When people talk about online innovation in college media, they tend to start big and stay there. And it’s true that large circulation college newspapers (and big name journalism programs) have been doing some impressive things online, but the need to innovate extends to smaller journalism programs as well. And for them, the challenges can be daunting.

So what are some of the challenges for smaller colleges?

1. Small staffs and high churn rate.
In 2007, the Flagler Gargoyle was a finalist for an online Pacemaker award for excellence in student journalism. At the time, the Gargoyle was using a WordPress CMS and producing multimedia. But advisor Brian Thompson saw that change quickly over the last year. “Innovation just completely died out,” he said, “We had some kids graduate who had been totally instrumental in what we were doing, and didn’t really have anyone in the pipeline to carry it on.”

i-8e6a02b091fddb0f029bfe29807d4343-flagler.jpg

Now, with new online editor Matt Boyle, things are on the upswing. “He has students doing more video, podcasts, slideshows, web exclusive stuff and just thinking about what’s cool out there that we can cover,” Thompson told me.

Rich Cameron, chair of the Cerritos College journalism program and author of the JACC blog, has been pushing online journalism for several years in California community colleges. He said that the demands of print newspaper production still hinder the staff of the Cerritos Talon Marks from more actively pursuing an online presence.

“We have one or two who are starting to get it. A lot of others experiment,” he said. “But we’re so focused on a weekly publication with a relatively small staff and small pool from which to recruit that they just don’t do enough. We’re still looking for ideas.”

2. Instructors who don’t get it.
Advisers and instructors can be a help or a hindrance to developing online journalism in college.

i-163ec377cd979694dddb688cd3f9ac8a-simpsonian.jpg
The newsroom of the Simpson College Simpsonian

Sarah Jackson, a journalism student at Kwantlen Polytechnic in Vancouver, B.C., told me that “most professors have little to no knowledge about multimedia. Their lack of knowledge sometimes misinforms us and could easily lead us to the wrong conclusion about the current state of journalism, if not for our other professors’ efforts.”

Jackson benefits from having instruction from Mark Hamilton, a journalism instructor who follows online media closely.

The hindering effects of out-of-touch advisors can be pronounced at a smaller school, Hamilton said. “A small staff of instructors means that a small number of ‘curmudgeons’ or, as I prefer, ‘people who don’t get it yet,’ can have an oversized effect on the overall drive to multimedia/innovation.”

Rich Cameron agreed that aging faculty hamper new media innovations at community colleges and universities. “We didn’t learn this stuff and no one is giving us a lot of support to learn it,” he told me, “We have a small few, like myself, that are pulling our colleagues along. But until we get new blood in with multimedia experience, we’re going slowly.” And community colleges are lower on the academic hiring shelf than 4-year colleges and universities.

3. Old mindsets from the students.

Another problem, one that is certainly not unique to small schools, is that a print-centric mindset often still dominates. But at a smaller school, this problem is magnified as well.

i-1a96a5b31170457091713b81a3dfc553-kwantlen.jpg

“I’m stumped about how to get students — who SHOULD be more attuned to the innovative ways they like to get information — involved in utilizing that information,” said Cameron. Indeed, he said some student editors are weary of the drumbeat. At a recent editors workshop, “one of the things student editors from seven area community colleges said is that they felt that their advisers pushed new media too hard. It is kind of like telling my kids to eat their vegetables. I know it is good for them, but they resist.”

Brian Thompson added, “The irony is that as much as they live on the Web, they still kind of see it as second fiddle to, say, the print edition or broadcast TV.”

4. Not enough payoff for students.

In addition, it can be frustrating for student journalists to put a lot of effort into a multimedia package only to get a lackluster response.

“Our school has little to no readership for the college paper and the website,” said Sarah Jackson about the Kwantlen Chronicle, “As far as I know, the college hasn’t explored how to get students interested in the paper and, without interest, the effort online has virtually failed.”

Likewise, Cameron told me, “Right now we have the audience for print and that’s what our schools want. They’ll applaud the new media efforts, but they could live without them.”

5. Sparse resources.

While many college newspapers and journalism departments struggle with budgets, again the effect is magnified at smaller schools. “We just don’t have the same kind of funding and equipment,” Thompson said. “Even I am limited in what I know, and since it is a smaller college and I wear so many hats, it’s hard to find that time to really focus on and make the web a priority.”

i-0b89c3b781358acb58a5612a062fd412-ecorsair.jpg

According to Jackson, Kwantlen Polytechnic has only several computers with Soundslides installed and has put considerable money into its Mac lab to teach students InDesign and Photoshop. She added that most other schools “may not have this ability.”

Words of advice

With all these challenges, how can a small school program or newspaper avoid being left behind in a wired world? A few ideas follow:

> Reach outside the comfort zone for recruits. Christina Drain, adviser for the Pensacola Junior College Corsair, kick-started her paper’s multimedia emphasis by recruiting an art student. Now that the Corsair pursues a web-first publishing mentality, she said that “with the addition of audio and video, we can now recruit students who want to go into broadcast journalism as well as videographers. I always push the resume and portfolio aspect.”

While drawing from journalism students, Cameron has also reached out to other areas of the Cerritos College campus, teaming up with the political science department on campus to initiate a project called MyDemocracy.

For Hamilton at Kwantlen Polytechnic, the key is finding “eager” students. “Multimedia/innovation has to be largely driven by instructors who will find in each of their classes a handful of people who are eager to big it up and run with it.” he said, “They tend to drag some of the other students along behind them.”

> It’s still the stories, not the toys. “Don’t get hung up on the technology — you’ll never win that battle. Instead, be creative,” Thompson said. “Find energetic and innovative students, even ones who may have zero experience on the web. Try to involve the web in all of your regular editorial meetings and constantly ask how to involve that edition with print stories you’re doing.”

For Drain, that includes following the broader journalism world online. “I’ll see something that someone else is using or doing and show (the students), like the local paper live streaming with Mogulus, and they think it’s cool and want to try it,” she said, “And that sets up some brainstorming sessions for possibilities. A lot of what we do is free or very low cost so that helps too. It’s amazing what technology is out there.”

Free software can be especially helpful for small schools. So you can’t afford Flash and the Flash video encoder? Upload the video to YouTube, Vimeo or another video sharing site. For more information, see this recent post by Lauren Rabaino on the ICM weblog about inexpensive alternatives to the Adobe Creative Suite.

> Market your website. Doing cool stuff on the web isn’t enough in and of itself. Thompson identified the old “if you build they will come” fallacy as what dooms a lot of online editions, even good ones. “You have to come up with good content (we’re working on that) but then you also need to find innovative ways to get people there to it (and we’re always trying to work on that),” he said.

Social networking is one way to get those stories out into the wider web, through Facebook pages, Twitter links and Digg efforts when appropriate. And that’s also an advantage of using YouTube to host your videos — reaching a wider potential audience.

> Follow the ongoing journalism discussion. Keep up to date about the latest discussions about what’s happening in online media. Most of what I know about college media has come from engaging with a wide variety of students, advisers, professors and media professionals, including those who helped flesh out this article, like the group of journalists who gather on Sunday nights for the #collegejourn discussion.

A good place to start finding free tools and information is with the Journalism alltop page, which provides so much information that it might seem a little bit like drinking from a firehose until you get find some favorites.

> Lean into the wind. Find ways around the challenges. One thing I heard in discussions about small schools and online efforts was that there are ways that small schools can be more nimble than their larger counterparts.

“When you don’t have all the tools at your disposal and you’re all learning as you go along, it makes you more creative and you think differently. You try new things,” Thompson said. “Look, we’re never going to lead the pack when it comes to implementing technology, coming up with cutting edge ideas, using the coolest software or online tools. Larger schools will just kill us there. But that’s okay.”

Jackson sees potential in small numbers too. “Revolutions always start small. I think, with the right tools, small schools have an advantage. The students can quickly band together for group efforts that would be impossible for a class of 100+.”

What are your suggestions to help small schools maintain innovation? Say something in the comments, or point me to other small programs/news sites that are striving to stay innovative.

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.