June 14, 2013

In an era of changing media models, student journalists aren’t just grappling with the basics of reporting, writing, editing and publishing — they’re struggling to survive.

The challenge is the same one faced by their professional counterparts: decreased advertising revenue coupled with increased printing costs. Like the pros, college media organizations have tried to adapt by simultaneously pursuing cost reductions and striking out into new businesses.

“I don’t know a student news outlet in the country that hasn’t been affected in some way,” Dan Reimold, a faculty adviser to The Minaret, the college newspaper for the University of Tampa, said by phone. Reimold writes about student newspapers on his blog College Media Matters.

Reimold said student newspapers caught in a financial vice have been forced to cut pay for their editors, reduce page size and slash print runs.

“It’s getting tougher to nail down new advertisers, it’s getting harder to maintain our most prominent advertisers and we’re having difficulties selling print as a vehicle to reach students,” he said.

Transforming business models

The Southwestern College Sun, of Chula Vista, Calif., used to publish 14 issues a year. The Sun’s student journalists are now holding fundraisers, concerts and banquets in hopes of making enough money to print five. The paper’s annual budget, once large enough to finance the $4,000-per-issue printing bill, has been slashed time and again, reduced to just $13,000.

“We’ve been beating the bushes, literally, with a big stick, trying to get more money,” Max Branscomb, the Sun’s faculty adviser, said by phone.

At the University of Oregon’s student newspaper, the Daily Emerald, editors, reporters, programmers and designers are generating revenue through startup projects such as duckshousing.com, a service that connects University of Oregon students to apartment listing companies.

The Daily Emerald transformed its business model last year, re-imagining itself as Emerald Media Group and cutting its print frequency to twice-weekly, Ryan Frank, the Emerald’s publisher, said by phone. The students also shaved four inches off the top of the newspaper and focused on in-depth and contextual journalism by creating, among other efforts, a special teams project that produces one investigative story per year.

Frank said the Emerald made the changes not because of financial struggles, but because its new business model was more sustainable in the long run.

After cutting costs, some student newspapers have decided to go directly to their readers for help. At the University of California at Irvine, students passed Measure U, which created a quarterly 99-cent fee to pay for the cost of printing the New University paper.

The fee came after the student editors cut their 60-page newspaper down to 32 pages and then to 24, Jessica Pratt, editor-in-chief of New University, said by phone. The editors also cut their own stipends and slashed the number of color pages per issue.

“We were trying to make a bunch of internal cuts before we had to ask students to pay for anything,” Pratt said. “It was our last resort.”

A possible silver lining

It’s a bleak picture – but student papers are insulated from some of their professional counterparts’ challenges.

Logan Aimone, the executive director of Associated Collegiate Press, said by phone that legacy media companies were locked into costly union contracts when the recession hit, and had enormous print bills to finance — two expenses student newspapers didn’t have to worry about.

Aimone said he isn’t aware of any student newspapers that have been forced to close as a result of the recession, but added that a reduction in advertising has caused the newshole at many papers to shrink.

“If you add it up over the whole country it becomes a big problem,” he said.

Many student newspapers at larger schools such as Syracuse, the University of Minnesota and UC Berkeley reduced their print frequency to four days instead of the usual five, Aimone said.

But he noted that it’s unclear whether that change was driven exclusively by budget setbacks. Online publishing tools such as WordPress were widely adopted around the same time ad revenue began drying up, so it’s unclear which factor caused the migration to online, Aimone said. Likely, it was a combination of both.

“I think we’ll need a few more years in the rearview mirror before we can figure out what happened at the end of the first decade of the 21st century,” he said.

Aimone said Associated Collegiate Press, a professional development organization for student newspapers nationwide, kept a steady membership during the economic downturn. But a few years ago, when the recession hit the hardest, the organization saw fewer students visiting professional development conferences.

Contributing to their communities

At the Sun, Branscomb and his students have gone to the school’s new administration and asked for new funding, in addition to going around Chula Vista looking for donations. “We had to spend a lot of our time and energy this semester fundraising, which took away from journalism, which was very frustrating to me,” he said.

The Sun has received enough to make ends meet for the semester, but their production is decreasing, and they can’t subsist on donations forever.

As colleges throughout the country deal with the growing financial crisis, it’s important to realize the different roles played by student media, Reimold said. Yes, student newspapers are training grounds for the next generation of journalists. But particularly for rural campuses that aren’t served by professional media outlets, they’re also watchdogs for university affairs, making them vital contributors to the campus community.

“As much as we love a good Facebook memes page or a good college confession feed, it can’t take the place of student media,” Reimold said.

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