Student Media Map Reveals Roughly 20% of College Newspapers Update Daily Online

In an era of print cutbacks and converged newsrooms within collegemediatopia, Bobby Blanchard has been curious about a single, increasingly significant question: How many student newspapers are actually publishing fresh content daily online?

He is seeking to answer that question with Student Media Map. Premiering today, the data visualization project displays how often student papers at all U.S. public colleges and universities update their websites.

According to the map, only 21 percent — or about one-fifth — of all eligible campus newspapers nationwide sport new material at least five days a week. Interesting.

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In the brief Q&A below, Blanchard, a student journalist extraordinaire at the University of Texas at Austin, explains the motivation behind his Student Media Map. He also offers his take on the relatively low percentage of college papers posting fresh content on their sites each day.

What compelled you to put the map together?

I first had the idea for something like this about two years ago when The Daily Texan was under threat of losing part of its print schedule. In the conversation was the promise that the Daily Texan would remain “daily” online, no matter what, and that made me wonder how many student newspapers really kept an online daily schedule. Though the Texan’s print schedule was not cut, the thought still intrigued me.

I stuck the thought in the back of my mind for about a year, until last year spring, when the Texas Student Media’s budget was set to be discussed again. While the situation was not as dramatic and the Daily Texan’s print schedule was still not cut, I ended up doing a small project with another student for a data visualization class. For the project, we manually looked at every single student newspaper at public universities just in Texas, to see what their update rates were. For that assignment, we manually checked every paper’s website. We found that a little less than a third of papers just in Texas updated their sites daily. That project finally prompted me to explore further.

I also wanted to show that journalism students can do this kind of work. I want to emphasize this wasn’t too complicated to build, and that any journalism student can do something like this. It takes 30 lines of code to loop through all the papers’ websites and count the number of papers updating daily. There’s a lot of other lines setting up the site, setting the style and doing other tasks, but the most complicated part is just 30 lines of code — or less than one page in a Microsoft Word Document.

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What do you think about the fact that less than a quarter of college newspapers at public schools nationwide are updating their online content daily?

It’s concerning. I’ve always viewed the purpose of student newspapers as two-fold. Part one is to serve a niche market as a community paper and part two is to provide a training ground for the next generation of journalists. If you don’t have regular daily content, it might be hard to achieve those goals — especially part two. I mean, we live in the year 2014. Professional media outlets that are successful have robust online presences and run nonstop. With that being said, I understand how updating a site five days a week might be unrealistic for students who are running a paper that is understaffed, aren’t paid and possibly not even trained. I also don’t want to perpetuate quantity over quality.

That’s why it’s important to break this number down and divide it into categories based off the school’s enrollment, which studentmediamap.com does on its “stats” page. There, you’ll see better numbers for large and mid-size schools. There is definitely still room for improvement, but larger schools do perform better and the numbers look healthier.

What I think is really great is this site is telling us where the success stories are. Take, for example, The Panther at Prairie View A&M University. About 8,500 students are enrolled at that school right now. That is about the size of your average graduating class at UT-Austin, which has an enrollment higher than 50,000. The Panther also only prints once a week. Yet, it still is uploading new content to its website everyday. There are plenty of other examples of small school newspapers that are keeping their websites fresh.

I just hope people don’t take this site as doom and gloom. I think there is a lot of gold to mine out of Student Media Map.

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College Media Geeks: Bobby Blanchard, journalism student, University of Texas

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