How Student Newspapers Can Survive (and Thrive) in the 21st Century

During his senior year at the University of Virginia, recent graduate Matthew Cameron put together a 136-page thesis on the current state of college newspapers.

Here it is, in seven words: Student papers are hurting, but there’s hope.

That’s summing it up– not selling it short. Cameron’s scholarly effort provides a fascinating glimpse into the big-picture challenges and opportunities college media face.

Matthew Cameron

Matthew Cameron

Along with historical background work, he conducted interviews and explored current newsroom operations at a number of top student-run newspapers, including The Red and Black at the University of Georgia, the Columbia Missourian at the University of Missouri, and The Daily Texan at the University of Texas at Austin.

Atop this outside research, he drew upon his firsthand experiences.

While at UVA, he was a dedicated staffer for The Cavalier Daily, the school’s 123-year-old student newspaper. Beginning in January 2012, he also oversaw its operations for a full year as editor-in-chief.

In a recent interview about his thesis, Cameron laid out three main suggestions informed by his research aimed at helping campus media adapt, survive, and thrive in the current press landscape — what he calls “the new news.”

“I think student newspapers will continue to serve their campus communities,” said Cameron, who will soon begin communications consulting work. “But there is a different way for them to fulfill their missions that is cost effective and sustainable for the 21st century.”

1. Less print, less pay

Cameron’s first suggestion: Student staffers must embrace a news production model less reliant on print and a pay model less reliant on, gulp, money.

In his words, “Student newspapers can do a lot more with different types of technologies and different ways of distributing their content that don’t entail the heavy costs associated with daily printing, delivery, and paying large numbers of staff people.”

In his view, student journalists need to adjust, at least temporarily, to the realities of the current climate. “Student staff shouldn’t expect the same compensation they did in the past,” he said. “You can do a lot with just using a website, social media, and a small staff of engaged reporters working to produce content — content that is then distributed in lower-cost ways than the traditional print-first model.”

Over the past few semesters, there have been public fights started by individuals at a number of high-profile universities aimed at keeping their schools’ student newspapers in print daily. One irony Cameron came across in his research: This “daily fight” in many cases was over long before it began.

“Papers today tend to think of their daily print presence as fundamental to their existence,” he said. “But on a lot of campuses, it hasn’t always been like that. For a majority of some papers’ existences, they actually haven’t been daily. During World War II, for example, plenty of papers cut back to printing once a week and continued to produce news for their campuses and fulfill their mission. During the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, it became financially feasible for some college newspapers to print five days a week. . . .  We’re seeing now that the economics have changed. At this point, daily printing is not necessarily the best way to reach the student audience and certainly not the most cost-effective way on a lot of campuses.”

To read the rest of the piece on PBS MediaShift, click here.

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