August 31, 2016

More than a year ago, the students of California’s Mt. San Antonio College decided they were tired of seeing their college newspaper lying untouched on the racks.

So, in a bid for increased readership, the newspaper tried an experiment: It stopped publishing the print edition and ran all its coverage online. Then, students launched a new website, Sac.Media, on Medium, joining the handful of professional publications that were already using the platform full-time.

How’d they do? Seventeen months later, after taking a look at the data, they’re getting ready to reinvent their approach to campus news for a second time.

Next month, faculty adviser Toni Albertson and her students are making two big changes: Their current site, Sac.Media, will be replaced with a BuzzFeed-style publication that serves up college-focused content aimed at students around the world, not just in Southern California.

And they’ll be launching a new website, SacOnScene.Media, which will focus largely on community news from three communities near Mt. San Antonio College’s campus: Pomona, Covina and Walnut.

Unlike Sac.Media, which was launched on Medium, the new site will be powered by Arc, The Washington Post’s proprietary content management system.

The decision was driven by a deep-dive into analytics data, which showed people just weren’t clicking on the typical 14-inch college newspaper story, Albertson said. After the spring semester, Albertson and her students looked at the metrics, which revealed a few types of stories had very low engagement. Among them: game recaps, stories about on-campus political rallies (a writeup of Bernie Sanders’ visit bombed) and stories about faculty.

A few big stories did well: Coverage of accusations that college administrators covered up an on-campus sexual assault saw widespread interest, Albertson said. Likewise with stories about the college’s ongoing battle to erect a parking structure and evocative profiles of interesting students. But when stories didn’t do well, they tanked — some stories about faculty garnered a mere 25 pageviews.

“Our conclusion, after the summer, is that nobody really gives a shit about some campus news,” Albertson said.

What do students want to read, and where do they want to read it? According to polling and focus groups conducted by Albertson’s students in recent months, the students are reading (and watching) Vice and BuzzFeed when they’re not getting their news via Snapchat and Twitter. So, the BuzzFeed-esque content will be a bid to get them to pay attention.

Meanwhile, Albertson said, there’s a serious gap in coverage of news in cities around the college — and a wealth of potential readers who care about news in their community. So why not cater to them with a separate site and take the occasional deep dive into campus news when the story warrants it — rather than produce stories that few people are reading?

A dozen or so students will be working on coverage of surrounding communities, and a strong emphasis will be placed on covering campus news on social networks such as Twitter, Albertson said. She and the students don’t see the strategic shift as an abandonment of their mission to serve the campus, rather a doubling-down of producing news that people actually want to consume.

“We’re trying to reach out and shake people and say, ‘what do we need to do to get you to care?’” Albertson said. “We’re not giving up on college news.”

The new sites will launch in September. If they don’t prove successful, Albertson and her students will hear about it — and be prepared to shake things up once again.

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
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