5 Early Lessons from the Oregon Daily Emerald’s Digital Reinvention

The web address: future.dailyemerald.com. The one-word header atop the homepage: Revolution. And the tagline just beneath it: “The Oregon Daily Emerald, reinvented for the digital age.”

The student newspaper at the University of Oregon– best known for its five-day-a-week print edition– is morphing into a more wide-ranging, digital-first “modern college media company.” On a special site that went live last week, publisher Ryan Frank and top editors outlined a number of major new initiatives that will be rolled out in full force this fall.

Among them: a print issue that will appear twice per week, with new size, design, and content specs; the creation of an in-house tech startup and a separate marketing and event services team; and a ramp-up in “real-time news, community engagement, photo galleries, and videos on the web and social media.”

As Frank shared in a recent MediaShift post, “We’re about to close the book on the Oregon Daily Emerald. After 92 years, the University of Oregon’s newspaper will end its run as a Monday-to-Friday operation in June. Yes, it’s the end of an era, and we’re sad about that. But it’s also the start of a new era, the digital one.”

To be clear, this is a big announcement within college media. The Emerald is the second high-profile student newspaper to dramatically reinvent itself this academic year, following in the digital-first footsteps of The Red & Black at the University of Georgia.

The Emerald’s self-declared revolution is not borne from financial despair. There have been some down years in the last decade, cost-cutting, and grimaced glances at an uncertain future. But, as Frank told me, “This will be our best year financially since the year 2000. We don’t have any debt. We have a healthy reserve fund. We could have continued operating as a five-day-a-week newspaper and been fine for a period of time. . . . But we really wanted to stop and ask, ‘Is there a better model out there that’s completely different from anything that’s been done before?’ That was our mindset. That’s what we set out to try to create.”

Even in its nascent stage, the Emerald’s creation should serve as an instructional, inspirational model for other professional and student news outlets seeking to reinvent, truly reinvent, in the digital age.

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1) Innovate Now, for the Right Reasons. Frank and the outlet’s top student staffers wisely worked to transform the Emerald on their own terms. Instead of “buckling under the pressure of advancing technology and retreating readership,” as the Emerald’s site says, student editors acted off instinct– about what their student peers want in a media outlet, where the industry they love is heading, and why breaking from 90 years of tradition will better the Emerald as a whole. As a narrator shares at the close of a teaser video explaining the outlet’s transformation, “We’re proud of our history, but it’s time for a revolution.”

The revolution did not happen smoothly or overnight. Frank and the students gave themselves plenty of time to figure out each facet of the Emerald’s new face. They slowly molded what is now the Emerald Media Group beginning last October, in part by utilizing related research, case studies, and expert advice. “We’ve been talking and debating and arguing,” editor-in-chief Andy Rossback said. “This has been an exhausting, exhaustive process.”

Most importantly, it was also an open process. The right way to carry out this type of reinvention is to gather input from as many camps as possible– staffers at all levels, related advisers and professors, student readers, the overseeing board, and alums of your outlet now working in the industry. Don’t invite sheer chaos, but embrace competing views and outsider perspectives.

The day after the Emerald’s announcement, the New Orleans Times-Picayune unveiled a similar print cutback and online push. Yet, there was a big difference between how the two changes were handled. At the Times-Picayune, only top executives had a say, spurring immediate staff and citywide confusion and resentment once news of the plan was leaked.

By comparison, the Emerald crew patiently built the foundation for the outlet’s next step atop feedback from everyone, specifically ensuring staffers in all areas and at all levels weighed in on how their roles might be best redefined. The result: a smooth initial rollout and an excited news team.

To read the rest, click here or on the screenshot below.

2 Responses to “5 Early Lessons from the Oregon Daily Emerald’s Digital Reinvention”
  1. Michael Westendorf says:

    I love what the Emerald is doing and how they’re going about doing it, my only refrain so far would be with this passage from the publisher:

    “We met face-to-face with about 100 students and laid down a few copies of the Emerald next to a few local alternative weeklies. Then we asked, “For the typical college student, which of these formats would compel them to stop at a box and grab the paper?” Students who work on our staff or in student politics tended to favor the traditional format. But the other 90 percent pointed to the alt-weekly.”

    What about the other half of the newspaper’s audience, the faculty and administration? They might concur, I just wouldn’t want to see them overlooked. Campus newspapers should keep in mind that just because the newspaper might be student-run, it isn’t just student-read. Faculty members and administrators, especially at large institutions, are reading the campus newspaper just as much as (and often, more than) the students.

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