Exclusive: UWIRE Set to Relaunch After Six-Month Hiatus

UWIRE is back. The predominant, temporarily dormant student press content sharing service will once again be live online- most likely later this week or early next week.  According to Tom Orr, UWIRE overseer and general manager of partner site Palestra.netit is a soft launch focused on steadily reestablishing UWIRE as the main pipeline for college media’s conversation with themselves and the world (wide web).

UWIRE shut down suddenly and without warning last fall, leaving hundreds of student publications without convenient access to peer content and college media overall without its highest-profile brand name.

While the behind-the-scenes dealings with Fox are mostly being kept confidential, Palestra.net CEO Joe Weasel can confirm, “After 18 months, it was determined we did not fit Fox’s long term plans. Fox took a directional change. It was just unfortunate that it happened rather quickly and it happened in such a way that we were left with very few options and that made it tough, but we’re here.”

Orr empathized with student journalists’ confusion and anger over the suddenness of UWIRE’s disappearance and the prolonged lack of communication about the service’s future.  “I completely understand why people feel burned by it,” he said. “I would absolutely feel that way if I was in their position.  We are very, very sorry for the way everything happened last fall. . . . There were significant elements that were out of our control. We got quite a shock and that in turn caused some real serious ripples that affected our members and a lot of people’s livelihoods.  We really are intent on making this right and restoring UWIRE’s place as the leader in this field.”

The student journalism field has changed slightly in the past six months.  One especially notable upstart that the UWIRE team has noticed: College News Network, a campus press content sharing service launched by two Ohio University j-students to fill the niche left by UWIRE’s absence.  The service now has 54 member publications.  Orr and Weasel both expressed admiration for the students’ efforts.

As Weasel noted, “God bless them. They’re real good kids. We went to talk to them because we wanted to give them a courtesy call that we were restarting, and give them a lot of advance notice. Because what they did was phenomenal. We took them to lunch and sat and talked. . . . What they did was innovative. It was outstanding. They found a void. They did a great job filling it.”

For his part, College News Network co-founder Ryan Dunn tells me, “Dave [Hendricks] and I are absolutely dedicated to College News Network and UWIRE returning does not change that. Our sites are very different. We’ve been transparent with our finances from day one, sharing content exclusively with other student newspapers for free. . . . We think our setup gives student editors an easy choice.”

In addition, Huffington Post recently launched a college news section, supplanting UWIRE.com as the most popular Web destination featuring a mash-up of student newspaper material.  Orr’s response: “That’s fine.  Papers are certainly welcome to [share their content with HuffPost].  We do not have any sort of exclusivity with our members. They’re welcome to also be members with any other service they want to be. And they still have access to all the great content on UWIRE.”

In that vein, Orr and Weasel are confident about the continued need and desire for UWIRE among their student press constituents and outside vendors and supporters.  They said potential future add-ons to the site include the UWIRE 100 spotlight; national student columnists and video reporters in areas such as politics, business, and sports; and even numerous how-to series focused on multimedia and video production, posting, and integration.  At present, however, the plan is to return to UWIRE’s roots as a straightforward wire service.

In an exclusive chat with CMM, both gentlemen discussed the blueprint for UWIRE 2.0.  Portions of the talks are included below.

What is the initial aim of the relaunch?

Weasel: “It will start a little scaled down. Our goal is to get it up and running and get the service going first and allow the schools to have access to that service again and then figure out what the future’s going to be. . . . It’ll run. It’ll run efficiently. And at least for now, it will be what it was originally set up to be. It will be a wire service.

Orr: “We’ve spent the last couple months basically rethinking and retooling the entire site, and the whole network in essence.  The main focus has been getting back to the core product, which is of course the wire. We have put together a new site, which we did at very, very minimal cost using some very neat new tools that are out there. . . . We were able to put together what I think is a pretty functional and useful site on a three-figure budget, where a site like this was a six-figure budget a few years ago. . . . It’s been a lot of overhauling the site, really rethinking what the company itself is and what we really need to do and how we can help our members the most.”

What will be done differently with the new UWIRE operation?

Weasel: “One of the challenges we had when we acquired this asset was that it was really designed to be a kind of destination.  And when you design something as a destination, there’s a lot of money in it, things like expanded servers. The Web site was really designed to be a place for journalism students to use it for social networking and a whole list of things that never happened and never were going to happen. . . . What Tom has done is gone back to the fundamentals of working on a site that provides content to its members first and create feeds for the members and reestablish with a couple vendors. . . . In the previous operation, what we were ultimately doing was moving UWIRE around to make the marketplace accept it more and more. And what we will be doing now is making sure the schools are getting what they need first. You know, do they need a UWIRE 100? . . . If they do, let’s make it actually mean something and make it something that actually is usable by the schools and that everybody understands what the purpose is.”

Orr: “The biggest thing is that the whole business has been restructured. We’ve gone from a high full-time and part-time headcount to a much lower number. We’ve gone from having to pay monthly license fees for the CMS, for a jobs board, for other functions on the site and thousands of dollars per month in server costs, and we’ve got those down to basically nothing. . . . We have no license fees on our site now. Our server costs have gone from four figures to two figures. The whole reason the lights went out before was financial. The income simply didn’t match the expenses. We’ve now got it to the point where the expenses are extremely, extremely low. . . . The model has changed really dramatically to the point where looking at the month-to-month balance sheets it’s like a completely different company.”

Why relaunch now?

Orr: “It’s a little bit about the amount of time it took getting the site ready. It’s a little bit making sure that some of our old obligations had all been taken care of [including paying former student writers and editors for their work]. We didn’t want to relaunch and have people saying, ‘Hey, you still haven’t taken care of something from last fall.’ We wanted to make sure we had all our ducks in a row and everyone had received what they needed to receive for work that had been done before. We wanted to make sure everyone had been made whole from what had been done before we kind of turned the page. That was one of the big delays. Once we were finally in a position to do that the construction of the site was wrapping up and now in a place where we are pretty much able to launch.”

How will the new site look?

Orr: “For the most part, it will be a fairly similar look, a fairly similar layout. It will look a little different just because we’re working on a different platform now. But we’re still looking for the same type of content and have the same ultimate goal of finding content that will help serve our members and help fill pages in their print editions and all that. It’s the same product in a different package– substantially the same.”

Why is UWIRE still relevant as a wire service and student journalism hub?

Orr: “For members, UWIRE is a fantastic resource in terms of having access to basically free content from across the country. And it’s not just free content, but free content that’s been run through by writers and editors at another paper, that’s been run through and approved by an editor at UWIRE, and that’s really targeted demographically for their audience. It’s not just AP copy that’s sort of written as much for a 65-year-old sitting at the breakfast table reading the paper as a college student. This is stuff that made the paper initially because it’s important to college students. . . . As far as cost goes, UWIRE is free. The Associated Press isn’t. I think we all know that this is not a real good time budget-wise for anyone in media. I think that the free element of it plays a real role for a lot of people.”

Weasel: “Schools need to have a really good understanding that the model for the future of journalism must be explored. . . . The future of where we take and how we distribute and how we handle editorially-sound information, that’s still a moving target right now. . . . I don’t know anywhere in journalism where it’s all kind of figured out right now. We all need to be part of the exploration. . . . The truth is journalism is in trouble. We have to hunker together and figure out what it’s going to look like. It’s not going away.”

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