February 23, 2022

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A few years ago, I spoke to a group of college journalists at a Nieman Foundation conference in Boston. They asked a lot of questions about platforms — how they should be publishing in print and online and using both to their advantage.

I gave the best responses I could, but I didn’t feel like I had clear answers; professionals are still figuring out these questions, too. But a year later, the COVID-19 pandemic quickly clarified things. I wrote in spring 2020 about how student publications (mostly) stopped printing when schools sent students home, instead focusing their efforts on newsletters and online publishing. Why publish a print newspaper when no one is physically on campus to read it?

Students are back on campuses now (give or take another variant that may send classes online), and many publications have kept the pandemic-driven changes to the way they distribute their news. There are still plenty of lingering questions about the best way to reach audiences. This issue isn’t going away anytime soon.

That’s why this next newsletter series will be dedicated to platforms and news distribution — specifically, print and online, and how to use both to your advantage. We’ll hear from student newsrooms around the country about the changes they’ve made and what they’ve learned.

These decisions about where to focus your effort are important! They affect your revenue, your staff structure, your schedules and workload. But where do you start if you haven’t considered adapting your platform strategy?

Most importantly, student publications must think about where their audience is and how they consume news. It’s that simple.

Your core audience is probably on Instagram and TikTok and Twitter. They’re probably not on Facebook. And as painful as it might be to admit, they’re probably not picking up many of the print papers you distribute around campus.

A 2021 survey from the Pew Research Center showed that only 3% of U.S. adults ages 18-29 prefer to get their news from print publications. (77% of this age group said they preferred to get news digitally; 11% prefer TV and 5% prefer radio.)

Think about that number again — 3%. This means that if you’re focusing most of your time and energy on your print publication, you’re ignoring the preferences of nearly all of your student audience. No matter how often you publish in print, your student publication needs to have a workable website and a presence on the major social media platforms.

Let’s be clear: This isn’t going to be a newsletter series about how print journalism is dead. It’s a series about how you need to use data and strategy to meet audiences where they are. There are certainly still ways to use print publications strategically, particularly for topics with a long shelf life (think about special issues, housing/campus guides, feature-focused magazines). Many publications still get a significant amount of advertising revenue from print, too.

Change is hard and breaking traditions can be painful. I’ve written before about the adaptability of student journalism, which I see as one of its greatest strengths. Even if your publication has been printed daily since the 1800s, you are not obligated to continue doing that if it doesn’t make sense anymore. And if your publication has decided to reduce print issues, it’s important not to see that as a failure. You’re redirecting your resources and focusing on reaching your readers.

Bookmark this contest resource

My editor Barbara Allen writes Alma Matters, a must-read Poynter newsletter for journalism educators. This week she focused on contests that you should enter, with tips for keeping track of the submission deadlines. Don’t miss out on recognition for your work!

One story worth reading

The university president at Texas A&M University has also been thinking about publishing platforms for student newsrooms. On Feb. 10, she demanded that The Battalion, A&M’s 129-year-old student newspaper, stop printing weekly issues after the spring semester. The university plans to remove the publication’s status as a student organization and place it under the jurisdiction of a new journalism department.

In the following days, the student senate passed a resolution supporting The Battalion. Student protesters attended the university system’s Board of Regents meeting to advocate for The Battalion. More than 7,000 people have signed an online petition (which isn’t directly affiliated with the publication). The Student Press Law Center and other media organizations wrote a letter in support of the publication’s editorial independence.

What happens next? The president seems to have changed her tone, announcing that a working group (now including two Battalion editors and the adviser) will consider “alternative solutions” that would allow the publication to keep printing. In a special Student Senate meeting, she said “I would never attempt to influence or control the content of the student newspaper. It is and must remain an independent voice of the students.”

Opportunities and trainings

💌 Last week’s newsletter: Why do college football players die during practice?

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Taylor Blatchford is a journalist at The Seattle Times who independently writes The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists. She can be reached at blatchfordtaylor@gmail.com…
Taylor Blatchford

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