The transition from print to digital in the face of falling ad revenues and declining print circulation is causing a great deal of pain at established, professional news organisations. Think of the 600 cuts announced yesterday at Advance Publications in New Orleans and Alabama, or the recent cuts made at Johnston Press.
Yet this same switch to digital is being mirrored by some student publications - which are not bemoaning the end of print, but positively embracing it.
Nieman Lab reported last week that the University of Oregon’s student newspaper The Daily Emerald is cutting down print production and moving to digital despite not being in debt, having a “solid reserve fund” in the bank and just having experienced its best financial year in over a decade.
Rather than responding to immediate financial pressure, the Emerald says that it is making the switch “to deliver on our mission to serve our community and prepare our student staff for the professional world.”
A digital first approach makes sense for the Emerald’s young, tech-savvy audience: it will prepare its students for work in an increasingly digital-focused media environment, and it will liberate time and resources to devote to new platforms, says the Emerald.
Under the new plans, the paper will be rebranded as the Emerald Media Group and will reduce its print editions to Mondays and Thursdays, after previously been printed five days a week.
The format of the paper will change from broadsheet to tabloid, and will look more like a magazine than a newspaper; its coverage will be inspired by Wired, ESPN Magazine, Newsweek and Vanity Fair, among others, says the Emerald. The new publication will have a Monday-to-Friday email edition, and will feature a host of blogs online. The new organisation will also incorporate a tech start-up for app development, and it will branch out into events and full-service marketing. In other words, it will do many of the things that mainstream publications have been encouraged to do to adapt to the digital age.
GigaOm journalist and digital advocate Mathew Ingram has high praise for the Emerald. “It’s encouraging to see a paper — even a student-run organization like the Emerald — seize that future rather than waiting for it to happen,” he writes.
Other student publications are also ahead of the game when it comes to digital publishing, suggests a recently-published article by the journalism funding and research body J-Lab. J-Lab executive director Jan Schaffer writes that US journalism schools “are becoming incubators for entrepreneurial news startups,” which are teaching students to produce news more quickly, and are giving them the right skills to work in the new media landscape once they graduate.
J-Lab itself helps fund 24 university news sites, writes Schaffer, some of which have proved highly successful. One example is NeonTommy.com, a publication from the USC-Annenberg, which has a 24-hour metro and national news operation, and boasts 270,000 unique monthly visitors. The publication is now a finalist for the 16 LA Press Club Awards, Schaffer writes.
Apart from producing successful journalism, the website prepares students will to work in changing media, the article states. Schaffer quotes NeonTommy.com’s editor Marc Cooper, who says that most students on the paper “get a web job… our goal is to give our students maximum experience in the world of publishing.”
The “teaching hospital” model of journalism schools, in which students actively work with professionals to produce local reporting and gain experience, has been advocated by the Knight Foundation’s senior advisor to the president Eric Newton.
An extract from the book What do we mean by local?, republished by the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade on his blog, has the same idea to take student journalism one step further. The authors of the extract, former CEO of the Press Association Paul Potts, and PR company managing director Richard Peel, recommend harnessing student journalists as “a new generation of digitally-savvy people who can find new ways of interacting with communities at a low cost” in order to compensate for the scaling back of traditional local news reporting.
Peel and Potts write about an initiative they support the University of Sheffield named The Sheffield Record, which would use students to produce journalism, which would be edited by one or two professional reporters and then distributed to the residents of Sheffield.
“Students would be given the opportunity to acquire editorial, business and enterprise skills, develop more real-time experience in newsgathering and production and the use of social media, and have input into the research, critique and development of local news journalism,” write Peel and Potts, who hope to expand the initiative to universities across the country. They suggest that the initiative could create a fully-fledged local media network, which would develop links with the community and advertisers.
The idea is presented attractively, but it leaves one question unanswered: will there be jobs for these highly-qualified journalism students once they graduate, if large chunks of professional news reporting has already been replaced by unpaid student workers?