CMM Special Series: The Future of College Media (How Do We Get Students to Care More?) Part 16: ‘The Lessons I Learned About Audience’

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 16: ‘The Lessons I Learned About Audience’

By Claire Dodson, University of Tennessee

Summer 2015 CMM Editorial Fellow

Every college newspaper staffer can relate to Jenny’s words — and the kind of hopelessness that comes from dwelling on the fact that maybe the single biggest expenditure of your time during college goes mostly unnoticed and unappreciated.

That’s really why any newspaper staff that wants to be productive — especially if you’re making a daily product like my staff at The Daily Beacon — has to, on some level, suspend awareness of an apathetic student body. But that’s the problem: They aren’t apathetic, not really. They may not be picking up a newspaper or checking a website for news about their campus community, but most students do actually care.

Jenny raises a good point about millennials and loyalty. Maybe in the distant past college newspapers existed and were read purely because they covered campus news, regardless of quality or overall relevance. Now we have to fight for students’ attention. We aren’t entitled to it. This should make us hungrier, scrappier and hopefully better at every level.

At the Daily Beacon last year, we made several changes in an attempt — mostly successful, I think — to grab student attention and offer them invaluable content. For example, we shifted in print from a traditional broadsheet format to a more magazine-like tabloid. The switch ended up being really effective. We heard a lot of positive feedback, from professors and students. It also definitely made working on a daily newspaper more fun for the staff. Our photo and design editors especially loved the sudden burst of creative freedom. And it pushed reporters and editors to work on more features and in-depth pieces to fit the new design scheme.

                                            An April 2015 issue of The Daily Beacon.

We also produced monthly special issues on everything from campus sexual assault to the weird, wacky and wonderful world of Knoxville — UT’s hometown. How To Be An Adult was our very first special issue. We thought it would be a good place to start because of the service journalism aspect to it. Plus, we got to do some really cool retro-advertisement-style art throughout. We had stories focused on how to do your own taxes, how to create a balanced grocery list and how to develop classy adult tastes for books and music. A lot of our brainstorming centered on what we as a staff didn’t know how to do as adults. A lot of it was also very tongue-in-cheek, like the classy book list. For our main feature, a writer put together a piece about students who were already acting like adults — paying for school on their own, working full-time jobs, etc. It was a very successful issue and a great jumping-off point for similar issues to come.

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In the process of producing them, we learned to brainstorm around the foundational idea that our content should cover topics that actually matter to students. They should learn from it and be entertained. They should be rewarded for picking it up.

And so in this way college media did prepare me for post-grad media. The lessons I learned about audience, no matter the age, will stay with me as I dive into my first real journalism job.

Claire Dodson is a recent graduate of the University of Tennessee, where she worked as editor-in-chief of The Daily Beacon. She is segueing into a full-time editorial assistant position with the magazine Fast Company in New York City. 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

Part 8‘Go Out and Play Scientist’ by Nizia Alam, University of Texas at Tyler

Part 9‘The Generation Changing the News’ by Emma Discher, Tulane University

Part 10‘Why We Report What We Do’ by Gary Grumbach, Elon University

Part 11‘Do the Best You Can With What You Have’ by Louis Oprisa, City College of New York

Part 12‘Focusing on Quality Rather Than Quantity’ by Alicia Keene, Texas Tech University

Part 13‘The Ways We Organically Attract Readers’ by Sean Feverston, Otterbein University

Part 14‘Involving the Community in the Process’ by Nicole Brown, New York University

Part 15‘Trying to Be People’s First Stop for News’ by Olivia Krauth, University of Louisville

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