Student Newspaper National Championship, Sweet 16 Special: Top Editors Weigh In!

Snapchat. The JFK assassination. Crowdfunding. Racial microaggressions. A #BestintheWest social media campaign. Wildcat Weekend. The Daily Cardinal Action Project. An on-campus barbershop. Marijuana legalization. A professor arrested for prostitution. An Oreo ice cream cake. Bikinis. A trampoline. A cigar. Blake Lively. And a microwave.

These are a few of the many random elements weaved into the editorial and new media successes of the student newspapers below over the past few semesters. Each of the papers operates at a school whose men’s hoops squad qualified for the Sweet Sixteen, starting later today.

I asked the top editors at the papers to sell me — half serious, half tongue-in-cheek (if they’d like) — on why their outlets deserve a spot in the Final Four of what I’m dubbing the CMM 2014 Student Newspaper National Championship.

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Their focus was not on head-to-head match-ups or dissing other papers, but instead simply presenting some facts, achievements and behind-the-scenes anecdotes built around what makes their own paper terrifically-wonderfulicious-awesometastic-first-rate.

Here are the pitches from each EIC who responded, laid out in alphabetical order by paper name. (Stanford Daily and Dayton Flyer News eds., I tried reaching you, believe me. If someone still wants to contribute, I’m game)

P.S. I know this looks long on spec. But I have to say, as a college media geek, this is absolutely worth a read.

The Badger Herald, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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By Katherine Krueger, editor-in-chief

The Badger Herald was founded at a college bar as an experiment. When we moved to twice-weekly print editions and built dedicated staffing structures to focus on our print and digital products this past fall, it wasn’t the first time we had changed our model for making the news. We come from a long line of student journalists who weren’t afraid to try new things, push boundaries and learn by breaking things.

Today we’re innovating how we engage with students where they are — both online and in print. We’ve played with strategies to engage with our readers across more channels, including encouraging students to Snapchat us, getting videographers to hit the pavement to talk to Badgers and pushing short, quick-hit content for students to read throughout the day. Our readers want award-winning investigative pieces packaged alongside photo stories and listicles, a trend we’re embracing.

Through it all, we’ve maintained complete editorial independence. We don’t get office space from the university, faculty oversight or any funding in the form of student fees. As journalists continue to reinvent and redefine our field, we’ll be ready: Experimentation is the way the Herald does business.

The Baylor Lariat, Baylor University

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By Greg DeVries, editor-in-chief

Day after day, 24 brave, stressed and exhausted Baylor Lariat staff members trek into the newsroom to produce what has been named the best student newspaper in Texas five of the last six years. Despite our small staff, we have been able to produce quality work that beats out the big boys in our state.

This past semester, we ran a special issue for the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. Our stories included an interview with the last living doctor that operated on Kennedy, and our decision to run the front page of the day of the assassination earned compliments from people that experienced the event for themselves.

About a year ago, our neighbors in West, Texas were devastated by a fertilizer plant explosion that killed 15 people, including 12 first-responders. Our coverage rivaled that of the professionals. The tragedy gave us the opportunity to test our skills when it mattered most, and everyone from writers to videographers excelled in the clutch. We were the only news outlet, student or professional, with access to the powerful and moving eulogies played at the memorial service.

In Texas, football is king, and bowl season is the epicenter of the sports universe. Baylor earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, and we knocked our coverage out of the park. Baylor Nation couldn’t get enough of The Lariat’s content. From our videos to our feature stories, readers could get the full Fiesta Bowl experience even if they stayed in Waco.

Multimedia skills are becoming more and more important in our industry. Despite our multimedia section’s youth, our Don’t Feed the Bears podcast has earned, state, national and international awards for its entertainment value.

The Cavalier Daily, University of Virginia

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By Rebecca Lim, editor-in-chief

The Cavalier Daily, founded in 1890, is The University of Virginia’s independent, student-run newspaper and Virginia’s oldest collegiate daily. But don’t be fooled — just because we turn 125 years old next year does not mean we are not a thoroughly modern news organization. We have taken full advantage of today’s digital media world and harnessed every modern medium for distribution: a professional-grade website, a daily e-newsletter, an active social media presence, a mobile app, an online print edition and a paper print edition. We’ve also newly launched a video journalism section.

By the numbers, our website averaged 260,000 page views last month and more than 83,000 unique visitors. We have more than 10,200 Twitter followers. We currently have approximately 1,000 mobile app downloads and 1,540 e-newsletter subscriptions  — not bad for services that launched less than a year ago, and for a university with less than 15,000 undergraduates! And the numbers are increasing daily. We manage all this while maintaining 100 percent financial independence and responsibility for our business’ survival. It is undoubtedly difficult to stay afloat when print advertising revenue is on a steep decline, but we’ve come up with innovative ways to face this challenge. We recently completed a successful online crowdfunding campaign to raise $8,000 to buy new distribution boxes for our print edition.

Business aside, we haven’t lost our commitment to delivering high-quality, hard-hitting news. In addition to our daily news coverage that covers topics ranging from hazing in fraternities, racial micro-aggressions and local politics, we were nationally recognized for our reporting on the Board of Visitors’ ousting of U.Va. President Teresa Sullivan. Several members of our staff annually win awards from the Virginia Press Association, which pits us against professional media organizations all over the state.

Our articles have been picked up by Business Insider, Google News and The Huffington Post. I could go on and on, but I’ll end it with this: Although we were initially predicted to lose to George Washington University’s The Hatchet in the original College Media Matters bracket [note from Dan: (awkward silence) yeah, sorry ’bout that] we’ve proved that, much like our basketball team, we are severely underrated and a true force to be reckoned with.

The Daily Aztec, San Diego State University

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By Leonardo Castaneda, editor-in-chief

The Daily Aztec is celebrating its 100th birthday this year, facing straight forward. Taking on the same challenges that are plaguing newspapers throughout the nation, we became an online-first media organization with a twice-weekly newspaper product. This year has also been huge for our campus, and we’ve been there every step of the way. When we opened our new $110+ million student union we created a 48-page commemorative magazine. This has also been a year of firsts and growth for us: Our first mobile app, our first Spanish section and a social media campaign called #BestintheWest that has been key to growing our Facebook page by almost 60 percent this year alone.

Of course, we pride ourselves on our campus coverage. When a controversial new “Student Success Fee” that has been popping up in several universities around California was proposed and eventually passed at SDSU, we covered it in a way that has been praised by student protesters and administrators alike. We also covered one of the hardest stories for any student journalist, the death of a fellow Aztec earlier this semester. And our opinion column about a student government campaign video featuring women in bikinis, a trampoline and cigars received national attention. Just yesterday, we were named NerdScholar’s favorite student-run newspaper for Best Community Reporting.

The Daily Beacon, University of Tennessee

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By R.J. Vogt, editor-in-chief

The Daily Beacon is having a bit of a Renaissance this year. After our long-time adviser and director of student publications retired last April, we’ve experienced more responsibility and freedom than ever before. I call it ‘throwing a party with no parents at home’ — if we break something, we’re done for, but in the meantime we can try things we never have before.

So far, the party’s been a blast. We overhauled our website design for the first time in three years (mobile friendly, huzzah!) and have begun to look into more professional web developers for the future. The change has proven beneficial so far, with 11 of our top 17 most read columns coming since the redesign.

Our most viral columns have been: a column about Blake Lively and girls at UT; a column about UT’s double standard on drinking; a column about a college girl’s night-out conundrum; and a column defending UT’s right to Sex Week. Our most viral stories have been: a piece about a robbery at our Student Union (won us First Place at the Tennessee AP Media Editors for “Best Spot Coverage”); a story on a feud between our band director and administration; a sports story on a vital Memphis-UT pipeline for our men’s bball team (won us First Place at the Tennessee AP Media Editors for “Best Sports Feature”); an arts and culture story about a Switchfoot concert at a local venue; and a profile of a Truman scholar who created a viral YouTube channel.

Our social media is expanding rapidly. We’ve increased our Twitter following by 50 percent and created a Spotify, Storify, Instagram and LinkedIn alumni group. Though we’re still figuring out our social media strategy, it’s been exciting to tackle the new wave of social movements head on.

We’ve done a for and against opinions page on Obamacare; created a graphic design position for the first time in years; covered UT’s seventh-ever Rhodes Scholar; one shooting and one party that left a lot of football players in trouble. Look around on our website for our Sex Week coverage too. It’s not every paper that gets to report on its own students getting condemned.

And the best part is that we’ve done it all without adult supervision. We’ve figured this out together and accomplished these issues as a team.

Oh, and we got a new microwave.

The Daily Bruin, UCLA

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By Jillian Beck, editor-in-chief

The Daily Bruin staff has spent this year focusing on punching up our content online, in mobile as well as in print. With three mobile apps that have seen growing downloads — Bruin Football, Bruin Basketball and UCLA Daily Bruin — we’ve been focusing on bringing content to where our readers are (mostly on their smartphones). The Daily Bruin’s Bridget O’Brien Foundation sent a reporter and photographer to Malawi to report on the challenges the LGBT community faces in a country where it is illegal to be gay. Our Sports section has put out compelling features and overloaded readers with top-notch football and basketball coverage. Our Flavors of Westwood feature gives a snapshot into the area’s dining options.

Recently, the Daily Bruin took home first place for best all-around newspaper and best newspaper design at the California College Media Association awards. Even in the face of dwindling print revenue and the loss of our adviser, The Bruin has consistently produced excellent journalism.

The Daily Campus, University of Connecticut

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By Kimberly Wilson, editor-in-chief

The Daily Campus has been covering March Madness firsthand, utilizing our print, website and social media for immersive material on all things basketball. Through careful financial budgeting, we’ve been able to send writers and photographers to the games, providing real-time updates and giving the readers a truly close look. We’ve published two special jacket issues for which we’ve been able to produce extra ad revenue, and our sports editors have been working around the clock to organize their staff to provide the best possible coverage. We’ve been providing high-caliber coverage of a team worthy of making it to the Sweet Sixteen, and we’ll be continuing to cover the madness.

The Daily Cardinal, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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By Abigail Becker, editor-in-chief

The Daily Cardinal is an almost 122-year-old campus mainstay that has provided independent and complete campus news coverage since 1892. As a completely student-run and independent newspaper, the Cardinal fosters a learning environment for aspiring journalists, photographers, designers, business leaders and a host of other careers.

At the Cardinal, we are focused on both producing web content first and creating a high-quality print newspaper four days a week. We uphold high standards for all our content and provide a print and online product our readers enjoy daily. Our reporters strive to put out the most accurate information as quickly as possible on social media and our website, while also writing for readers who enjoy a print newspaper each morning.

This year at the Cardinal, we have started a new series called The Daily Cardinal Action Project. The series consists of three issues dedicated to investigating under-reported issues facing the UW-Madison campus community. The first installment of the Action Project focused on exploring the university’s campus climate and providing a forum for the student body to contribute their input. The second edition of the Action Project will take a 360-degree look at what a college degree means and the third will tackle sustainability issues. We believe this series has the potential to start conversations and affect change. Additionally, it provides the Cardinal staff an opportunity to delve into larger topics and shed light on under-reported topics.

The Daily Cardinal is a newspaper that values its historical significance while also constantly evolving to remain on the cutting-edge of student journalism.

The Daily Wildcat, University of Arizona

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By Sarah Precup, editor-in-chief

I’m proud to say the Daily Wildcat is a finalist for Best All-Around Daily Student Newspaper in the 2013 Society of Professional Journalists’ regional Mark of Excellence contest. In addition to producing print issues five days a week, we also update our Pacemaker-winning website daily and offer a Daily Wildcat app for Apple and Android products so students can keep up with the news no matter where they are.

We also recently made the decision to redesign our Friday edition of the paper as Wildcat Weekend, an artsy tabloid-format issue that’s boosted ad sales and readership. People may talk about the decline of the student newspaper, but when I think of the 115-year history of our paper, our alumni and most of all the hundred-plus student employees who put their time and passion into the Daily Wildcat every day, I know it is very much alive.

The Independent Florida Alligator, University of Florida

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By Julia Glum, editor-in-chief

The Independent Florida Alligator is the country’s largest student-run newspaper, but we totally stopped our staff meeting last week to eat an Oreo ice cream cake. The Alligator prints five times a week and breaks news at all hours on social media. We just launched an app that allows us to push out notifications like CNN does — cool, huh?

We do great journalism in our old-frat-house office — like covering murdersplane crashes and cold cases — but we have a lot of fun. We’ve made a Harlem Shake videoUF-themed valentines and even a Star Wars-style wrap for March Madness.

The Alligator’s fearless leader is editor-in-chief Julia Glum, who can usually be found stomping around the newsroom, Coke Icee in hand. Editors, reporters, photographers and online staff collaborate on everything from breaking news to punny headlines. Our success relies on teamwork — you’ll never hear “that’s not my job” in the newsroom, because everyone does everything. The Alligator works because its staff strives toward a common goal: Every night, we want to create a paper we’re proud of. And we always do.

The Iowa State Daily, Iowa State University

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By Katelynn McCollough, editor-in-chief

This year the Iowa State Daily has focused on increasing our readership and quality of content throughout all of our platforms, not just within print. The 2010-2011 school year at the Daily had 1,489,945 page views with an average time of 1:30 spent viewing the story. So far this year, we have had 3,435,475 page views and have increased the average time a reader spends on a story to 6:18. We began our school year with around 6,000 Facebook followers, a number that has since grown to 11,690. We have also recently broken 10,000 followers on Twitter.

Between the first week of the 2012-2013 school year to the week of Feb. 12, 2014, our weekly number of videos has gone from an average of less than one video per week to nine per week. I feel confident in saying that the increase on our digital platforms, especially the amount of time readers are spending on a story, is directly related to the time and effort that is being put into creating quality content.

The Daily started the year being named a Pacemaker finalist by the College Media Association. The staff of the Daily was put to the test in the first semester when in one week they accurately covered a coach leaving their position, city elections, a campus shooting involving an officer that resulted in the death of a 19-year-old man and a professor getting arrested for prostitution.

This semester, before reaching the NCAA tournament, the Iowa State men’s basketball team won the Big 12 Championship. Unfortunately, this took place at the start of Spring Break, so the Daily was not printing during that week. However, we created an online only PDF special edition for our readers. Since we were on break, the section was put together in five different cities. Our reporters and photographer (Alex Halsted, Dean Berhow-Goll and Kelby Wingert) were in Kansas City covering the game, our copy editors (Madison Martin and Laura Webber) were both in their home towns, I was in Ames with our photo editor, Brian Achenbach, and we had one designer, Sarah Neighbour, who completed the entire section on her own with her laptop in her hometown. It was a challenge to work together over such large distances, but the results were worth it.

The Kentucky Kernel, University of Kentucky

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By Rachel Aretakis, editor-in-chief

The Kentucky Kernel is the independent, student-run newspaper at the University of Kentucky. It is the only daily student paper in the state with the first to have a Smartphone application. The Kernel covers campus, Lexington and some state issues, and it is one of the leading news sources for UK football and basketball, two teams that are heavily covered in the region. Recently, Kernel staffers have been working on long-term projects, such as one following the medical and recreational marijuana legalization movement in the state.

The Louisville Cardinal, Louisville University

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By Simon Isham, editor-in-chief

The Cardinal’s website traffic traditionally has two major traffic spikes per year. Last year, it was due to our NCAA Championship win (which will hopefully happen again!), but this year, our peak occurred with the release of an article about accusations of sex and race discrimination and financial mismanagement in the IT department. The article caused quite a stir on campus, leading to a reorganization of the department just this past week.

Our Crime and Finance Issues — new this year — were really the Cardinal’s first foray into data journalism and visualization, but they both had excellent circulation and really big reactions from our readers. We plan to do much more of this in the future, and to begin including interactives on our website, Louisvillecardinal.com.

Speaking of our newly redesigned, mobile-responsive website, I know you recently ranked it one of the best college newspaper websites in the country — thanks! — and we’re still really excited about it. We’re so happy with the way it looks, and so were the judges at the most recent Kentucky Press Association conference. Since then, we’ve started posting at least once daily. This is the first time the Cardinal has adopted a motto of “digital first,” and we are not looking back.

Finally, I think that, just in general, the Cardinal’s aesthetic is much better than it has been since about 2008 (we switched from broadsheet to tabloid size about that time). We’ve really started using the kind of big splashy images that show off our excellent photographers and designers.

The Michigan Daily, University of Michigan

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By Peter Shahin, editor-in-chief

The Michigan Daily has continued its long history of independent, completely student-run and high-quality journalism this semester. In January, the Daily broke the story that a University of Michigan football player was “permanently separated” from the University in December 2013 for an incident that occurred years prior. The story was picked up by news organizations nationwide, was on ESPN and was the lead story on at least one Detroit TV station. We had by far the highest page-views in our history.

Despite not having a journalism school or faculty adviser of any sort, the Daily’s coverage has shown to be true. Our articles and high quality editorials sparked a campus conversation on how the University responds to sexual misconduct allegations, lead to an investigation by the student government and the Department of Education is now looking for possible Title IX violations.

When the next president of the University of Michigan was announced, the Daily was the first organization to share his photo and in our next issue we had over 15 articles concerning everything from his research to his relationship with athletics. Our coverage of the transition continued with a 3,000 word profile that looks at the challenges he faces at his previous institution.

While print revenues continue to suffer throughout the industry, the Daily has continued to invest in online resources and alternative revenue streams. Our video and social media staffs have both quickly expanded this semester and views have grown substantially in both areas. Our marketing team has also started working with campus organization to sponsor their events to increase our name presence. Recently, the Daily has also begun to organize our own events on prominent campus issues. We foresee this as a revenue generator in the future.

Finally, the Daily has had a banner year for placing its senior members at high profile newspapers. Three Michigan Daily staff writers, two from Sports and one from News, are set to begin at the Los Angeles Times this summer. Another News staffer is headed to the Wall Street Journal. Countless others will be working at smaller publications throughout the country this summer, including the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Reader and Hollywood Reporter.

The State News, Michigan State University

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By Ian Kullgren, editor-in-chief

There’s a motto we live by at The State News: You can be the first one to do something first, or the last one to do something the way it’s been done. That applies to everything we do — online interactives, web-first reporting and finding fresh story angles.

We’ve had a lot of firsts in our 105-year history. In the 1950s, The State News’ Ron Linton was the first college newspaper editor to write an editorial criticizing Sen. Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. A decade later, Michigan State became one of the first universities in the country to integrate black students. We were watching closely, using the power of the press to expose discrimination. In one instance, we reported the on-campus barbershop was turning away black students — President John Hannah marched over there the next day and personally demanded they hire a black barber.

Obviously this business has changed quite a bit since then, but our principles remain same. Now, we’re innovating ways to bring engaging online stories to readers in East Lansing and across the country. SN Works, The State News’ team of web developers, hosts content management systems and websites for roughly two dozen of the nation’s best college newspapers, including the Daily Tar Heel and Indiana Daily Student.

We’re leading the way with long-form interactives. Recently, we’ve examined the culture of MSU’s most infamous neighborhood and told the tale of Women’s basketball’s biggest fan. Our goal is to make long-form storytelling more fluid, integrating photo and video to create an immersive experience. You see, we don’t want to be seen just as a newspaper — we’re aiming to become an all-platform news service along the lines of ESPN and Politico. Because our identity shouldn’t be tied to how we deliver the news. We need to be delivering news in the form that best tells the story. We need to go where our readers are — from newsstands to smartphones.

This past December, massive riots broke out following the Big Ten Championship. Our team of reporters on the scene did web updates with photo and video. Readers responded — the next day became the fourth-most-read day in State News history with about 50,000 UPVs. And last month we uncovered a federal investigation into MSU’s handling of sexual assault allegations, tied to a 2010 incident involving two basketball players.

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