March 4, 2021

For more than 100 years, the biggest rivalry in college basketball has played out in the pages of The Daily Tar Heel at UNC and The Chronicle at Duke. These two college media programs are as storied as the basketball teams they cover. Both have a tradition of excellence — we compete for awards and bragging rights, and our graduates compete for the best journalism jobs.

Now, that rivalry is one of our most reliable sources of income.

Now in its third year, the Rivalry Challenge, a fundraising campaign to see which nonprofit newsroom has the best fans, has been run by us (UNC and Duke student media directors Erica Perel and Chrissy Beck) and a slew of students, board members and alumni. We have been involved in college media for decades and are passionate about finding new ways to sustain independent student journalism.

The two-week fundraising challenge raised a record $76,445 in donations with The Chronicle edging out its first victory in the three-year partnership; each news organization keeps the money raised from its respective donors. The two independent student newspapers also team up to make a historic special edition in print and online.

This bright spot has given us a lot to celebrate in an otherwise challenging school year, due to the pandemic, declining print advertising revenue and general distrust for the media. What follows are a few key highlights of what we’ve learned in three years of rivalry challenges. It’s our hope that other schools will help supplement their bottom lines with some kind of similar contest or fundraiser, and that our tips and takeaways can help them get started.

This is a replicable, reliable annual fundraiser — not just a one-time success story

Every year, the Rivalry Challenge raises more money than the year before. It has been successful when the basketball teams are evenly matched, when one of them is significantly better than the other, and when they’re both terrible. It has been successful in and out of the pandemic.

The first Rivalry Challenge in 2019 raised a combined $50,000 in donations for the two newsrooms. This news revenue innovation received national attention in journalism circles and created a number of imitators. In fall 2019, there were rivalry editions from student papers at Michigan and Ohio State, Texas and Oklahoma, Florida and Georgia, and Washington and Oregon.

And while we have tried new things every year, we also have built those new things onto strategies that work well, including:

  • A replicable calendar of emails and messaging for different groups with targeted wording.
  • A pop-up on the website that redirects all visitors to the Rivalry page.
  • Social media posts that rely heavily on nostalgia.
  • Videos from people involved in the basketball programs, including Coach K.
  • Frequent updating of the fundraising thermometer.
  • High-quality newsroom content to drive traffic to the website.
  • Activating alumni to spread the word among their networks.
  • News coverage by other news outlets to spread the story of why student journalism matters.
  • Events in support of promoting the fundraiser — this year we co-hosted a rivalry trivia night.

Our alumni and local readers will support our mission when we tell our story

At The Chronicle, this challenge has doubled our donor base in the last three years by helping us reach an audience in a different way. We added student and additional alumni volunteers to manage the additional stewardship duties. And it has grown so much in three short years, we hope to add specific challenge captains next year.

At The Daily Tar Heel, this challenge helped us quadruple our donor base since early 2019. It served to widen our “donor funnel” beyond our most committed supporters — alumni of the program — to community members, UNC sports fans and alumni of UNC who remember reading the DTH even if they didn’t work there.

Student-run media has a great story to tell. We have committed, hard-working students, a proven job-placement track record and critical campus coverage that other local news media provide less and less often. This rivalry gives us a chance to tell that story to a wider audience.

Our combined alumni have proven their commitment, and we hope that translates to some of our other audiences (prospective students, basketball fans, parents) as we explore adding membership options in the near future.

We need to work across all departments and with collaborators to maintain and grow in the current media environment

This challenge has helped break down barriers in our organizations — it literally takes help from every department to pull off the content, advertising sales, promotion and fundraising for this type of collaboration. Not only does everyone pitch in, we are having a great time working together in that common goal of beating our arch rival. (At Duke, we say “GTHC,” or “Go to Hell, Carolina.” At UNC, we use the phrase “Beat DOOK.”)

This pop-up appears to redirect visitors to the Rivalry page.

Our students work for the newspaper despite a gloom-and-doom narrative around local journalism and high levels of distrust in national media, which they often hear from their own friends and family members. Collaborations like the Rivalry Challenge show students they are capable of excellence, demonstrating that  they can and will help build a new path forward for news.

SOS: Professional coaching and training is critical 

Both of our organizations have had the resources and staff to engage in professional training over the past few years. College newsrooms and, critically, the professional staff who advise the students, must have access to high-level coaching on change management and the future of journalism. There is a sustainable path forward for student media — which this last year has proved to be more important than ever — but it requires discipline, focus and support.

The UNC Table Stakes program was instrumental training for both of our organizations, though other programs could fill this gap. The framework and discipline prepared both of us to try new revenue approaches and alter our mindset to collaborate with a one-time rival. College news organizations can adapt to current readership habits and provide in-depth news coverage when they are supported with training, access to best practices and funding.

College newsrooms of all kinds have been slowly starved of revenue over the last 10 years, making innovation difficult and access to training more out of reach. We both hope that funders, universities and news innovators will start to see that investing in student-run media will shape the future of news and the next generation of journalists.

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Chrissy Beck is the General Manager at The Chronicle, the independent student news organization at Duke University.
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