CMM Special Series: The Future of College Media (How Do We Get Students to Care More?) Part 17: ‘Face the Uncertain Future of Journalism Head-On’
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 17: ‘Face the Uncertain Future of Journalism Head-On’
By Angela Christaldi, Saint Joseph’s University
Jenny Surane’s column throws into sharp relief the latent fear we all feel as student journalists. We work for hours on each issue, scrutinizing every sentence of every article, making sure everything is perfect. Well, as perfect as possible. There is always bound to be something overlooked in the later hours of a production night, some word you wish you’d been able to replace or a headline that could’ve been better.
Regardless of the little mistakes that won’t be noticeable to anyone else, seeing the final product — even after a year of working as an editor — still fills me with inexpressible pride. It is something that proves that all the work my fellow staffers and I put in, all of the sleepless nights and stressful last-minute edits, is worth it.
Some of our student readers don’t exactly see it that way though.
Coming from a school with approximately 5,000 students, you would think that reaching our audience would be easy. It’s quite the opposite. Our staff works tirelessly on every issue, and it’s discouraging to hear people say the only part of the paper they read is the half-page featuring the Public Safety reports. Sure, it’s funny to check out the antics fellow students and area residents get caught for, but we’re also covering many important stories that we feel students should spend time learning more about.
This past year alone, for example, our university’s president announced he was stepping down, the search for new leadership was totally lacking in transparency and a new president was eventually named. Our school is going through a number of other similarly significant changes. But still, many people only care about the short blurbs that can be read in minutes.
Bottom line, students are becoming increasingly apathetic toward their campus newspapers and it’s our job as editors to keep their attention.
At The Hawk, we’ve been trying our damnedest to increase readership. We’ve ramped up our social media efforts with the creation of a digital media team. We hadn’t been utilizing the many platforms at our disposal correctly until recently. But when we made the switch from primarily using Facebook to blowing up our followers’ Twitter feeds, our online readership increased more than we could’ve even hoped. Sure, it’s not the same as having more people pick up the physical copies of our paper, but every page view counts and is proof our work is really being read.
The lead story in The Hawk’s April Fools’ satire edition was the paper’s most retweeted and probably most read article of the past academic year.
We’ve also produced some kick-butt special issues. There is a storied, and somewhat legendary, history of the April Fools’ satire edition of the Hawk — creatively named The Squawk. This year marked its first appearance in print since 2009, following a debacle involving a misconstrued article about a clergyman’s sexuality. Our front-page Squawk story this time around? The reveal of the university’s new president: Kimey, a woman who owns the convenience store known and beloved by students. The spoof piece was our most retweeted — and probably most read — story of the year. The Squawk in a larger sense was a smash hit, following on the heels of another special issue highlighting the unknown people, places and events of our campus that we called Underground SJU.
One caveat: While they can generate a ton of readers and page views, special issues are not the only reporting route that should be traveled. Real, important stories have to be covered too in the straight news sense, regardless of what the student body might prefer.
The Underground SJU special issue aimed to spotlight “stories typically left in the dark.”
Surane also writes that students are not necessarily interested in opinion pieces. This really hits home because, as the Hawk’s opinions editor, I deal with this reality on a regular basis. Students would much rather read an article about top summer fashion tips or a review of the latest blockbuster action movie than an editorial pointing out an important issue or injustice on campus.
Opinions is rarely lighthearted, and often in-your-face. That’s the point. But students increasingly don’t want to read about what other people think. In part, it is because they feel like the writer is attempting to make them change their mind. They’d rather formulate their own opinions. To that end, like Surane, I’m also training for a job that doesn’t exist or quickly falling out of style. Some days, it gets discouraging. Why write an editorial that people aren’t going to read? In the end, though, there are at least some loyal readers out there, and they are the ones we are writing for.
Surane’s editorial is a lot of things — pensive, a bit contemplative and sometimes even a tad bitter. But, most of all, it is hopeful. We are all working in journalism because it is something we love. We are journalists because we cherish the fast-paced insanity of reporting and production nights and we have a deep-seated passion for uncovering the truth. No matter how times change, and how prominent 140-character news blurbs become, nothing will alter the fact that we will always need people to capture and tell stories.
We are the storytellers. We need to keep our passion for storytelling ignited. And instead of becoming discouraged or intimidated, we need to be brave and face the uncertain future of journalism head-on.
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
Part 16: ‘The Lessons I Learned About Audience’ by Claire Dodson, University of Tennessee