Innovations (and shortcomings) in College Media: notes from latest ONA Philly event

The early crowd at Thursday’s Future of College Media ONA event.

College newspapers are facing the same challenges of their commercial counterparts have had for decades but, despite their advantages, are struggling to fundamentally innovate.

Nearly 40 professional journalists, students and college administrators attended representing a half dozen universities and student newspapers attended Thursday the Future of College Media event I helped organize with Temple University Journalism Department Chair Andy Mendelson for our monthly local Online News Association get-together.

None of the newspapers represented had made any revenue outside of print and web advertising.

Held in a classroom at Temple University Center City, overviews in student newspaper trends were given by Eric Jacobs, the general manager of the Daily Pennsylvanian, Mark Lyons and Jenny Spinner, the advisers of the Hawk at St. Joseph’s University, and Angelo Fichera and Chris Montgomery, the editor and web editor of The Temple News.

Broadly I heard three big refrains across products:

  • College newspapers have had more editorial innovations than business ones, and even then the effort is on the print product
  • Student journalists are not naturally skilled with web publishing, technology, social media or the like.
  • Few cross-discipline connections: student radio, TV or the like combining efforts

As is my custom, I share some notes from the event.

Eric Jacobs at the Daily Pennsylvanian

  • The DP: a fully independent incorporated organization that is entirely self-sufficient with four, full-time, ‘adult’ staff, in addition to some 200 student staff and contributors.
  • DP has a mobile app, its news website and a print magazine, in addition to a five-times-weekly print newspaper.
  • Five years ago, the DP netted more than $1.25 million in advertising revenue, a figure that fell last year below $1 million for the first time since 1980.
  • “We’re trying to sell more to the web, but like elsewhere, new online ads can’t replace what was in print.”
  • “Getting college students to read us online, which may seem like the natural progression from them reading us in print, doesn’t work. With the web, college kids are exposed to so many more options and distractions. In a boring class, you can look at your phone rather than doing the crossword puzzle in the paper.”
  • “All these external industry realities are happening everywhere, but there are some real internal surprises. Despite having all these smart 18 to 21 year olds, you’d think they’d be all over mobile and the web and while we talk a lot about it a lot, and we have a staff for web and video, most of our effort is still on the print.”
  • Pay staff to hand out the paper, and students seem to take it and enjoy it, but pickup rate from honor boxes is down from five years ago
  • The DP is the informal journalism school at Penn, which only has a limited few journalism classes and no major.

Mike Lyons and Jenny Spinner at the Hawk

  • The Hawk: funded by the university, which takes in advertising revenue to cover that cost (ad revenue has gone up in recent years with some growth), Lyons and Spinner are liberal arts staff, built out of the English major, not journalism
  • Lyons and his wife operate the West Philly Local
  • Pick up rates have grown in the past five years, but that’s partly a more dedicated effort to get the paper out.
  • Students there like reading the print newspaper so a recent Steve Buttry piece ‘missed the market,’ he said.
  • “The site went down and alumni missed it more than students, and they gave more complaints,” said Lyons.
  • “Just because students watch TV doesn’t mean they know how to make TV, and so I don’t think we should assume that because young people are born into using online content that they know how to create it.”
  • Student newspaper is less about journalism today and more about being a club, like joining the rugby team.
  • Not independent, faces some struggle with the connection, like Spinner says students don’t like covering Phil Martelli aggressively because he is so well liked by students.
  • “We think of college media as student newspapers but there is media happening all over St Joe’s and that’s a small college and it’s not all in our newsroom.”

Angelo Fichera and Chris Montgomery at the Temple News

  • TTN: editorially independent but funded by a loan from the university, headquartered in the university
  • Advertising team more geared to the print product, online ads are served by Google Ad Sense
  • Pay $10 for stories, and a $5 bonus for a web exclusive first, as an incentive for breaking news and bigger stories in the print.
  • Social media editor for the first time
  • On his generation’s command of online media: “We’re doing what Facebook tells us to do, not what we want,” said Chris Montgomery. Another Temple student mentioned that she grew up seeing social media as a way to get in trouble, so she wants to keep it private.
  • This summer, they did a responsive-design focused redesign

After the event, we retired to Tir Na Nog for a beer or three.