By Darren Johnson
It’s the fifth anniversary of this newspaper, Campus News, a project no one really believed could succeed back when, but actually has grown from rogue to established and widely accepted. The next five years will really be something.
I often get asked where the idea for this paper – one that hits many campuses – came from. People assume it’s just a student paper on steroids, but not so.
I’d say the defining experience for creating a paper like this came to me before I started working in the college world, handling campus communications and advising newspapers and young journalists. Of course college students are the main audience, so my experience with them has been an inspiration, and my work in campus communications helped me talk to the advertisers who fund this effort.
But when I was not far out of college myself, in the mid-1990s, I had decided to work for a startup newspaper, after having previously worked for a standard, 100-year-old, community paper. The startup job maybe paid $5000 more a year. That was tempting, but also the idea of it.
The startup paper was called The American and was a colossal failure, lasting less than two years. The publisher had a good wad of cash as startup money and hired the best New York editorial and graphics people (except me; I was a relative kid, but passed the grammar test to get a low-level all-purpose gig).
The publisher had lived in Europe awhile and wrote as a correspondent for top American publications from there. He saw a market for an American newspaper overseas, as a lot of expats were over there as well as Europeans interested in American culture. So he gave the paper a simple name, just like Campus News is a simple name, and created a full-color paper that could become the USA Today of Europe.
This gig was eye-opening for me. I had previously worked at a small community paper that did spot color (meaning only one other color, after black) and physical paste-up, spit out of an old laser printer that was hooked up to the kind of Mac with the built-in, greyscale screen.
At the new paper was a newsroom full of people who had worked at major publications producing PDFs with shiny, big, color Macs that were transmitted to London and Berlin for printing and distribution from there. The paper looked as good as any paper on the racks today, even though this was 20 years ago. It was ahead of its time.
The American taught me, as well, that news doesn’t have to be micro-local. It can be useful, or at least entertaining. In my other gig at a community paper, we covered small stories – the smaller the better. Cub Scouts winning the Pinewood Derby? Great! But not every paper has to do that. The USA Today is in half the hotels in America, it seems. It appeals to no one in particular, but everyone at the same time.
And the idea got in my head that a colorful paper could be created from anywhere. There was no need for an office on a Main Street. I learned everything I could in those two years about modern startup newspapers. The American failed because it relied on the honesty of far-away circulation contractors (crooks) and didn’t have an advertising plan. Plus, the Internet really started to pick up steam in the mid-1990s, so American news could be gotten faster via computer.
When The American failed, I went back to the 100-year-old paper, but I was a much different writer and person. Then I started adjuncting and doing PR work at Southampton College – which also eventually failed (twice; I was there both times) – while helping student writers and journalists whenever possible through clubs and activities. All of the failure at the organizations I’d worked for taught me to not really trust in any business to take care of my family and me.
So a lot came to a head in the Fall 2009 semester, when Stony Brook announced it was shuttering its Southampton College campus, and I’d been bouncing around the failed dream of The American in my head for all those years. I was advising a college paper at the time, but it was constitutionally managed. I really didn’t have much of a say in its day to day operations or its personnel. I mostly was a business manager, offered advice and organized field trips to journalism conferences. The last elected editorial team didn’t mesh with a creative kid, Thomas Johnson (no relation), who ended up resigning from the paper. I told him my idea of a USA Today of college papers, and he helped design the first templates in his spare time. The cover of the first issue is pictured here. Nothing that colorful to begin with, but it did the trick. The initial advertisers were Mercy College, Adelphi University, Five Towns College and Empire State College. The initial cover story was by Laura LaVacca, who still writes for us sometimes. She was a grad student then but now teaches composition at a Long Island community college. The story is about students who don’t come back for their spring semester titled, “Where do all the student go?”
We currently have the largest circulation of any newspaper aimed at community college students in the world. That’s not an impossible feat, but it has taken a lot of work to pump out so many issues consistently. In our next five years, I’d like to see Campus News established in the following areas:
I tend to think one print reader is worth 10 online readers, just because the print reader tends to hunker down more and build a relationship with the stories. They also do the puzzles and clip out the cartoons, on occasion. A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education noted how print products are a “deeper” read for college students than e-products.
So, with all that in mind, we have no intention of diminishing the printed newspaper, unlike what most journalism programs have done at colleges large and small in the past few years. Campus News still gets excellent “pick up,” as it’s called in this industry, so it’s not like people are all suddenly allergic to the printed word. Textbooks are still on paper for the most part. We’re not giving in to the web hype.
In fact, we may be looking for a secondary market outside the Northeast; perhaps some self-contained community college system, as they have in some major US cities/states. As The American proved, we can transmit our paper to a printing plant anywhere, rent an SUV in that city, and distribute accordingly.
We’ve been working with some young app developers on creating the Campus News app. It has been a slow go, but who knows how this will work out?
I think what will happen is the printed newspaper, Community College Campus News, will continue to hit two-year colleges while the digital efforts will open us up to four-year and graduate colleges, especially journalism programs. They will be two separate entities. We’ll see how this turns out.
Student Wire Service
As you see in our back pages, we regularly run Scripps Howard Foundation Wire stories by student journalism interns. They are based in Washington, DC, but I’ve wanted to do something similar, based in the Northeast somewhere, maybe in New York City or in Albany, where the students can cover the Capitol. There are a lot of small newspapers in the state that can’t afford to send a correspondent to the Capitol, so perhaps this wire service would be useful to them. All the real work of your assemblymen and state senators happens in Albany. Though New York City has more news going on in general. Look for this to start to form in the next year or two.
Well, that’s about it, for now. Thank you for reading this paper. If you’d like to get involved, please write to email@example.com. Have a great New Year!