in the design and team skillsets they develop, but they are not vital to the newspaper’s role on campus.

vi. COHESIVENESS AND PURPOSE – That just leaves the cohesiveness of working long hours to produce that product. This, too, is extemely powerful. One of the biggest joys of my teaching career was seeing students come alive with purpose in working as a team for long hours to produce a product. Students some times would ignore other classes to work on the student newspaper. Students would work late nights to put out the product.

I believe there is a way to transfer that activity and cohesiveness to an online product … if we try. Doing so will be the salvation of programs if the pandemic keeps our campuses closed longer than most hope.

Failure to move that direction now and to develop strategies will find themselves behind when the budget axe starts hitting campuse as a pandemic economy starts to get beyond simple austerity measures. I’ve been on the losing end of that kind of economy when the college I was working on in the 1990s eliminated my program because it was low hanging fruit.

I became an early adopter on my campus of online education. I found ways to adapt what I taught to a virtual classroom in all areas except one: how to recreate the “clubhouse” power of a student publication lab.

Forced remote instruction will be a godsend if instructors will work at it. It actually parallels what many commerical newsrooms are having to deal with during our pandemic times. The power of utilizing possible futures requires you to accept the awkward transitions to get there.

b. The pandemic is showing us that some of the traditional roles of a print pubication are no longer as valid. Programs CAN remain vital if they accept change. What they do is important and a product of some kind is a big part of it. How they create and display our product determines whether their colleges see us as worth continuing.

  1. College programs are being forced to make temporary adjustments. It is hard on students and it is hard on faculty. But there is a silver lining for the future if all will stop thinking as remote instruction as temporary and stop hanging on to unsustainable print publications as the main focus of what they do.
    That is not to say that print publicaitons are dead, dead, dead. There may still be value in them, but not as the main product we teach and aspire to.

It is easier to discontinue programs as an austerity measure by not replacing faculty as they retire, and community colleges have a huge aging faculty base. But if the pandemic economy takes years to recover from, it is just as likely that we will see ugly situations like the one I experienced mid-way through my career. Tenure does not save you if the college decides to start axing entire programs.

• If what programs have as product is no longer considered viable and up to date, they are low hanging fruit. Even the commercial industry is finding that failure to fully embrace the new technologies can lead to the death of the print product.

• Business-based budget decisions are a numbers game; if programs don’t attract students and move them through the system to completion they are low handing fruit.

• The high cost of print, especially for what is gained in return, and the death of a traditional income source, makes programs low hanging fruit. (I’ll explain some other time why a high-cost athletic program is not a good comparison for us. But in short, those programs have higher perceived values than “dying” print publications.)

• Students willing to put in long hours producing a print product and gaining a sense of purpose in doing so is a strength for programs; students not moving through the system because they are ignoring other classes in order to work on a print product that requires huge blocks of time on a regular basis makes them low-hanging fruit. Reconstructing that family cohesion in a manner that eliminates all students working long hours in time-sensitive time blocks may well be the key to sheilding vulnerable programs.

Of course, this is all just a possible future. There are ways to avoid the dire consequences, but only if programs adapt at a more frantic pace. The realities are already here working against them.

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