Students have returned to college campuses armed with laptops, smart phones and countless other electronic gadgets. Yet most still turn to a print newspaper for their campus news.
The printed versions of college newspapers continue to thrive, with students grabbing copies as they go from one class to another. It’s not unusual to see students reading about the latest campus news while eating a quick lunch or taking a break on the lawn.
It’s far less likely that the wired generation, raised with iPods and smart phones, is checking out the news on the newspaper’s website.
Robert Adams, director of student publications at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, said the printed version of the College Heights Herald is far more popular than its website.
“It really goes against the grain,” Adams told me. “The students who are starting class today are not newspaper readers from experience. Why they don’t go online is sort of a mystery.”
I talked with several college newspaper advisors across the country, and they all said their print newspapers are much more popular than their online versions. But many of them say they know why.
“My experience is that if something is free and it’s convenient to get and whatever is in it is relevant to them, they have no qualms about printed versus non-printed,” said Kevin Schwartz, general manager of The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “A college newspaper, if it’s done right, is all of those things.”
The Daily Tar Heel, for example, publishes 18,000 copies, five days a week. They are distributed free at 205 locations around the campus. And the staff works hard to catch the attention of incoming freshmen and others new to the campus, mailing an edition of the newspaper to about 9,000 newcomers over the summer. The paper also prints a guide for new students and an edition welcoming students back to school.
“Some of these kids have never had a newspaper in their house,” Schwartz said. “If you start picking up the DTH your first year, we feel like we’ve got you for four years.”
The Daily Tar Heel’s website has done better than most of its counterparts, with traffic spiking for big news stories or the basketball’s team run to a national championship in 2009. But many of those readers aren’t students.
“Our website, we know from registrations, is very popular among parents, prospective students, visitors and alumni,” Schwartz said.
Ron Johnson, the director of student media at Indiana University in Bloomington, said traffic on the Indiana Daily Student‘s website is growing, with more than 700,000 page views annually. That’s compared to a daily circulation of the printed paper of 14,000, with almost 200 distribution points on campus. But Johnson said much of the online traffic is not from students.
“Sports drives our site, and commentary,” Johnson said. “We have a strong alumni base that enjoys reading the paper. Only about 30 percent of our page views come from within Bloomington.”
Meanwhile, the student editors were on campus handing out editions of the paper as students returned for classes earlier this month.
Eric Weil is managing partner of Student Monitor, a New Jersey company that surveys college students nationally twice a year about their reading habits. He said a large percentage of students — 56 percent — say they don’t even know if their campus newspaper is available online. Interest in the print edition, though, remains high, with 63 percent of students classifying themselves as frequent or light readers of the print edition of the campus newspaper, according to a survey taken in spring 2010.
“It’s timely, it’s current, it’s about me and, oh, by the way, it’s free,” Weil said. “And terribly convenient.”
Ron Spielberger, executive director of College Media Advisors and an associate professor of journalism at the University of Memphis, said that, like their commercial counterparts, college newspapers have struggled to make money on the Web. (The print version typically does much better financially, although the business model varies from campus to campus.) Spielberger said the development of mobile apps may get students to read those publications on their smart phones.
The Shorthorn, the campus newspaper at the University of Texas at Arlington, is in the early stages of developing an app for smart phones. Until then, the printed version is likely to be the platform of choice for students.
“College newspapers are niche publications,” said Lloyd Goodman, director of student publications at the university. “Students like to pick it up, read it over lunch. It’s still a community newspaper.”
That may help explain why, in general, local commercial newspapers have had trouble gaining a foothold with students. Several of the college newspaper advisors I spoke with described repeated — and unsuccessful — efforts by commercial newspapers in their areas to sell more on campus.
“I don’t see students hovering over the Los Angeles Times here,” said Mona Cravens, director of student publications at the University of Southern California. “The faculty, staff and students have come to rely on the Daily Trojan for what’s going on on campus.”
Weil, of Student Monitor, said college students do read the online editions of national newspapers such as The New York Times and USA Today.
The New York Times has had success penetrating the college market, distributing about 130,000 copies a day on more than 1,200 college campuses, according to Diane McNulty, a spokeswoman for the Times. McNulty said 31 percent of college students read the printed or online versions of the Times.
“More college students do read us online than in print,” McNulty told me in an e-mail. “We encourage them to read Times content on any platform.”
Stephen Heleker, student body president at Boise State University, told me in an e-mail that students spend so much time on computers doing school work that “they value the respite offered” by the print version of the college newspaper. “It definitely becomes part of the routine at college.”