Student newspapers move to mobile as interest in print wanes

The Daily O’Collegian at Oklahoma State University is embarking on a massive reinvention that will push back deadlines, require less work on papers and encourage students to spend more time on their mobile phones.

On the surface, it sounds like every college student’s dream. In reality, it is part of a rising movement within college media 2.0 – one which principal architects are determined to see through even while unsure about its eventual success.

Starting this fall, the 119-year-old student newspaper in Stillwater, Okla., will adopt a new format, publishing schedule and digital focus. It is even changing its name, from The Daily O’Collegian to the O’Colly, the pub’s longtime nickname.

The loss of Daily in the nameplate mirrors the shrinking print schedule. Student staffers will be putting out a print edition three times per week instead of five. And these every-other-day issues – appearing Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays – will be tabloid-sized instead of broadsheet.

“By making this change, we are transitioning from a five-day-a-week newspaper to a 24/7 media company,” said Editor-in-Chief Kyle Hinchey last month in a formal announcement about the changes. “In this digital age, it is imperative we direct more of our attention to our digital audience, and that’s what this step forward will allow us to do.”

The slide away from print is being taken in various ways by many student press outlets. Collectively, advisers, educators and student journalists are witnessing or participating in the biggest shift in college media since campus newspapers appeared in modern form in the mid-to-late 1800s. Their move from print to digital mirrors what is occurring in the larger media industry, with many issues and questions sounding a familiar ring.

‘100-percent digital transition’

Depending on one’s perspective, the evolution from print to digital is either a rebirth or a bloodletting. In both camps, though, there is agreement that print is the victim.

A growing number of papers are cutting or considering cutting the number of print editions they publish each week or month. Others are trimming their page sizes or reducing the number of copies or pages produced for each issue.

Still others are experimenting with magazine editions, special issues, new sections, non-content revenue streams, social media schemes, mobile apps and Web overhauls. A few papers have dropped print entirely, opting to reboot as online-only outlets.

The College Reporter at Franklin & Marshall College, for one, announced in February it will email and post a PDF of its print edition, the culmination of a three-year “100-percent digital transition.”

Ray Catalino (Ray Catalino photo)

It is a transition O’Colly General Manager Ray Catalino contends is necessary across college media, however tough it may be for traditionalists to stomach.

“I’ve been holding off,” Catalino said of the changes to print. “A lot of papers have been holding off. But now is the time to make a move. … Whether or not we’ll be any better off a year or five years from now, I don’t know. But I’ve been swayed by the belief that what we’re seeing from readers and customers is a permanent change. For the last few years, I’ve been saying, ‘Oh, it’s just a fad. It’s just that Facebook thing.’ I now see it’s not a fad. We all need to jump in.”

‘Waning interest’

The O’Colly jumped in due to a confluence of factors that its professional staff, student editors and supervisory board found too powerful to ignore, a reality that other college outlets will need to face.

First, pick-ups for the paper’s print edition on and off campus have been declining. Catalino said the return rate – which once hovered no higher than 10 percent for a 10,000-issue run – has risen closer to 20 percent over the past two years for a reduced regular circulation of 8,100 copies.

A recent survey of 2,800 Oklahoma State faculty, staff and students confirmed what the leftover stacks signaled. Student respondents said they increasingly consume digital news and more than half either did not care if the paper reduced its print edition or approved of the move.

A simultaneous, prolonged slump in print advertising – and ad revenue – also spurred the shift. Catalino said readers periodically complained that midweek issues were too skinny and basically ad-free. In addition, advertisers were reacting to print with what he described as “waning interest,” something he admitted might stem in part from “sales students who don’t know the difference between a column inch and a square inch.”

As he explained, “Too many advertisers have been saying ‘You know, I’m just not getting the kind of response that I’d like.’ … So we had to take a big step and change the model.”

‘Churning, churning, churning’

For student press outlets worldwide, developing a sustainable, innovative model that caters to their many constituencies is nearly impossible.

As much as they are viewed as the ultimate student niche media, campus newspapers answer to a variety of groups. Besides their core student audience, there are faculty, staff, alumni and nearby community readers to please. They also serve affiliated journalism schools and programs; the university as a whole; advertisers; professional staff or boards overseeing the budget; employers seeking a new generation of journalists; and, of course, the student journalists themselves.

To appease and re-energize as many audiences as possible, the O’Colly has approved a journalism-first, platform-neutral approach.

Its digital-mobile-print hybrid will deliver news about OK State, Stillwater and the outside world at intervals set to coincide with reader habits. Two of the three print issues each week will most likely contain content heavy on hard news, while the Friday edition will feature more on local arts and entertainment.

The tab format aims to increase each issue’s page count, and the paper’s perceived editorial heft. It will be coupled with whiter, heavier-poundage paper to entice advertising clients.

Through its online paywall – unique among college media – the O’Colly will continue to charge a yearly subscription fee for individuals outside the campus area, although users can still access three articles per month for free. About 450 members pay $20 annually for unrestricted website access, according to Catalino.

The marketing team plans to put together packages that mix modular print ads, social media promotions, homepage plugs and mobile app ads pegged to the amount a client wants to spend.

Finally, nightly editorial deadlines will be changed or abandoned, freeing student staffers from their ink-stained shackles.

“Time for me is the big thing,” said Catalino. “Some of these kids work 40 to 50 hours per week for the newspaper on top of school. They concentrate on print. It consumes so much of their time. … They have the desire to do something electronically, but frankly we’re lucky if we get one or maybe two editors who have the opportunity. We want to change that.”

As O’Colly editorial adviser Barbara Allen similarly shared in an email:

“Honestly, we are really excited about the prospect of being unchained from the daily print cycle. I think it’s a time-sucker. Is it possible that we’ll stop feeding the beast and have more time for thoughtful production of news? I hope so. Right now, I see my amazing, dedicated, smart students just churning, churning, churning. What suffers isn’t the print product, but the younger journalists who need mentoring, the investigations that are languishing, the really well thought-out online components that include creative social media and strong audience engagement. Wouldn’t it be cool if, by recognizing that college eyeballs are increasingly on screens and not paper, we blaze a trail for a more employable burgeoning journalist?”

‘Why trash the thing?’

Is the trail the O’Colly and other papers are blazing a positive one for the future of the student press? Kevin Schwartz is unconvinced.

Kevin Schwartz (Kevin Schwartz photo)

Schwartz spent roughly 20 years as general manager of The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Emerald Media President Ryan Frank at the University of Oregon dubbed Schwartz “the dean of the college media business.”

Schwartz, who currently runs Schwartz Media Solutions in St. Petersburg, Fla., still believes heavily in the power of print for a multitude of reasons. Along with it serving as a platform for good journalism, he sees print as the main means for college media to remain solvent.

Schwartz’s doctrine is that dropping print does not save money but rather costs the operation its ability to make money. He contends reducing the number of print issues and pages is death by a thousand cuts, not a righting of the ship.

“To give up on print is to kiss your newspaper an eventual goodbye, unless a school is willing to provide 100 percent adequate funding to a digital-only model, and even then much would be lost,” he argues.

What’s especially mystifying to him is the failure of many student editors, advisers and publication boards to recognize what seems obvious: Print is still by far college media’s main source for advertising revenue.

He offers the Daily Tar Heel as one example. The newspaper’s digital ad revenue hovers around $165,000 annually, among the highest levels in college media. By comparison, its print ads brought in approximately $1.18 million last year, an amount confirmed by current General Manager Kelly Wolff.

“What does that tell you?” Schwartz asked. “We better sustain our print edition. It’s what advertisers want. It’s paying nearly 100 percent of the bills. The digital product and digital ad development can offset at least for now the losses we take in print. But why trash the thing until advertisers are actually telling us they want digital alternatives?”

‘Why am I fighting this?’

Catalino said he definitely understands Schwartz’s concerns and admits uncertainty about how the paper’s revenue, Web traffic, mobile engagement and print pick-up will ultimately pan out.

The one thing about which he is confident, at least in the short term: In an economic and media climate demanding change, he would rather evolve based on journalism instincts than sheer survival ones.

“You know, I’m scared about it,” Catalino confessed about the paper’s transition. “I’ve been a daily advocate for years. When some of my peers moved to less than a daily, I’d say, ‘You’re crazy. What are you doing?’

“It’s just after a couple years of these dismal pick-up rates and seeing kids without the time to experiment and grow and learn electronically, it made me think, ‘Why am I fighting this?’” He paused, adding, “Only time will tell if this is the right move and the right time for it.”

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  • Paul Green

    I continue to be both amazed and dismayed by those who find it difficult to separate “journalism” from a “business”. Schwartz’s insinuation that dropping print will result in the “death by a thousand cuts” only holds true so long as an enterprise is dedicated to following the rather haphazard attempts of the newspaper industry to adopt a new business model. The reluctance of the business to investigate and embrace some of the strategies and tactics employed by the broadcast industry strikes me as nothing more than hubris.

    Why not investigate the aggressive convergence of media operations at an institution. Folding together the currently disparate elements of journalism and integrating them into a single media effort is just one of the avenues to explore.