Last month, UWIRE.com, an edited college media newswire, mysteriously vanished from the Internet.

UWIRE, a popular service that aggregated articles from student newspapers across the country, promoting student journalism both within higher education and to the outside world, has disappeared,” wrote Simmi Aujla for the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month.

Today, visitors to the site receive an error message, and the people running the service have had little to say publicly. As a result, there has been intense speculation about the site, along with complaints from student editors who say they are owed money by the service. (To read some of the online discussions taking place about UWIRE, check out this post and this one.)

As the director for innovation at the Center for Innovation in College Media, I’ve followed the UWIRE saga for quite a while. I interviewed Joe Weasel of Palestra.net after they purchased UWIRE from CBS. For the past two years, I also helped raise awareness about the UWIRE 100 program by blogging about it (see my 2008 and 2009 posts). While looking into this story, I contacted Weasel for an interview, but he declined to comment on the record.

A Flawed Business Model?

In some ways, the shuttering of UWIRE should come as no surprise. The service did not have a workable business model as a stand-alone entity. Its previous incarnation as part of CBS seemed to make more sense, as a major media corporation would have the resources to leverage UWIRE content for other distribution channels. That said, public comments from UWIRE general manager Tom Orr suggest that the company hopes to resurrect the service.

UWIRE has temporarily suspended its print wire operations,” Orr told the Seattle Spectator. “The company is in the process of trying to get the wire relaunched as quickly as possible and when more information is available it will be made public.”

The Spectator called UWIRE “student media’s AP.” That’s overstating the case. As near as I’ve been able to gather, UWIRE was a curator of material gleaned from college news outlets throughout the country.

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Unlike the Associated Press, which collects fees from member news outlets, UWIRE “affiliates” (meaning college news outlets) never paid to republish the content distributed through the service. UWIRE did sell some content to other media outlets, but that was hardly a major source of revenue.

The reality is that a college media wire service would not be able to charge a substantial sum to college media outlets. More importantly for college media (and college journalists), there was no revenue returning to the people who created the UWIRE content.

Unless and until a wire service like UWIRE is able to figure out a way to return some revenue to the college media outlets that generate content, active participation is always going to be a challenge.

Who was using the content?

A number of college news outlets used the UWIRE material, but solid numbers are hard to come by. UWIRE’s “About Us” page claimed that its “…14-year-old Student Media Affiliate Program allows 800+ student media outlets to share content and facilitates inter-school collaboration. This entirely student powered wire service generates more than 500 stories a day, including first rate news, opinion, sports, and entertainment coverage.”

Although more than 800 outlets shared their content with UWIRE, there’s no accurate count of how many news outlets actually used the content.

Mark Witherspoon, adviser to the Iowa State Daily college paper, said, “Our students used a lot of UWIRE columns for their editorial pages, and those pages have suffered because of UWIRE leaving the scene.”

“The UWIRE columns were always nice as good backups when the creative well ran dry locally,” said Robert Bortel, adviser to the BG News at Bowling Green State University. “They have historically used some of the straight news, too, but we were able to replace that with AP. Lately, our news hole has shrunk because of fewer ads, so many days we are almost all local with AP world and state digests to complement the content. And as for the goal of being more hyper-local, which we all like to banter around as a catchphrase, that is a good thing, too.”

The Daily Eastern News, the college media outlet I help advise, also occasionally used UWIRE content. Yet the disappearance of the site hasn’t caused any problems in our newsroom. That’s probably the case for many college media outlets.

College News Network

While the particulars of the UWIRE situation get sorted out, what’s a college news outlet to do? Certainly, wire services like the AP are available, although the cost of AP content is prohibitive for many in this economic climate. Previous efforts like CSUWire (see my interview with its founders here) have come and gone. There is a need for college media to have access to the college-related content generated on other campuses, so other options might be viable.

The latest option to emerge is College News Network. Ryan Dunn and Dave Hendricks of Ohio University (both of whom are editors at the Post), have so far signed up 14 college news outlets. Hendricks said the inspiration for the site came from a summer internship.

“I’d interned at the Columbus Dispatch this summer, which spearheaded a content-sharing agreement among Ohio’s newspapers,” he said. “We figured a content-sharing network would help fill space on the Post’s opinion page and allow college papers to share big stories, like the out-of-control street parties at Kent State and Ohio University last spring.”

He said they are looking to recruit as many sharing partners as possible. “The arrangement should benefit student reporters, who gain access to a wider audience, [as well as] readers at colleges across the country, who will gain access to perspectives and news from other student-run media,” he said.

College News Network does not edit the copy it receives. It relies on student editors at the various member news organizations to do that.

UPDATE 5:21 PM CST: Via the comments, University of Tennessee Professor Jim Stovall points out an effort that was started a couple years ago: The Intercollegiate Online News Network. Be sure to check out his comments for further details.

Other Options

There are also a couple of other content-sharing options for college media. One is to start using Publish2.

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Publish2 allows individual journalists to bookmark specific stories and share those links with the wider Publish2 community, or create smaller groups of people to share those links with. (You can see my Publish2 links here.) Other news organizations can then create widgets on their web pages that link to content they found via Publish2.

There’s already been an early example of local newspapers collaborating on a big story through Publish2. My concept is to take that idea a step further and allow college media outlets to publish the linked articles in their newspapers.

It would be relatively easy for college media outlets within a state, or an athletic conference, to agree to share their content via Publish2. Once the content was published, they could use Publish2 to point to their best stories, and allow other newspapers in the “co-op” to use the content.

The main downside to this approach is that there is no centralized editing process, which was UWIRE’s bailiwick. The pool of articles available would also be relatively small compared to UWIRE’s output, unless a large number of college news outlets signed up.

College media outlets would need to get together to communicate and set up the service with licensing agreements (a headache in itself), and maintain the service by actually linking to the articles — a dicey proposition come exam time.

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The other option would be for college media outlets to do something that might seem radical: use Creative Commons to license their content for non-commercial use, and thereby let other college news outlets have access to their work. At this point, I’m not aware of any college media outlet that has taken the Creative Commons route, although I’ve had listserv discussions with fellow advisers about the concept. The usual argument against a CC license is one that’s been heard before: The content is too valuable for this approach.

The “value” of articles in a college newspaper is a topic for another day, but the idea of licensing content for non-commercial use so that other college newspapers could access it and use it to supplement their own coverage is worth considering in the Internet age.

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Are there other options for college media to share content? Let us know your ideas in the comments.

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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