It’s no surprise that college newspapers online aren’t all they had been cracked up to be

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

An interesting new Media Map shows that only about 20% of college papers are updated daily (and daily is defined as five days or more a week, not even seven), but this shouldn’t be surprising.

Yes, the pitch was that college journalism programs/clubs would save on print costs by reducing/eliminating the paper newspaper, and that online was 24/7 and instant. It was also noted that fewer students were picking up the print editions, but they practically all had computers and smart phones. They would flock to the online site, it was thought. That did not happen.

But let’s break all of these arguments down:

Fewer Students Picking Up the Print Edition
Could this be because print editions have gotten more boring, and not because students don’t like print? I have a handful of college papers in front of me. All have boring cover stories about news that is now very dated (for example, an incident on campus that happened a couple of weeks before the cover date, or reaction from students to a national story that is no longer hot). Also, all have poor, overly gray design.

The solutions:

Put a trend story on the cover that won’t be quickly out-of-date. For example, our current cover story is on Yik Yak creating problems on college campuses. This should be of interest all semester. Also, see this recent article on “great community college newspapers.”

Have someone who understands art laying out the paper; also, use a student who has a talent for photography to take the main photo, not the writer of the article.

Use more color, too — you are paying the printer for color, either way. Max it out.

Last, use Photoshop’s simple auto-correct features to quickly better your photos’ tone and contrast.

Doing these things will improve the pick-up rate of your paper.

Students Aren’t Reading the Newspaper Web Site
This is a more complicated issue. Here’s how it shook out.

Colleges used to have vibrant newspapers that students would pick up for useful info. In recent decades, colleges started adding professional staff to do PR. At first, they mostly used their skills to get placements in professional newspapers and other media outlets. Media shrinkage, in the number of media outlets and the number of reporters at surviving media outlets, meant that the traditional press release was less valuable. So these college personnel started making their own news offices, on the college web site and in social media. Thus, is the amateur student newspaper as needed as before?

The solution:

Student newspapers should petition their administrations to have a prominent placement for their links (with a big button) on the college web site and in the student portal. Maybe the college can post your Twitter feed on a popular institutional page. Also, get an app on everyone’s phone with push notifications.

But Why Aren’t Student Journalists Updating The Site Regularly?
Ultimately, student writers want quality, not quantity. They want to build a few good clips to get them a job in media soon after graduation. Second, it’s a chicken-egg thing — if the site is only getting a handful of hits, why bother?

The solutions:

Get your site up to speed so it gets listed on top news sites, like Google News, to get you a larger audience.

Pay students for shorter, web-only stories; even if it’s only $10/per. Remember all that money you saved by cutting print? Use it!

Assign staffers to post on designated days. Mary and John post on Monday; Zach and Sara post on Tuesday, etc. Of course, if John has a breaking story on another day, he should post that, too.

And, last, act like a news agency. Show up at campus events, identify yourself proudly as a writer with XYZ Press, and play the part. Eventually, the college will see you as a valuable resource for spreading the word.

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