College Town Works to Find Niche

When we first wrote about College Town, the Raleigh News & Observer student-run online section, it was just launching. Now after six months, we checked in with editor Pressley Baird to see how the site is doing.

“It’s been really good,” she says. “It’s been one of those time periods where I don’t feel like it’s been six months.”

The website covers four universities within the North Carolina Research Triangle: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University.

Baird says they are regularly publishing a story every weekday on a consistent schedule. “As far as content and writers go, it’s been great,” she said. She manages 15 student writers, surpassing her expectations.

She runs a Google doc of story ideas, but says the students prefer to pitch their own content.

“It has ended up working out well for the site; it’s not me saying what college students want. It’s college students saying ‘I want to read about it so I’m going to write it.’”

The writers have fallen into traditional newspaper beats, with some gravitating toward sports, technology or mental health.

The best performing content falls into two categories: profiles and tips/advice. At NC State, a popular story featured two Olympic Danish swimmers, focusing on their diet and how it differed from American swimmers.

“It baffled teammates to see what they eat,” Baird says. “Spinach salad, no dressing, no toppings.”

At UNC Chapel Hill, a writer tackled six taco trucks, ranking his favorites. The story performed well, as do most of the “news you can use” stories on College Town.

“[Readers] see them as useful; they like to have a senior tell a freshman the plan of attack,” she says.

Each day brings unforeseen challenges.

Baird says she knew the college students would be involved in a lot of different stuff, making them good writers because they were engaged. However, it also means they are much busier than someone whose fulltime job would be reporting on college campuses.

Now they’re about to leave for winter break.

“They’re not going to be thinking about writing for me,” she says. She is working to find a balance and what readers are interested in over break.

One writer will be doing an internship in Beijing and writing a weekly diary. Some of the articles will be repurposed for the News and Observer.

Baird often tries to find stories that will be of interest to the main audience. An article about textbook prices performed well in the main paper.

“I’m thinking about audience; there are definitely things that parents of college students will want to read,” she says.

In September, before the election, they ran a series on Trigger warnings. It was three different stories, one on why trigger warnings help and why they are needed, and the next on why they weren’t supported.

“I was pleased with the neutral look at it,” Baird says. “Opinions on both sides have merit.”

With students so engaged on social media, College Town does not break news, but focuses on how students engage with the news.

She admits it has been hard for the publication to carve out a niche. There is a lot of student media on the campuses, making the market saturated. To help with name recognition, the students have gotten creative, doing Facebook Live shows to have a visible presence on the campus.

“We don’t need to cover the breaking news aspect; the news has already broken, it’s out there,” she says.


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