How to save college newspapers

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By Darren Johnson
Campus News

Let’s be honest. The real reason student newspapers are shuttering is not because of the Internet.

Those newspapers that have stopped printing have not seen a resurgence in the digital world. Surely, the revenue from print advertising didn’t translate to the web. And it’s not like students who formerly may have picked up a paper copy here and there are now eagerly searching for the campus paper’s URL. Frankly, they couldn’t care less.

And it’s not that student journalists don’t want to write for print, necessarily. They just want to write in a venue that’s read. Unpopular papers don’t attract many writers.

I visit lots of campuses — dozens every year — and pick up their school papers. The problem with them is they’re uninspired. Boring, really.

Their layouts haven’t changed in a decade or more. They must be using old computers with old programs. QuarkXPress and Adobe InDesign have improved a lot in the past decade, but these papers show no signs of using either of these programs’ newer versions.

Most of the papers have moved to color printing, but they use very little color on their covers. You’re paying for it — use it! Think USA Today.

Some papers inexplicably are still fully black and white. No one picks up purely black and white papers anymore, and most printers don’t even upcharge for a color cover, anyway. I assume these colleges have old agreements with local printers that they haven’t sought to change.

Here’s a recent issue of a community college newspaper. How would you improve it?

The photos usually look washed out. But it only takes a few seconds to autocorrect photos in Photoshop. If your photos aren’t printing well, your settings are wrong. It’s a 10-minute call to the printer to get the right specs. They are happy to help

Most student papers seem to hibernate on racks — often the racks are messy — and get little pickup. First off, your rack needs to be neat. If some idiot litters your rack, other people will avoid it. Monitor racks and keep them tidy.

This may seem like common sense, but papers need to be facing up and in the right direction. I see some racks with the papers facing the wrong way, or even upside down. If you don’t care about placing the papers properly, why should a reader care about picking it up?

But even if you do have the papers distributed properly and the layout is decent enough, you still have to have interesting headlines and stories and photos that appeal to all of your audience — freshmen, seniors, older students, faculty, staff, parents, campus visitors, etc.

The cover stories should be universal, not have a strong time element (as not to make the issue seem “dated”), and be interesting enough for all kinds of people, without being too generic or wishy-washy.

Counterintuitively, I found publishing Campus News — an independent paper that hits 37 college campuses in the Northeast — that it’s actually better to use $8 stock photography on the cover than an original photo. The shot should portray a traditional student, not smiling and not looking at the camera.

You can put all of your original content INSIDE the paper. But trust me on this: Make the cover everything for everyone in your campus universe. Then you’ll get a better pickup rate. Pickup rate means writers are getting read — that’s what student journalists really want. Eyeballs, whether it’s print or digital. A print paper still can outdeliver vs. a web site.

For those campus papers that are still in print, get the staff together. Save your paper. Hold a meeting. UPDATE ITS LOOK! You can make your campus paper great again.


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