Like a Fast Forward Film of a Flower in Bloom

September 6- Is it the start of an epidemic, a hiccup at fall semester’s start or an opportunity in the making? 

 

Recently, a few higher-profile student newspapers have announced cutbacks from five to four print issues per week, in large part to save money.  Among the publications attempting to cash in on the four-for-five plan: The Daily Cal at the University of California Berkeley, dropping its Wednesday edition (and paying staffers a bit less); The Spartan Daily at San Jose State University, shedding its regular Friday issue (and cutting the newspaper’s physical size); and The Daily Orange at Syracuse University, also losing its Friday installment (in part to shore up funds to fight a pending lawsuit and to restore the coffers from the publication of an overly-expensive weekend insert). 

 

You won't see this on Wednesdays for awhile at UC Berkeley.

 

The Lantern at Ohio State University also made news recently in the print news cutback department after announcing it was ceasing publication of all print summer issues.  The paper has suffered an almost 50 percent circulation decline in the past two years (from 28,000 to 15,000) and projects losses of $150,000 this year alone (!). 

 

Are these papers’ print-unfriendly practices arbiters of a larger trend?  In late August, after The Daily Cal’s announcement, Editor & Publisher’s Joe Strupp wrote, “Apparently today’s newspaper cost-cutting problems are not only affecting commercial dailies.” 

 

I’m not so sure the papers’ moves are really as intricately linked to the professional print press spiral as Strupp and others have noted.  For example, as the Oakland Tribune reported, The Daily Cal has been in dire financial straits before, even on the verge of bankruptcy in the late 1990s.  The current Cal editor also classifies the problem as “a one-year fix to get us through the next year. . . . [I]t’s my hope that we can restore publication as soon as possible.”

 

The Daily Tar Heel also wants to make sure the journalism community knows: “Unlike the Daily Cal, we’re doing great.  Our advertising staff regularly is recognized for its talent. . . . The Daily Tar Heel continues to play an active role in this community, even as the (Raleigh) News & Observer offered buyouts in April followed by job cuts in June.”

 

OK, now regardless of whether these moves represent the start of a full-blown trend or simply an aberration, could they actually be a positive?  In announcing the print reductions, editors at all papers cited a continuing and in some cases increased Web and multimedia presence.  For example, according to a Daily Texan report, “The Spartan’s cutback [at San Jose State] comes at a time when the newspaper’s staff is developing new ways to reach its audience.  Faculty advisor Tim Hendrick said the publication has a cellphone-accessible edition of the paper and a changing online edition that includes video and podcasts.”  A somewhat less-burdensome print publication schedule may enable staffers and advisers to devote more time and energy into conceiving more innovative new media initiatives, upping the quality of the overall news product housed under the newspapers’ brand names.

 

The other truth is that this sudden print-shedding is simply one further evolution in a student media universe whose lifeforce has long been spurred by change.  A 1976 Change magazine article declared: ”Like a fast forward film of a flower in bloom, the campus press has passed rapidly through an antiwar phase, a drug phase, an apathetic phase, a lingering sex and pornography phase, and a revolutionary phase.”  A more modern reference, this one by Dan McDonald, Ohio State University School of Communication professor, speaking about The Lantern evolution specifically: “If you look at the Lantern, it’s got a 125 year history, and it’s done all sorts of things.  During WWII it was an afternoon paper with an all female staff.  It’s gone through periods where it was a weekly and periods where it was a monthly. . . . It’s just at another point in history where it changes.”

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