August 30, 2016

Today is a Tuesday, which means that for the first time in its 123-year-old history, the University of North Carolina’s student paper, The Daily Tar Heel, will not publish a print edition.

The change was announced last week by the paper’s editor in chief, Jane Wester, and detailed in a lengthy Medium post written by the paper’s new general manager, Betsy O’Donovan.

The question on Wester’s mind today: Will students notice the Tuesday print paper is missing? They may not, but Wester sees that as an opportunity.

“[We know that] students already don’t pick up The Daily Tar Heel five days a week — they pick it up based on their class schedule,” Wester tells me. “We’ve cut a day out of print, but that doesn’t affect the work we’re doing. We are interested in pushing boundaries — making our work more interactive and more social online. That’s where most of our readership is anyway.”

Wester, who ran for editor-in-chief on a platform of increasing audience engagement, says the added financial pressure is pushing her newsroom to try new things — and quickly.

“We’re light and flexible,” she says. “We don’t have a staff that’s been here for decades, and because of the nature of being on a college campus, we have high turnover. So we can say ‘We’re trying this’ and the newsroom will try it without too much grumbling….I think we can help lots of institutions by publicly sharing how we’re making our own publication more digital.”

Last week, she outlined an ambitious digital plan for the paper in her column. Among the changes: a new arts and entertainment section called Swerve, a new app, and the discontinued Tuesday edition.

The Daily Tar Heel isn’t the only college newspaper that’s dropped a day (or more) of the print edition to focus more on digital. In recent years, student papers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the University of South Carolina, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, the University of Maryland, the University of Georgia, the University of Oregon, Columbia University, the University of California-Berkeley, Syracuse University, the University of Nebraska, Duke University, Arizona State University, the University of Utah, Franklin & Marshall College, the University of Texas-Austin, and the University of Kansas have rolled back their print editions — and that’s not a comprehensive list.

I reached out to editors-in-chief and general managers at several college newspapers who have made the switch to find out what they’ve learned since dropping a day (or more) of their print editions and what advice they’d offer to their colleagues at The Daily Tar Heel. Below are their responses:

The Diamondback, University of Maryland

Publishes weekly after dropping several days of its print edition.

Danielle Ohl, editor in chief: “Dropping some of the print days has allowed us to focus our energy elsewhere — mainly, digital growth and innovation. We’re creating microsites to feature special articles or projects, and we’re expanding our social media presence and trying to tailor certain social media platforms to the desks they best correspond with.”

“For example, our sports desk will be creating their own Snapchat that can complement Twitter activity, like celebrity takeovers. Meanwhile, our arts and entertainment desk is developing a Tumblr. We can really put emphasis on the areas the journalism industry is going, rather than being tied to a medium that might not exist in the next 10 years.”

“It’s so, so important to really impress the digital-first mindset upon staff members. Publishing for the web is a whole different world, and the culture shock can take a moment to subside, but the sooner it does, the better. Editors and writers should be focused on engaging reporting, absolutely, but also on urgency and immediacy. Shaking that print mindset is imperative.”

The Mountaineer, Mt. San Antonio College

Dropped its print edition and website in 2015. Publishes entirely on Medium and Twitter.

Toni Albertson, faculty adviser: “I’d like to say that there was a noticeable reaction on campus when we stopped our print publications, but the only people noticing were faculty.”

“Students had shifted to digital long before we made the move. The way we are structured is that we [first] publish[ed] a magazine on Medium. Engaging that audience became easier because we quickly saw that the audience was a global one. We tackle issues relative to college students but not specific to the campus.”

“When we stopped publishing the newspaper and moved over to Medium as Sac.Media in the following semester, that became a challenge where the campus audience is concerned. We analyze our stats daily and would notice that only the major stories were getting read by our student body but everything else would just sit there. No one cared about the dance performance or a play review or a faculty profile. This is what sparked the move to report all basic campus news and breaking news on @SACOnScene on Twitter.”

“However, we can’t run a publication just covering the big stories or we wouldn’t have much of a publication. So we engaged in a major campus outreach and polled students in hundreds of classes.”

The Daily Orange, Syracuse University

Dropped its Friday paper in 2008. They occasionally publish sports special editions on Fridays.

Justin Mattingly, editor in chief: “In the fall of 2008, The D.O. stopped publishing a print edition on Fridays. The reasoning was because of the lack of students on campus and to help save some costs. I (obviously) wasn’t around when the decision was made to cut the Friday paper, but I can say that our Friday special editions for sports are always very popular.”

“Last year (2015-16), we launched a revamped digital team to help our online presence. We’re focusing on things like headline writing, presentation and our engagement with the SU community through social media. It’s worked well for us so far and this semester we’ve added a new assistant video editor position to take the next steps for video.”

“As editor in chief, my job description says I’m the chief executive officer of The Daily Orange Corp. The reason I say that is because as the CEO, I believe that more than just the business manager should be overseeing the financial side of the newspaper. I don’t know how The Daily Tar Heel has operated in the past in terms of business, but I think it’s important to have an active board of directors and head student editor.”

“I do appreciate its transparency and I hope it’s able to serve as a model for student newspapers. I think it’s important, though, to maintain the high journalistic quality DTH has produced in the past and not compromise that.”

The Daily Nebraskan, University of Nebraska

Reduced its print production from five days a week (Monday through Friday) to twice a week (Mondays and Thursdays) in 2014.

Lani Hanson, editor in chief: “After reducing print production from five days a week to two days a week in 2014, The Daily Nebraskan has focused more on web-first content. We created a breaking news desk to cover news as it happens, bolstered our social media presence, reconsidered the way we write headlines and started monitoring our web traffic in ways we’d never considered before.”

“With more viewers being directed to our website from social media than from any other source, it’s clear where The Daily Nebraskan’s audience is. This year, we’re continuing to boost our presence on Facebook and Twitter, as well as experimenting with Instagram and Snapchat, to direct new and returning readers to our website.”

“Though I wasn’t on staff when the decision to reduce print publication was made, I know the plan was unanimously approved by our Publications Board. From my understanding, print readership of The Daily Nebraskan — much like the readership of newspapers across the nation — was rapidly declining, but in our first year at two print issues per week, the number of pages viewed on our website jumped 25 percent, while our Facebook engagement leapt 166 percent. Last year, our second year as a “web-first” publication, our page views jumped 51 percent from the previous year, and Facebook continues to be one of our largest sources of readership.”

“When not under the pressure to fill a print issue each day, it’s easy to let the amount, length and quality of daily content decline. Even though The Daily Nebraskan doesn’t publish a daily print issue, we still strive to produce the same amount of quality content each day, whether or not that content will be seen in physical form on newsstands in the morning.”

“A web-first model has not only allowed us to reach a larger audience than our print publications had, but it’s given us the freedom to experiment with all the resources the web has to offer. My advice to those adapting to reduced print publication is to take advantage of that freedom and potential for interactivity — a potential not easily found on the printed page.”

The Daily Pennsylvanian, University of Pennsylvania

Dropped the Friday paper in 2014.

Eric Jacobs, general manager: “What we learned was that dropping one day of print publication in order to create a more digital mindset was not enough of a change. The concept here was to create more time for editors to focus on content throughout the week, including weekends, and to pursue more of a digital-first mindset.”

“What we found was that eliminating one day of the print edition, without any significant structural changes in editor’s duties and responsibilities, still left our print editions still driving our workflow. We have had many discussions this year about possible changes to our editorial [organization] chart to better separate our content development from creating, designing and filling each print publication. It’s a work in progress, and it’s not yet certain whether we will retain our current schedule of four print editions a week in the future.”

“We are trying to plan our next moves forward while avoiding some of the problems we’ve seen other college newspapers run into in cutting their print editions to three days or two days or one day a week. Some papers have decreased their print frequency, but not achieved significant growth in online readership — which ends up being a losing proposition with less visibility than they had before. It’s not enough to declare an organization will be “digital first” and post articles online without consideration for when the next print edition comes out.”

“There needs to be the vision, infrastructure and staff to create enough content — relevant content, good content — plus good social media and marketing strategies, to insure that people in the community will find and read what is being published, whether online or in print. Even though finding viable business models is a challenging proposition for every legacy publication, from large metro dailies to small college newspapers, the key in my mind is ensuring that we have an engaged audience; with that, I’m confident The Daily Pennsylvanian can move forward successfully.”

Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia University

Dropped from five days/week to one day/week in 2014.

Caroline Chiu, the paper’s editor in chief, sent me the note that the paper sent to its alumni, on what students learned when they made the switch to a weekly format. An excerpt: “Since the transition in the fall of 2014, we have higher engagement with both our print and digital editions. Focusing on the ways our readers see our stories online, we have doubled the “likes” on our Facebook page and tripled the number of email subscribers to our daily newsletters of top stories, metrics of engagement we like to look at because these users are typically students or members of the University community (as opposed to, say, referrals from search engines).”

“The increased impact isn’t the result of magic; it’s because the staff is now more productive and doing higher quality work. We have substantially more traffic to the site and observe more weekly print editions being picked up because our work is much improved. Our stories are better, and the University community has noticed.”

“As promised when we pitched the reduction of our weekly print schedule, we repurposed a lot of staff time into work that more substantively contributed to our mission. The freedom to not force a story into publication because we had to fill pages in a daily print edition allowed us to take a step back and redefine for ourselves what Spectator’s mission is and what we aspire to in successful storytelling. We have (re)learned how to push ourselves to do real journalism, a shift that should be credited to a renewed focus on staff development and training.”

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Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.…
Melody Kramer

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