May 6, 2014

Late last month, The Columbia Daily Spectator at Columbia University announced a big change, Peter Sterne reported in Capital New York. The publication would still update its website daily, Editor-in-Chief Abby Abrams told Sterne, but it would print only once per week.

Poynter has written a number of stories about student newspapers heading online during the last few years. But it’s not always easy to compare them.

At Western Kentucky University, the College Heights Herald publishes twice weekly. Except for a small, university-funded professional staff, its operations are entirely supported by ad revenue.

On the same day The Spectator announced plans to print less frequently, the University of Missouri St. Louis announced it would forgive $40,000 in debt for student paper The Current after the student activity board denied all funding. Lindsay Toler wrote in the Riverfront Times that the school will also come up with a new funding source.

But The Spectator has a board of trustees, is a nonprofit and is independent from the school. Though there hasn’t been a recent national census on college newspapers, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, thought about a dozen were independent nonprofits, he said in a phone interview with Poynter. Others get some funding through the universities, such as subsidies, and there are student newspapers that exist as part of a course and are lab papers. Some are dailies. Some are bi-weeklies or weeklies.

The question for all these papers, though, is how do they continue to survive? That question might seem familiar to people in the business of printing the daily news, but it doesn’t really reflect that world, either, said Keith Herndon, a visiting professor of journalism at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.

“There’s a lot of things that they may have in common, but there are many more differences.”

College papers are more like community papers

College journalism, Herndon said, has much more in common with community journalism for the following reasons: TV news isn’t competing the way it is in larger news markets, and there’s a defined audience, in this case the university community.

They share many problems with general-interest papers, he said, including a decline in print revenue, falling pick-up rates (one way college papers can judge their circulation) and the fact that an increasing portion of the community they report on has moved online. But “the transition of advertisers at a community level has not moved to digital anywhere near the number it has made on the national scene,” Herndon said. “I worry that the trend of moving things online is happening prematurely.”

College students are already online, but what if advertisers won’t follow them?

“Journalism is full of conundrums,” Herndon said. “And this, I believe, is the conundrum.”

Print may still be the best business model for some

Last year, when it looked like University of Texas at Austin’s The Daily Texan was heading online, graduates of the school gathered and formed an alumni group to discourage that and offer ideas on how to save the paper.

“A lot of people from my era are just not giving up on print yet,” said John Reetz, president of Media Solutions Partners, in a phone interview with Poynter. This is funny coming from him, he said, given that his business is helping newspapers transition digitally.

But the main concern of the group was simple — then how will the paper survive? Reetz said the first question he asks is what’s the digital plan?

“And then there is no plan, generally, other than, We’re gonna pay more attention to it.”

At The Daily Texan, Reetz said, less than 2 percent of revenue came from digital advertising. “It’s a death sentence.”

During this time, the school came through with transitional funding and a move to the communications college. The school has time now to help the paper find a business model that works. And the alumni group came up with 66 paths for profitability. It’s important to transition online, Reetz said, but publications have to build traffic first.

The next few years will be tough for student newspapers, Reetz said. With students moving in and out of the newspapers, there’s little continuity and not a lot of resources.

Remember how all those papers are different?

At Western Kentucky University, print’s still working, said Carrie Pratt, multiplatform news advisor for the College Heights Herald and a former photographer and video editor at the Tampa Bay Times.

“Definitely the bulk of our revenue comes from print advertising,” Pratt said in a phone interview with Poynter.

The school employs five professionals for the Heights Herald. Students who work on the paper are paid, and the paper funds its everyday operations with revenue. The Heights Herald publishes twice weekly, and a new distribution model has helped get more papers into more hands, she said.

Now, instead of counting on students to pick up papers from racks, members of the staff help hand them out, pointing out what’s inside. It was the editor’s idea, Pratt said, and it has worked.

“Students take it,” she said. “They take it.”

The practice is an organic one, she said, one that’s worked for the school and the staff. Since she came to the school, she’s also watched a gradual culture change as staff devotes more time to publishing news online. That takes time, Pratt said, but the students all have mobile tools. There’s an app, an investigative team and the students recently finished a long-term narrative project.

For schools that are going online only, Pratt said she’d ask, “what are your resources?”

It’s an exciting time to be in student media, Pratt said. She can’t say whether they’ll stick with print or someday be online-only.

“We’re in a position and we will continue to be in a position where we are flexible and ready to work with whatever medium that is.”

Related: Student newspapers move to mobile as interest in print wanes

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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