As the newspaper industry has struggled with declining revenue, some analysts predicted that college newspapers would weather the storms of the changing media environment better than their peers in the wider industry. (See also this Chronicle of Higher Education article.)

Now the national economy indicates that the future might not be quite so rosy: The widespread economic pains in the media environment are finally hitting college news outlets, and many college newspapers are scrambling to deal with the squeeze.

Advertising

Just like other print newspapers, college newspapers have been hit by a decline in advertising revenue. Classified advertising has been declining thanks to the same pressures that have pushed professional media into decline: competition from online sites like Craigslist and strong verticals in employment and automotives.

But college newspapers are not as heavily dependent on classifieds as are other newspapers. Instead, they have been hit more by a decline in national advertising. “National advertising fell considerably for most papers,” said Eric Jacobs, general manager of the Daily Pennsylvanian. “For college papers like ours, which typically receive a significant number of recruitment ads from Wall Street firms, the drop in national advertising was like falling off a cliff. Some of that national business will come back when the economy improves, but some of it is lost forever as numerous large companies simply ceased to exist.”

Andrew Sawyer, executive vice president for media services at Alloy Media+Marketing, a company that sells national advertising in the college newspaper market, is more optimistic.

While Alloy’s national print ad sales were “flat” from 2007 to 2008, “My expectation is that [print ad sales in 2009] will hold firm and be consistent with last year. The early indication is that is the way it is trending,” Sawyer said. [see update below]

Part of the reason for that optimism is that college students read their campus newspaper in astounding percentages, according to an Alloy study released last summer.

Industries that have remained strong spenders in the college newspaper market include two of the industries that have been under increasing economic woes: banking and automobiles. Both industries focus on college students to bring in new customers, Sawyer said. One industry that has softened its spending on national ad buys has been insurance.

But national advertising was only one part of the picture. There’s also campus advertising and local advertising. (Campus advertising consists of ads and announcements placed by college departments and associations.) As states begin cutting their education budgets, the money tightens downstream. You can see where this is heading. As departments cut budgets, they “often find advertising an easy area to trim or eliminate,” Jacobs said.

And then there are local advertisers. Jacobs and Peter Waack, general manager at the Daily Orange at Syracuse University, both reported that local advertising had been strong throughout the fall, but Jacobs predicts further pain as local companies begin to feel the pinch. “As we go through the winter and spring of 2009, I think many college papers will experience local advertising declines. How severe is yet to be seen,” he said.

But the evidence for that forecast is still not conclusive. Waack notes that local advertising is up for the year at the Daily Orange, by 15 percent from last year. Other newspaper managers report some increases as well.

Cutting Costs

One way that college papers deal with declining revenue is to cut the number of days the paper prints. At least two college dailies cut a publication day last fall — the Daily Orange at Syracuse University and the Daily Californian at the University of California at Berkeley. Ohio State University cut summer publications this year as well, and the Daily at the University of Minnesota is the latest to cut a publication day.

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Now, the Daily Texan is looking at possibly selling its presses, and other papers are talking about pay cuts, hiring freezes, and other belt-tightening measures. Even the Daily Eastern News, where I advise the online site, has seen a five-figure decrease in advertising this year. Interestingly, as advertisers have decreased display ads, they’ve increased classified advertising. Go figure.

For Waack at the Daily Orange, the publication cut has been a boon. The move hasn’t affected ad sales, but it has “saved us quite a bit in printing, payroll, and distribution costs,” he said. They still print “sports extras” on 10 Fridays of the year.

Alloy’s Sawyer said dropping Friday publications doesn’t have an impact on national ad sales pitches, as college schedules have changed over the years. More colleges have Monday-Wednesday/Tuesday-Thursday schedules. Friday readership is lowest of the weekdays, Sawyer said.

“Generally, we wouldn’t buy Friday,” he told me. “We would somewhat recommend against it. We generally steer a little clear of Monday. Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday are prime days. Thursday generally has an entertainment skew to it.”

And then there is the issue of student funds. Many college newspapers receive “subscription fees” or subsidies from their university to provide free papers to the campus community. The Daily Nebraskan just fought for an increase in subsidies, and others will likely struggle to keep that funding source in the near future.

Jacobs noted that paper prices have been increasing, even as demand has decreased. Even if a student publication is totally supported by student fees (as was the Skyliner at North Greenville University, where I was the adviser for five years), that’s going to impact the bottom line.

But what about online?

Online advertising doesn’t yet make up a significant part of college media advertising. As I wrote earlier this year, it’s an estimated 1-2 percent of total revenue for many college media outlets — if that.

The reliance on local businesses may be part of the reason. “Web ads are a very tough sell to local businesses,” Waack said.

So far, Waack says online isn’t replacing the Friday paper, simply because students aren’t the main audience for online content at the Daily Orange.

“Students read the print edition, not the online edition anyway,” he told me. “Online is for parents, alumni, sports fans not in our distribution area for the most part, so they would not be reading the print edition.”

But that outlook doesn’t mean the staff isn’t creating more online content. “Yes, we now have video stories, more blogs, and online-only content on Friday,” Waack said. Both the Daily Cal and the Daily at UM have pledged to increase their online presence on days when they aren’t publishing.

Sawyer sees the same thing: “Online college newspaper readership hasn’t really been proven to me that it is a college student. There’s just enough issues with it that we haven’t actually sold (online). We continue to point out that the print edition is read, it’s tangible, it’s effective — it’s all of those things, so we aggressively sell the print edition of the paper.”

To help sway more national advertisers to the college market, Alloy partnered with College Newspaper Business and Advertising Managers last year to create a “power buy” option that would provide discounts to print advertisers who bought across the network. Sawyer said they hope to roll out the “power buy” this fall. The hope is that a different pitch will sway clients to buy more print ads.

John Scholz, general manager at the UM Daily, pledged that in a letter to clients when UM announced the publication change. The four-day print publication would:

transition to a three (3) day online weekend package (www.mndaily.com) that will highlight University Sports as well as local Arts & Entertainment happenings. Since many students do not schedule classes on Friday and access our news on the web, we have decided to cut this day out of our publication calendar.

On Jan. 23, UM Daily editor Vadim Lavrusik expanded on that explanation:

The edition is set to go in place starting next weekend with live sports updates, stories and scores on our home page. Sports reporters will be updating live from the games. And if you are interested to get a score update, you no longer have to try to track it down on ESPN or another source. University students will be able to find it easily on mndaily.com.

Hope and innovation?

As college newspapers — and other college media outlets — deal with the tough economic times, it’s important that they keep online at the fore. It’s encouraging that the dailies who have cut a publication day have shifted their newsgathering efforts to the web when the presses aren’t running, but if advertising doesn’t pull along in the effort, the solution is going to be slow in coming.

The challenge is selling ads and also driving students, rather than just alumni, to the website. So far, the major effort to drive advertisers to the web has been through guides, while the major effort to drive students (and others) to the website has been through databases. Let’s look at those two efforts:

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Guides: A number of college newspapers have had success by the adding housing, restaurant, and bar guides to their websites. The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill spent money this year to develop an online housing guide, Heelshousing.com, which general manager Kevin Schwarz has said has attracted advertisers to the website. [see update below] The Indiana Daily Student has had a dining guide for some time as well.

Databases: Salary databases appear to be a popular attraction for readers of college newspaper websites. Here’s one from the Virginia Tech Collegiate Times that lists the salaries of various university personnel. Similarly, crime databases or maps, like this from the Collegiate Times or this from the Daily Eastern News, are among the parts of an online site that generate the most traffic.

Live blogging, increased use of multimedia, and frequent updates may eventually drive students to college media websites in greater numbers, but for now, print remains at the forefront. Of particular concern to advisers I spoke with, including Waack, was the impact of the economic downturn on traditional media. Will college newspapers be able to recruit students in the future as the newspaper industry sheds jobs? Good question, and perhaps a topic for a future post.

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But will innovation be driven by the economy? Probably not, says Jacobs. The Daily Pennsylvanian has been trying to develop its web presence for a long time, including the recent launch of an entertainment website at 34st.com.

“We, like most college dailies, have a long way to go to create websites which will be ‘must read’ attractions for students who already read our printed edition,” he said. “And we must make no mistake about the fact that print advertising is still more compelling to readers, more effective for advertisers, and more profitable to newspapers than anything we are yet capable of doing online. Until someone demonstrates how to replicate the effectiveness of multiple full-page newspaper ads on our website, and until we see that readers are no longer picking up our newspaper, our primary focus will remain on the print edition. Will we continue to try new things online? Absolutely. Will it be driven by the weak economy? Probably not.”

Further Reading

Hard data on college newspaper trends is difficult to come by. Unlike the Newspaper Association of America, there is no nationwide clearinghouse of data about college newspapers and their economic situation. Instead, there is anecdotal data from listservs like those run by College Media Advisers, Inc. and the College Newspaper Business and Advertising Managers and from various news reports. This makes it very difficult to track the real impact of economic distress on the college media market, although I suspect we’ll see continuing details emerge over the next year.

For more information about the effects of the economy on college newspapers, see:

Money woes hit campus (SPLC)

Print journalism squeeze hits campus (InsideHigherEd)

Fewer ad sales lead to lighter newspaper at U. Nebraska (UWire)

Contribute

Please check back for further updates and potential future posts about this topic. In the meantime, I encourage you to chime in through the comments with innovative ways your college media outlet is generating revenue — either through print or online. How are your ad reps succeeding at increasing online sales? How are you “tightening the belt” while times are tough?

UPDATE [1/28/09]: Kevin Schwartz gives further information about heelshousing.com. They expect to make $40,000 in its first year of operation, after spending $30,000 to develop the site. “I had initially hoped just to break even on the ROI in three years,” he told me.

UPDATE 2 [1/28/09]: Andrew O’Dell, general manager of Student Life, the newspaper at Washington University in St. Louis makes a good point about how Alloy can project a flat 2009 while individual newspapers can be down in national advertising overall. In 2008, Student Life saw an increase in revenue from Alloy, but a decrease in overall national advertising, since national ads come from a variety of ad agencies. “Calendar year 2008 versus 2007 we were up 8.5% from Alloy, down 1.1% overall nationally. Fall 2008 versus 2007 we were up 40% from Alloy, down 4.7% overall nationally,” he said.

Bryan Murley is assistant professor of new and emerging media at Eastern Illinois University, where he advises DENnews.com, the Pacemaker-winning online site for the student newspaper. He is also the director for innovation at the Center for Innovation in College Media, where he leads the weblog Innovation in College Media. He is the college media correspondent for MediaShift.

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