CMM Special Series: The Future of College Media (How Do We Get Students to Care More?) Part 8: ‘Go Out and Play Scientist’

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 8: ‘Go Out and Play Scientist’

By Nizia Alam, University of Texas at Tyler

Summer 2015 CMM Editorial Fellow

College media have an advantage because our audience is so specific: students, faculty, staff and the local community. Where else will these readers consistently receive information specific to campus? Local media cannot dedicate all their time to university issues. So the most important questions for us to tackle: How do we create compelling content our audience can relate to? And how do we engage and serve our readers?

– Special Issue: Love and Sex. There are a few ways that my team at the Patriot Talon worked this past year to engage our audience. One example: For the first time in the paper’s history, we published a “Love and Sex” issue in honor of Valentine’s Day. Each of the sections in the issue featured an element related to the topic, including campus couple love stories, a review of the Tinder dating app and a front-page editorial which explored consent, virginity and safe sex. The newspapers quickly flew off the racks and even won a Best of Show honor from the Texas Intercollegiate Press Association. A professor told me it was the best issue he had seen in a while, since there was a connecting theme. The lesson: Focus your energy on one topic and start a conversation on campus through your media outlet.

– A New Tech Section. We added a technology section to meet our audience’s growing use of mobile and of course the Internet. In every issue, the tech section boasts an “app of the week,” reviewing an app that’s useful to college students. We have also published stories comparing different phones, social media privacy and helpful online services for students. The lesson: Don’t limit yourself to just news, sports and entertainment sections.

– Humans of UT Tyler. We began our own version of Humans of New York through our social media. Every Wednesday, our Facebook page features a photo and caption of a student, faculty or staff member. Our campus isn’t large, so you see some of these people every day — and now readers have the stories behind their faces. The weekly feature usually receives the highest engagement rates of any content featured on our Facebook page. The lesson: Create regular series via social media that your audience will come to expect, follow, interact with, share and maybe even eventually contribute to.

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An example of the Patriot Talon’s Humans of UT Tyler series, featured on its Facebook page.

– Community Events. Every year we plan and execute an event called “Talon Talks” for the campus and local community. The first event was a job outlook in which leaders from top industries spoke about how to land post-grad employment and build a long-term career. We also hosted a debate on the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage featuring four guest speakers — a political science professor, debate students and a campus priest. The lesson: Think about your audience’s needs and interests and plan events that engage the community and expand your brand recognition.

Video capturing the “Talon Talks” debate on gay marriage and marijuana legalization.

– A Magazine Guide. In addition to the newspaper, we also publish an annual magazine, Patriot Pulse, aimed at incoming freshmen. The magazine serves as a guide to campus and local life and includes suggestions for cheap day-trips students can take and a rundown of the best entertainment events in the area during the year. The lesson: Along with regular issues, develop helpful, interesting products that readers will want to keep and refer to long-term.

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The most recent edition of Patriot Pulse magazine.

Ultimately, if you consistently create compelling content, you will build your audience and keep them coming back. My advice is to take a chance and try something new. You have nothing to lose. College media is an innovation lab, so go out and play scientist and concoct ways to engage your audiences.

Nizia Alam is a senior journalism major at the University of Texas at Tyler. She previously served as editor-in-chief of the Patriot Talon. She 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

Part 5‘The Job I’m Training for Will Always Exist’ by Kyle Walker, University of Tulsa

Part 6‘An Edge in the Algorithms’ by Alex Bitter, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

Part 7: ‘News the Way Our Readers Want to Consume It’ by Sami Edge, University of Oregon

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