Yesterday I wrote about the financial troubles impacting some of the nation’s collegiate newspapers — the public struggles of the Daily Cal and the Daily Orange, and the less public struggles of many of the papers that are quietly looking to the future and worrying. I also mentioned a Chronicle of Higher Education article about the subject that I think missed the point. One of that article’s main premises was that collegiate newspapers have to worry less about money because we have a workforce to write stories and sell ads that operates mostly for free.
Again, that’s all true. But collegiate publications don’t have the budget to fund innovation like many of the professional papers do. We also don’t necessarily have the expertise, the time, or the willpower to actively try to break out of the institutional molds we’re stuck in. I think one of the chief problems plaguing the collegiate press is a combination of institutional forgetfulness and inertia.
Every year the people who have been at a college paper the longest graduate, often having established a set of policies and a way of doing things that people continue to use long into the future, even if they are no longer best practices. I understand this happens in a lot of other industries too, but the degree to which it takes place in college newsrooms is highly exaggerated. Students have class, part time jobs, and the newspaper. How do they have time to reexamine the practices and policies they use every day to make them better when they already work OK?
The fact of the matter is that college editors can’t sit around and wait for a professional newspaper somewhere to invent an ingenious new way of delivering the news, or break ground on a brilliant new business model. Every college paper has to find the time, energy, and resources to start innovating. Maybe that involves applying for a Knight grant? I’m not sure. But college papers are actually in a better position to reach out to their communities than most larger, professional papers. I think there is a bit of a misnomer out there in the “new media” crowd (of which I am a card carrying member) that simply working on a better website, blogging, integrating video and audio, and adding more interactive content will start to solve the problems of the industry. I think that’s largely false.
Community Generated Content
In my opinion everything the new media people are working on equals better journalism, and more accessible content. But it’s not enough. Newspapers have to find a way to become central to the exchange of information and ideas in their communities if they want to start making more money. Newspapers need to be more local and more central, they need to offer social network and social bookmarking features, and they need to embrace a certain level of user generated content. That could mean a lot of things, though, so I want to explain how I am going to use my News Challenge project, Populous, to achieve some of those goals.
Right now at UCLA there are something like 800 different student organizations. There are far too many for the students to keep track of, and there is no real tool for these organizations to have a web presence, market themselves, or organize online. There are also no good directories for local shops and restaurants. These are all information needs on campus that need to be filled, and the Daily Bruin is working on doing that through Populous.
The Community News Network aspect of our project aims to provide every student organization on campus with the opportunity to create a website on the Daily Bruin’s network. They will be able to do basic things like add members, have a blog, and contribute to a community calendar. Every time they want to do any of that they will be coming to our website.
We’re going to fulfill a need on campus by providing this service, and we will also provide our readers a searchable database of the student organizations on campus and create a platform for an all-inclusive community calendar at the same time. And that’s just part of the vision. We also understand that we’re not the only people that can report on the news going on on campus, and we’re never going to be able to cover everything. So we’re going to let all of our users create their own blogs on our network so they can write about what’s going on around them and in their lives.
An Alternate Business Model?
I think once we accomplish this network, essentially a robust news- and community-focused social network, we’re going to be driving a lot more traffic to our website. Will it be enough to increase our online advertising revenue to compensate for our decline in print advertising? Unfortunately, no. That’s where another philosophical decision we’ve made at the Bruin comes in: to use our website to generate support for, and interest in, our print product. They are going to have to work together and complement each other. My hope, and intent, is that once people see the Daily Bruin making more of an effort to engage the community in its news coverage they will be more interested in picking up the print version of the newspaper.
We are also going to redesign the print product to incorporate some of the community generated aspects of our website, and retool it to make sure the news and style of the print product complements, but doesn’t repeat, what’s online. But that’s a whole new entry. My plan to increase the Daily Bruin’s revenue has two prongs: one is to support our current business model with increased community interest and through our web presence, and the other is to flip some of the features we’re working on into alternate business models.
Hopefully this approach will work out for us, and maybe other college publications can adopt it and start doing better financially. But it also concerns me that we’re one of the only college newspapers thinking like this. We might be right, but we might not be, and the more people that are working on these issues the better.