Advantages, Disadvantages to Student Media Digital Experimentation: My Response to Steve Buttry Report

College media outlets need to start experimenting with digital storytelling more often, more comprehensively, and more boldly, according to Steve Buttry.  In a new post for Nieman Journalism Lab, the news innovation guru (whose perspectives I’m really starting to enjoy) contends “student media have advantages that professional media don’t in experimenting in their pursuit of digital-first prosperity.”

He is absolutely right, although the reasons he lays out all have roadblocks, counterpoints, and undermining truths worth noting.

Below is Buttry’s complete list of cited advantages, along with my instant analysis of their validity— including the realities and disadvantages that need to be recognized.

  • Some student media . . . receive funding from non-market sources, such as subsidies from student fees or university budgets.”  (Yes, very true.  This funding though in many cases is attached to directed-allocation requirements, which probably do not allow for a ton to be spent on digital/interactive/website rebranding awesomeness.  It also may come with official or unofficial strings related to the continual publishing of a print product.  Not insurmountable obstacles of course, but ones that would require lots of meetings and end-of-year budget negotiations.)

  • Student media don’t have the high wage and salary structures of professional media.”  (Great point.  But a vast majority also do not have big budgets.  The little bit the students make through editor stipends and minimum-wage staff pay cuts into finances very, very prominently.)

  • Staff members move on naturally, so restructuring between semesters or school years is easier.”  (I disagree here.  First, student media restructuring needs to include input from students.  And students are not around between semesters or school years.  Second, the constant staff turnover within college media, ironically, negates mass change in some cases.  Students are inclined to fit into the system, keep it running, and hand it off.  Being involved in a major restructuring on top of all that is not what they sign on for when stepping up to run or write for the campus paper.  Should advisers motivate them to do it anyway?  ABSOLUTELY.)

  • Student media shut down or slow down for summer and holiday breaks, giving convenient times for making huge changes.”  (Very true. But these shutdown periods make a prominent digital-first existence scary as well as empowering.  The vast majority of student media are run by tiny staffs who work only during fall and spring.  Yet, a major web presence naturally screams for year-round updating.  As someone who visits way too many campus media websites every day, I can fully attest: Most student news teams have not yet figured out how to produce fresh content during the summer and winter breaks.  Is a dead site four months of the year OK with a digital-first operation?)

  • Student media generally don’t have their own printing operations and their related costs.”  (Agree 110 percent.  This is the biggest advantage, in my opinion.  Cut out or significantly cut back the outsourced printing costs and you can then free up money for digital wants and needs.  The key: getting your funding source i.e. clueless university administrators to recognize that printing cutbacks do not mean they should simply give you less money.)

  • Since most campus newspapers are free, student media leaders don’t get sidetracked by discussions of digital paywalls.”  (OK, but for how long?  Already dozens of high-profile student newspapers are asking directly for cash via pop-up ads or permanently-implanted donation boxes on their homepages.  Bottom line: Money matters are a factor, however small, within students’ digital mindsets.  Do I think mass adoption of digital paywalls will happen within college media?  No.  Is it a possibility though?  Yes.)

  • If advertisers in student media want to reach the student audience, they should embrace the opportunity to advertise in student products geared for the digital audience, where students spend more time.”  (I shrugged when I read this one.  I’ve seen no reports indicating student media are making any real profit through digital advertising.  Many student papers boast few, if any, online ads.  Can a digital-first push help increase those numbers? Sure. Can that increase make up for the loss of ad revenue from a decreased print product?  Less likely, at least in the foreseeable future.)

  • If advertisers just want to support the student venture, they can do that as effectively on digital media (and student sales reps can also sell the feel-good value of helping student media develop a successful model for the future).”  (See above.  Yes, they may want to support students’ digital ventures.  But they undoubtedly also want eyeballs.  And print still has more of them on college campuses.)

  • A weekly or twice-weekly product can serve advertisers insistent on being in print.”  (True.  But this is a daily-centric argument.  Most student newspapers are weekly already.  Is a cutback to monthly a viable option?  I personally think so.  Others may disagree.)

All of Buttry’s mostly excellent points aside, there is one last ginormous X-factor that still looms as a major impediment to mass digital experimentation among student media.  People still love reading campus newspapers in print.  Journalism wunderkind Dan Kennedy: “I’ve found that the student newspaper folks like print even more than us old farts.  [The college campus] the last place on earth where the print model still works: free distribution in convenient locations to a largely captive audience. I’ve encouraged several editors at least to think about what it would be like to drop print altogether, but I can’t say I’ve made any progress.”


Yes, Students Still Read the Campus Paper in Print. I Repeat, Students Still Read the Campus Paper in Print…

8 Responses to “Advantages, Disadvantages to Student Media Digital Experimentation: My Response to Steve Buttry Report”
  1. Steve Buttry says:

    Thanks for engaging, Dan. I may address this in more detail in my blog. But my quick answer to your first nine points is that I didn’t say that a transition to digital-first would be easy for student media, just that they are better positioned than professional media to make that change. As for your “ginormous X-factor,” I don’t buy that. I’ve seen too many free-newspaper racks that were still full of newspapers in the evening. And I’ve seen too many students sitting around student lounges and dining centers looking into their smartphones. Yes, they still glance at the paper because it’s free, but student media need to live more fully where their students live. The premise of my Nieman post was absolutely right: Students live digital-first lives and student media need to make the digital-first transformation as swiftly as they can.

    • Dan says:

      Steve- Thanks so much. Truly loved your write-up. Jim labeled it a debate, but I think we’re pretty much in lock-step here. Just to be clear, the the print popularity factor is not a personal perspective– something embedded in related studies, recent pro press coverage, and many adviser/j-prof anecdotes. Do I have doubts about all of that, for various reasons, as you seem to? Yes. I may write about this soon. Dan

  2. Bill Norton says:

    I’m not opposed to digital first. But I’m confused about when and how to teach it? What and how much digital media do we introduce in a basic news writing class? Do we need to set aside or create classes in which we focus on teaching the technology of digital first? I would love to assemble a proposal to take to our dean and say, “We need xx weeks/months to get up to speed on this or that digital application.” (We created a class at Bethel, borrowing/stealing (with permission) from Dan Kennedy’s class at Northeastern. (We’re now modifying it thanks to Rachele Kanigel) But should we be teaching digital in ALL classes? Feature writing? Editorial writing? If we show students that they use digital to find news first, that’s fine. But we find that we need to teach news literacy: what is news, where to find it, how report it, how assemble it for publication. We find they need to learn to “read” news. I wonder if there is such a thing as throwing too much at beginning reporting students. Another question I have: how digital-news proficient do editors expect new hires to be?

    • How do you “teach” digital?

      You just do it. Everyone does it. Twitter isn’t something you can easily teach in a class, it’s something that just becomes a force of habit, a way of sharing, talking about and disseminating information. WordPress you can, perhaps, teach in a class, but most major newspapers use some funky backend. There is the whole photo/video/audio thing, but I personally think those are separate skills that need substantial amounts of time devoted towards them to be successful.

      If you’re going to teach digital, don’t treat it as something separate. That’s like teaching a photographer film nowadays and then saying “Oh, and by the way, here’s this whole digital thing you have to do”.

      Student newspapers should just be web-first regardless, they can also be dailies, those two goals are not separate. Print advertising still needs to subsidize digital, regardless of how you look at it. Until advertisers start to pony up for space on sites, there will be no real revenue.

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