Digital Tuesdays: How College Newspapers Evolve

By Madeline Will, Special to the News Media Alliance

The Daily Tar Heel is not a daily. The student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was one of the last remaining college publications that put out a print product five days a week. It became a daily in the 1920s, and minus during WWII, continued that way for almost a century. But now, it has cut Tuesday as a print day because, as general manager Betsy O’Donovan wrote, “This institution has two years to figure out its finances.”

She published an open letter detailing the paper’s annual deficit of $200,000. But the staff was not without hope and optimism. They have concrete plans to staunch the bleeding.

The Daily Tar Heel joins a long line of college papers that have had to cut print days in recent years — including the Daily Gamecock, the Duke Chronicle, the Daily Cardinal, the Cornell Daily Sun, the Crimson White, the Cavalier Daily, and many more.

Most student papers these days are wrestling with falling pickup rates and a decline in print advertising revenue. It’s a plague familiar to many publishers. College newspapers have always been a breeding ground for students to learn the tenets of journalism, but nowadays, student journalists are also getting a crash course in the industry’s business model as they try innovative ways to better reach their millennial readers.

Jane Wester, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Tar Heel, said the transition to “digital Tuesdays” hasn’t been as challenging as she expected. Instead, it has opened the door to experimentation and allowed the staff to get creative.

“I think every Monday night has been a little different. We learn something new every time,” she said. The online staff can experiment with publishing stories at different times of day, rather than all at once at 1 a.m. The graphics team can design interactive graphics, instead of static print graphics. The art department can experiment with different visual mediums to anchor a story package, like a video instead of the usual photograph.

This has been a common refrain among student journalists who have seen their storied newspapers lose a print day: They end up getting the freedom to experiment beyond the limitations of print.

Daily email newsletters are one tool that some college papers are using to drive traffic to their websites. Unlike print products, email newsletters can be customized to best fit readers’ needs and interests — some college papers even have multiple newsletters. For example, the Columbia Spectator, which went from a daily print paper to a weekly in the fall of 2014, has three email newsletters, all geared at different reader demographics: incoming first-year students, readers who want the top stories of the day with no frills, and Columbia students who want an email that includes both the news and events of the day, with a dash of commentary and wit.

Last week, Ohio University’s The Post editor-in-chief Emma Ockerman wrote a column saying that since the paper reduced its print frequency from daily to weekly, many readers have not transitioned to getting their daily news from the Post’s website instead of the print pages. The paper’s daily newsletter, Post Haste, however, is a “digital, daily paper equivalent.”

Ultimately, the cornerstone of student journalism — serving as a watchdog to university administration — hasn’t changed during the shift to digital. In fact, Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said college journalists are pulling off impressive investigations.

“[Student journalists] have fewer financial resources to fight the fight, and they don’t necessarily have the power of 30,000 readers campus-wide behind them,” he said. “We’re asking college media to do more with less.”

These newspapers are important biospheres where budding journalists learn the tools of the trade but they are also providing real world solutions to problems facing the industry.

Madeline Will is a reporter at Education Week. She previously covered student journalism at the Student Press Law Center. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2014, where she worked at the Daily Tar Heel all four years. 


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