Adviser on Student Paper’s Online-Only Shift: ‘It’s Been a Roller-Coaster, Mostly Good, So Far’

At the start of this past semester, The Columns at Missouri’s Westminster College reintroduced itself to readers as an online-only news outlet.

As I previously posted, the longtime student newspaper was forced to cut its regular print edition — and staff pay — due to a larger budget crunch impacting the student government and numerous campus groups at the liberal arts school. Columns adviser and Westminster English & Journalism professor Maureen Tuthill told local press last spring, “SGA’s budget was cut massively, and they’re dealing with some difficult situations, which we completely sympathize with. We’re just trying to figure out a way to stay alive.”

Its news-gathering operations have now been alive solely online for more than three months. How has the Columns 2.0 experience been going so far?

Given the massive print reductions and digital tinkering taking place throughout collegemediatopia, it’s a very pertinent question. Fortunately, Tuthill was kind enough to weigh in recently with some appreciably candid thoughts.

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For those pondering or planning a print-free existence of their own, here are some of the main lessons I gleaned from her rundown: An online-only outlet costs less to run. It is focused, at times incessantly, on the NOW. It requires lots of consideration and potential changes beyond just the type and timing of editorial work — social media, advertising, news production routines, etc. And it can be freeing, literally and metaphorically.

Here’s Tuthill’s take:

“Going online is definitely cheaper, but we have had to reshape our entire news cycle (we used to be a monthly). That has been challenging. We seem to have become a weekly, even though we never planned it that way. There is more pressure to produce fresh articles, which is good. We are paying more attention to what our readers will be interested in, what will draw them to the site. The visual component of our news delivery has also improved dramatically because it seems absolutely crucial to have an image for each story. And now that space is not a concern, we are starting to get creative with multiple photos in the layout.

“It gives us news ways to tell a story, too. For instance, the Veterans Day panel is reported in a slide show, which was a more casual yet effective way to convey the mood and experience of the event. We’d like to do more of that.

“I think that students who work for The Columns are also starting to feel a sense of obligation to produce quality news after getting real-time feedback for their work. There’s a sense of immediacy that we didn’t have with the print edition. We are still developing the social media component that will make sure people ‘see’ us. We haven’t figured that one out yet, but we’re working on it. We are also trying to build a more methodical process for producing longer, investigative pieces.

My hope is that, by the end of the year, we will have several of those in place. Video and longform storytelling are next on the horizon. When we have the form and content fairly established, we will look at advertising. There are only so many things we can tackle at once.

It’s been a roller-coaster, but mostly good, so far. I still miss the print edition, though.

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