The drumbeats are growing louder, as Rupert Murdoch, Steven Brill, and now the New York Times have confirmed: Pay walls or metered pricing systems for online news content will soon be coming to a high-profile website frequented by you. Too little, too late? Journalism’s savior? A final nail-in-the-coffin separation between old and new media?

The implications for the news industry and Internet as a whole are enormous. For college media specifically, meters and walls could be a veritable game changer, a final helium burst in their rise to professional press-level prominence — provided, of course, they turn them down.

At present, I can see no reason why college media outlets should erect pay walls or enact pricing meters for their online content. Some independent student newspapers with higher bottom lines have endured financial hiccups lately but, overall, college media are holding strong. A majority of outlets are fully or mostly supported. Staff work for free or are paid a pittance. Annual profit expectations are zero to uber-low.

With no pressing need to enhance their revenue streams, my advice is: Keep sites free. By offering readers an open window instead of a wall, college media can become more of a trusted, viable alternative to the pro-press pay plans.

Attracting the Mainstream

Beyond niche outlets like The Chronicle of Higher Education and rich information centers like the New York Times, most meters and walls will only be scaled by the most passionate readers. (For example, I used to read Variety online, but there is no way I am shelling out its new asking price of $248 per year.)

If enacted en masse, the new “walledoffedness culture,” as a snarky colleague of mine calls it, will leave general web surfers in the lurch and looking for more affordable options. Cue college media. If they react to the meter/wall onslaught correctly, student outlets can entice these more routine news seekers, who are in the majority.

Making it work will require some changes in student media’s editorial approach. Two main alterations are worth consideration.

1. Increase Off-Campus Reporting

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The web-age adage of how to succeed online is currently centered on hyper-localization. Cover a topic or geographic area like no one else, and your outlet will gain value for its uniqueness and market dominance. So far, student outlets have embraced this simply by continuing their long-established focus on campus and student news. But if the new journalism world is going to separate will-pay and won’t-pay readers, some extra reporting about local and even national news could be a huge draw.

Last January, The Villanovan, a student newspaper at Villanova University, was criticized for failing to cover much of President Obama’s Inauguration. At the time, editors offered a hyper-local response:

The Villanovan is and always has been the student paper of Villanova, not a national newspaper. There are four complimentary national papers on campus; students should turn to these for daily coverage. When you want to read about Villanova and students’ reactions and reflections, though, we’re your paper.

In the pay-era, this type of thinking might have to go. Readers may not be willing to pay for access to sites belonging to national or city papers. They might be looking for a free alternative, something relatively trusted that captures the pulse of their hometown. Offering some “outside” news may be a wonderful enticement to draw readers to student media sites. Hopefully people will also stay to read about what should always remain the student press’s main focus: campus news, with a student-first editorial philosophy.

So, how do you add in this extra news component, especially since it’s tough enough already to cover a single campus?

2. Extend Peer Content Sharing

We are living in a post-UWIRE world in which content distribution among college media is tougher than ever. (Though I have high hopes College News Network or a similar future initiative will save the day).

In order for student media sites to become more popular with casual news browsers, they will need to republish more news from their peers — especially biggie items about, say, the recent special election in Massachusetts or the current Sundance Film Festival.

Most high-profile news events and issues have relevance to a school in some way — at times simply because they occur near a campus — so usually at least some student media will provide coverage and commentary. Student outlets looking to fill the gap created by pay walls should seize and display these news items more prominently on their sites, providing visitors a well-rounded glimpse of the world.

Strategy for Success

So to sum up, my three-point strategy for college media success in a walled-off news media world:

  1. Stick with local news reporting depth.
  2. Add national news breadth.
  3. Be an open window, not a pay wall.

In a New York Times piece about pay plans, Rupert Murdoch is described as a Pied Piper hoping to lead a mass of media to pay-walled nirvana. My advice to college media is simple: Do not follow Murdoch the Piper. Remember that in the fairy tale, the children are lured by the lovely music into a cave, never to be heard from again…

Dan Reimold is a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, “Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy and a Student Journalism Revolution,” is due out later this year by Rutgers University Press.

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