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Is it time to jettison the college print newspaper?

June 30, 2022

I have had two very interesting conversations earlier this week about possible futures for community college journalism programs. One was with a college administrator and the other with a former community college adviser.

In both conversations I tried to emphasize that I see the future with online publications, especially since there is the perhaps-not-fantastical idea out there that print is dead.

The problem, of course, is that while many programs today have adopted online publications, the print concept is still the driving force. Many online publications, rather than embrace the full advantages of online, simply port print content over to the online publication and give short shrift to the opportunities for online.

The administrator wanted to know more about the pros and cons and effectiveness of each format. My recollections of print included that in an era of college newspaper advertising, print not only carried campus visibility, but actually was a source of income that online may never be able to replicate, given the competition for eyeballs on online.

With print, you put your papers out on various spots around campus, preferably in high traffic paths, and you have instant visbility, sort of. (I still remember all those early polls asking students what they liked about the campus newspaper only to get “we have a campus newspaper?” as your answer; so much for visibility.) While there were some national surveys looking at readership of campus newspapers that are encouraging, the reality was that the only feedback that gave you information on actual readership was in the complaints you received. Otherwise, we simply did not know who, if anyone, was actually reading the publication.

It was exciting when you did something unusual, such as the time we printed all photos as 3-D images and attached cheap 3-D glasses to each copy and newspapers disappeared in record time. But in the latter years, especially, large percentages of the relatively few copies we printed ended up in trash or recycling a week (or two weeks) later. There IS an audience for a print edition, but mostly among teachers and administration. Younger audiences these days may be interested in news, even campus news they cannot get anywhere else, but not through print publications, with the possible exception of glossy color-saturated (expensive) magazines.

An online publication has the potential for a massive audience, but probably doesn’t have one because it is not as visible and has a lot more competition for the reader’s attention. And non-news sites often deliver small amounts of news in flashier, sexier presentations than most professional-looking college student publication webites; websites that are updated far too infrequently. (See below for my theory on why websites are not updated more frequently.)

While analytics can give producers of online sites incredible data on readership, sometimes it can be like drinking from a firehose –so much information you don’t know how to interpet it. And, lets face it, we’re talking numbers and many journalists avoid embracing data because it is numbers. Most faculty and students involved with the publication don’t know how to extract, much less, analyze that data. There may even be some who are afraid to look, fearing that the data shows that readership is worse than they hope it is. More likely, though, they might find that readership is not among the groups they thought they were targeting.

I think the future of student journalism eventually involves the elimination of the print edition, at least as we know it today, and finds salvation through online and its possibilities. The future may not be the online publication itself, but the online edition will serve as the hub for a variety of online delivery systems, which today includes social media sites. Others have speculated that mobile delivery is the future, and it probably is a part. But the core or hub is the online publication. It can serve as its own delivery system, but because stories exisit in digital format there, they can be distributed through multiple platforms not possible when the main product is print; the online site is a database with its own visual presentation.

Two things, in particular, are holding back the growth of online student publications. One is that most of the content is simply repurposing print content. The second is the print edition itself.

There is nothing inherently wrong with repurposing content; the potential audience is overhwelming. The problem is that too often that is where student staffs stop. Online consumption of news is different than in print and sometimes a story is better told using different reporting techniques, such as including audio, video, and interactivity. While some attempts at these are made by many publications, doing so is an afterthought. (Except when multimedia reporting classes turn over their class work to the student publication.)

The print edition itself is also an obstacle in the development of an online presence for student publications. So much effort goes into a print publication that it is easy to simply repurpose print content and do little else. Ditto with the costs of print pubications; the money goes into printing and not into developing online tools.

But related to that is what I call the print mindset. We think of print publications –keep in mind that we are talking about weekly more than daily, every-other-week more than weekly, and, these days, monthly more than weekly– in terms of a publication target of a certain day.

I used to accuse my students of putting out a daily publication once a week. Little would get done until the day before the print publication was due. All deadlines were built around the print publication date; you can’t afterall, insert a story into a print publication if it comes in a day late and who cares if it comes in three or four days before the print publication, because you have to wait until everything is in to design your pages.

That print-mindset of when stories are due ignores the possibility of an online-mindset that says a story can run as soon as you can complete it. Some student publications still obviously repurpose their content (a kind way of saying they “dump” their stories online) around print deadlines.

I’m not anti-print; I like print, but now that I am not involved in the trenches any more, I can see more clearly now that perhaps print needs to die for student publications to achieve their full potential as the future of student publications. Readership is low, costs are high, revenues more and more are non-existent, the time and effort involved in print dominate the agenda. This all hurts online publication development that can save community college journalism programs.

The pandemic, which as disrupted the “business plan” of student publications anyway, provides a pivotal opportunity for journalism programs across the state to embrace change that is coming eventually anyway. Unfortunately, what I hear from my former colleagues around the state, is a return to what we did before the pandemic. Most cannot wait to return to print editions, even if they are willing to accept less frequency. Is a monthly print newspaper really even a newspaper any more?

And while I can get past the thought of fewer weeklies and more monthlies, the problem is that the print mindset still dominates and there does not appear to be a concerted effort to work with a more frequent publication of stories online.

Yes, most student staffs are now posting more frequently, but as a research study I have been working on shows, the quantity of stories seems to shrink along with a print frequency shrinkage. If the story is not for print, why do it at all? It’s as if there is no value to telling th story online only, and certainly no value in the extra work of telling it in a manner that maximizes online opportunties, with rare exceptions. Perhaps it is time to jettison the print distraction. (Stick with me to see my discussion of a possible substitute below.)

My former adviser colleague reminded me that part of that is that telling stories using audio and video (we didn’t even talk about interactity, the next frontier) involve broadcast skills more than the traditional print journalism skills. Advisers today teach those skills, mostly in standalone multimedia reporting classes, but those advisers probably did not learn those skills when they were in school and, as such, don’t treat them the same as lead writing and use of AP Style. Students, who love to consume news through audio and video, discover that doing so well requires a lot more work than crafting stories in print.

Stories using audio and video (and interactivity) do not have to be standalone stories. You can enhance print stories with snippets of audio and video without the hours of work involved in editing a standalone audible/visual/interactive story. Imagine the impact of a snippet of audio of former president Donald Trump saying he thought vice president Mike Pence shuld be hanged on Jan. 6, 2001. You do not need a standalone audio or video story to get that kind of impact; five seconds of audio would be all it took.

And not every reader wants to consume standalone audible, visual, or interactive story. Personally, I think the best example of how to present stories today is National Public Radio, which includes a written version of its audio product as a matter of regular practice. Sometimes that written story is merely the written transcript of the audio story, and sometimes it is a more traditional summary story with an audible option. Most NPR stories today have you wondering why “radio” is still part of the name, even though that is its bread and butter.

Podcasts are popular today, but many student-produced podcasts miss the point. A good podcast is more than sitting around talking about something newsworthy; there is structure to the discussions and the best ones use standard journalistic skills. Interviewing legitmate sources, as opposed to your buddy who has an opinion on something, can be useful. My administrator colleague flatly said he won’t do regular interviews with student journalists anymore because he is tired of being misquoted, even when the student took notes and recorded the interview.

(I could do a whole blog post on that issue. Yeah, I heard that a lot when I was advising. I understand his point of view, but I pointed out to him that he was robbing students of a valuable learning experience, one that is not replicated by his willingness to answer written questions with written answers. I even pointed out to him times when I heard sources complain that they were mmisquoted, so I went back to the tapes to check, only to find that the source actually HAD said what was quoted.) Podcasts could be good antidotes to such reluctant sources; allow their words to be heard directly.

There are three additional advantages to a print product that I’ve yet to discuss: the tactile product, the durable product, and the designed product.

There simply is nothing like touching the print product. I love the heft of even a small print publication. I love the smell. I love the feel of turning pages and the feeling of control that it gives me. I can look at it and feel like I’ve accomplished something, whether as a reader or as a producer. I’ve lived through a variety of changes over the years and still think about counting headlines as I write them –a skill of determining whether a headline will not only summarize the story and attract a reader, but also fit a pre-determined space in the font and size reserved for it; all things that mattered more before the WYSIWYG capabilities of today’s computer programs. I sill understand the processes of typesetting and typefitting even though the computer does it all for me. I understand the principles of cropping and sizing photos, even though the computer does all the calucating for me. A lot of that underlying understanding is not appreciated by today’s journalists, and perhaps it simply does not matter any more. Perhaps emerging technologies, such as virtual reality and augmented reality, will one day replace the tactile advanges of the product.

The product is durable. Its format is understood and easy to store and to retrieve. In earlier research days I always preferred reviewing a paper product over a microfiche (yesterday’s digital substitute) version. Digital formats change often, sometimes even from vendor to vendor, but also just over time as technology is developed. The print product stays the same year after year, even if it eventually deterioates. Its shelf life simply is longer. And it creates a sense of permanency that digital does not, unless you start thinking in terms of George Orwell’s 1984 where a single official record of a print product is replaced with an updated duplicate when the interpretation of news changes. Despite all the code formats out there, the Portable File Format (PDF) document, has, to a certain extent, created a more durable digital product, but there is little confidence that that will be a retrievable format 50 years from now where a paper product will still be there. The digital product, to remain durable, needs reformatting eventually.

And then there is design. Design is a popular aspect of the storytelling experience, though I see some of that falling by the wayside in some print products these days. Students LOVE to design the print product, even if they won’t read the final product themselves. I loved teaching design principles. I still love to read news in page-designed products. In writing I often, though not always, consider presentation design even as I write. Design brought my students together in the clubhouse and gave them a reason to bond. Let’s face it, most online pubilcations have one overall design, often referred to as the theme, and that’s it. Student staffs concentrate on writing and photography and give little, if any thought, to design. I often taught that content dictates design, but with an online publication design ignores content.

During the pandemic disruption of the past couple of years many student publications ceased the print edition, but kept the design in the form of PDF versions of their pubilcation. A lot of energy of print editions these days really is in the pagination (formerly paste-up) stage and the PDF version still requires time and energy. You lose the tactile advantages with a PDF version and the durable status, as mentioned above, is suspect with PDF, but you still get all the advantages of design. You seldom get those advantages with most online publications these days.

I’m okay with continuing to develop PDF versions because of the design aspects, but you STILL have the problems of a print mindset interfering with the development of online publication potential. Save the print costs, save the enviornment of having to recycle (or more and more today the re-recyling of paper) and ditch the actual print. But if you insist on keeping the PDF version, address the other problems; there are legitimate design skills to be learned in audio, video and interactive storytelling, just as there are legitimate design skills (think composition) in photojournalism. We just are not taking advantage of those opportunities because the technology will allow us to ignore them.

I would hate to lose the print edition of a publication I advised, especially if it meant all we did was post our print-centric stories online. But if I approached it as an opportunity to build something dynamic online because now I had time ….

I’m an observer of California community college journalism. The project I mentioned above involves looking daily at the 5,000 to 6,000 stories that California community college online publications produce each semester. I catalogue those stories and categorize them by type –news, opinion, sports, and feature– and localization –campus-based, community-based, or neither. And I share my observations with publications across the state, or at least the ones interested in the data. Spring 2022 saw a huge drop in volume as student staffs experienced burnout and pandemic weariness. And, yet, I hear my teaching colleagues pining for the return to time-and-energy demanding print publications.

One aspect of my research I have been contemplating is also looking at readership data for the publications I monitor daily. I haven’t quite figured out how to do it yet, although I have looked at some costly solutions. One problem is that this project is a labor of love and time. I utilize publications’ RSS feeds to gather the stories and that can be done for free, or with few costs. Mining readership data looks either expensive and labor intensive. I can figure out HOW to do it, but the potential cost is discouraging.

Imagine, though, the power of having data on your own publication that could easily be compared with peer publications. It could show your strengths and opportunities for growth heretofor heretofore unimagined.

My administrator colleague suggested that colleges could find Perkins Grant (federal Career-Technical Education) funds to hire me as a consultant to produce a deliverable report on readership. Not a bad idea. But my retired adviser colleague, who already thinks my obsession with my project is nuts, wonders why current advisers would add the paperwork necessary for those grants for information that they don’t really care about anyway; information they theorectically could garner on their own if they were.

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