Student news goes digital

By Cole Kennedy

Major initiatives by legacy media organizations to reinvent themselves for the digital era are a dime a dozen lately. From the lauded “Snow Fall” feature by the New York Times to the very recent reincarnation of Newsweek, it seems that publishers are finally catching on to the necessity of a strong online presence, one that doesn’t play second fiddle to the printed edition.

Corporate news organizations aren’t the only ones scrambling to figure out how to survive in a post-print era, though. What about the training grounds of journalism, the venerated student newspapers at high schools and colleges nationwide? They’ve been subjected to growing financial pressure just like any mainstream media organization, perhaps even more so. Fortunately, it seems that their editorial boards are keeping a keen eye on what works and what doesn’t in the industry and applying those lessons to their own, typically independent, publications.

Take the story of the Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon: the staff decided to cut the “daily” straight out of the title and reduced publishing from five days per week to a decidedly more reasonable two days. Ryan Frank, the publisher, and the rest of the newsroom veered from 92 years of tradition and renamed the organization as the Emerald Media Group.
The redesigned homepage of the Oregon Daily Emerald shows the renewed focus on multimedia and digital storytelling, rather than constant hard news coverage.

With greater focus on analytic news and building multimedia tools for the University of Oregon community, Emerald Media Group more closely resembles a tech start-up than it does an ink-and-broadsheet newspaper publication.

Oregon isn’t the only place student newspapers are embracing online news and focusing their effort on finding a viable model for the future. The Maneater, MU’s own independent student newspaper, redesigned its entire website from the ground up (code and all) in January 2009. While the aesthetic presentation is certainly quite different, the newsroom staff made a concerted effort to streamline back-end functionality (for example, utilizing a dynamic grid layout) so that future developments would be easier to implement. At Arizona State University, the State Daily Press has made a renewed effort into special projects, like its Off-Campus Housing Guide, which it published as a PDF in collaboration with ASU Advertising, an agency dedicated to coordinating and promoting advertising for a variety of campus media properties.
The home page of The Maneater website in 2007, before the redesign.
The 2013 version of The Maneater home page, with a greater emphasis on imagery and a higher level of design polish (notice the lack of third-party plug-ins).

It’s not all cheerful encouragement for the newsrooms that have taken risks in the name of innovation. The New York Times published a story just a few days ago about the contraction of high school newspapers across the country, especially in schools with a high proportion of minority students. Struggling to maintain any print revenue, many high school papers have been forced to go digital facing a lack of school funding, and many that have made the transition to the Internet haven’t been particularly successful. According to that article, even the newspaper at the World Journalism Preparatory School in Queens, N.Y., was forced to an online format, after the students were unable to sell ads to finance the print edition of the paper.

Even at the Emerald Media Group, publisher Ryan Frank admits that the bi-weekly print edition accounts for nearly 95 percent of its revenue. It will be a long time before digital advertising revenue is able to replace the income that print used to provide, whether at student newspapers with small circulation, or international media conglomerates who have yet to determine a long-term business model.

However, critical thinking and experimentation by students at these organizations will hopefully lead to some answers. Student newsrooms are far nimbler than legacy media companies, and accordingly, are exceptionally fertile grounds for innovation.

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