CMM Special Series: The Future of College Media (How Do We Get Students to Care More?) Part 5: ‘The Job I’m Training for Will Always Exist’

In a recent farewell column published on Quartz, outgoing Daily Tar Heel editor-in-chief Jenny Surane at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill wrote, “[I]t’s humbling to realize that the newspaper I spend so many hours working on isn’t really beloved by my peers in the same way. … My peers are interested in reading news, but they have no loyalties whatsoever about where it comes from. … Even some of my closest friends refused to pick up the newspaper I spent dozens of hours on each week.”

Her sentiments have been echoed in recent semesters by many students and educators connected to college media. Audience engagement is of course always an issue when undergraduates are involved. But the challenge of getting students to regularly check out their campus news outlets is exponentially increasing in an era cluttered with evermore competitors and platforms and bereft of old-media brand loyalty.

For this CMM special series, 20 current and recent top student journalists in the U.S. and Canada offer their perspectives, ideas and advice centered on a single question at the heart of college media’s future: How do we get students to care more about the student press? 

The Future of College Media: How Do We Get Students to Care More?
Part 5: ‘The Job I’m Training for Will Always Exist’

By Kyle WalkerUniversity of Tulsa

Summer 2015 CMM Editorial Fellow

I don’t take seriously the doom-and-gloom perspective on journalism that seems so popular these days, not to mention the usual accompanying generalizations about the reading habits of so-called ‘millennials.’ So I have a difficult time wrapping my head around the claim that the jobs for which student journalists are training no longer exist. I say it depends on how you define the job.

The job I’m training for will always exist. I’m training to uncover and synthesize information, not to run a printing press. I’m training to verify facts, not to set the Twittersphere aflame with real-time (AKA rushed) reporting. I don’t see a time when good reporting won’t be in demand — though it might just get shouted down.

Low readership is a separate but related problem. I’d guess college journalists have struggled with that since long before the dawn of the Internet.

When I was working at the Collegian, a weekly student newspaper, we took a number of steps to revitalize the paper and bring in readers. We moved from traditional newspaper front pages to colorful, graphic covers. We regularly ran special sections. My favorite was a massive dive into the paper’s archives for a look at the “20th Century Through the Eyes of the Collegian.

The special section promises “a romp through the 20th century” via the paper’s archives. 

Student readership seemed unaffected by these and other steps. But faculty regularly complimented the Collegian staff on putting together a more robust paper than they’d seen in years. Ironically, everything we did to bring in student readers did a better job of attracting faculty.

This helped persuade me that, though we ran a student newspaper, there was no real reason we had to focus narrowly on a student audience. So we ramped up our off-campus distribution program, tripling or quadrupling the Collegian’s off-campus circulation. The best part? At the coffee shops, restaurants and other haunts to which we deliver the Collegian, the papers are usually gone by week’s end.

1The one story that definitely brought a great tide of student readers to the Collegian this past year was one we ran during my last semester. In it, we described the unfair treatment a student received at the hands of the school’s disciplinary process.

But the story did far more than attract students’ attention. The school’s attempts to suppress it made national headlines. Aggressive social media promotion made that piece the most-read Collegian story ever.

It wasn’t written exclusively, or even particularly, for current TU students. It was written for everyone who takes an interest in what happens at TU — current students, community members, prospective students, alumni, city leaders, administrators, etc.

As a student journalist, I did not feel it was my role to cater to a particular audience defined by age group (i.e. students), but to report well on my school. I think that good reporting is more likely to help attract and keep an audience than anything aimed at a particular demographic.

Kyle Walker is a recent graduate of the University of Tulsa, where he was editor-in-chief of The Collegian student newspaper. He is starting a graduate program at New York University in the fall. He is also a summer 2015 CMM Editorial Fellow.

Check out other parts of this CMM special series

Part 1: ‘A Makeshift Umbrella During a Rainy Day’ by Matt Lemas, University of Southern California

Part 2‘That Hip, Instagram-Worthy Quality’ by Danielle Klein, University of Toronto

Part 3: ‘Initiating a Complete Culture Shift’ by Katie Kutsko, University of Kansas

Part 4‘For Me, Adaptability is Key’ by Ali Swenson, Loyola Marymount University

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