In an old episode of “The West Wing,” a leader of an AIDS-stricken African nation tells the president plainly, “It’s a terrible thing to beg for your life.”

The quote comes to mind as I read about the current plight of the Technician, the student newspaper at North Carolina State University. In a recent editorial, the few remaining staff at the newspaper declared that the publication “is looking down the business end of the barrel and is in serious need of student involvement … Without student support, the paper could cease publication at the end of the semester … Today’s paper was only on the stand because of what the staff would describe as a printing miracle.”

The newspaper’s decline rapidly accelerated last fall when a lack of staffers in higher editorial positions left the multi-tasking editor-in-chief “overwhelmed and overworked.” His extra effort in the newsroom cost him in the classroom, leading to poor grades which, ironically enough dealt him an automatic suspension from the newspaper. So the guy holding the paper together by the skin of his ink-stained hands was suddenly gone. Cue free-fall, or what one editor called, “sort of mayhem.”

But the Technician can take heart in the advent of small campus publications that have sprung up online on smaller budgets, often surving and thriving without print editions.

On the Cusp of Extinction

The Technician’s mayhem is also an important reminder: College media, on the whole, are not rich, overstaffed, well-oiled machines. In fact, most student journalism outlets are one bad semester, staff shortage or poor leadership transition away from near-extinction every academic term.

And yet, this reality is often overlooked on campuses and within news reports.

A few years back, Newsweek told the story of a young man named David Burrick. As the piece noted:

David Burrick edits a daily newspaper in Philadelphia. When big news breaks he deploys a staff of 200 reporters and photographers, flying them across the country if necessary, keeping an eye toward his $1 million budget. And then he goes to class. Burrick’s paper? The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania. “We’re a bunch of 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds,” he says, “but we operate like a major business and a professional paper.”

What the article did not mention: The DP, Daily Northwestern, Independent Florida Alligator, Columbia Spectator, Daily Californian, and a few other big-money campus pubs are the exceptions, not the rule.

For the most part, college media are about the mayhem, not the millions. Many college news outlets are run on shoestring budgets. They are supported by the blood, sweat, and red pens of a small group of unpaid students who juggle competing commitments and operate with little journalistic training. A fair number of papers are run out of dorm rooms and via meet-ups in campus cafeterias — newsrooms are a luxury that staff or their schools cannot afford. Ultimately, most student media are not looking to break the bank. They are fighting simply to stay alive.

Fortunately, student media survival and success with less — less staff, less training, less time — has never been more assured. Need proof? Look online, and onward.

A ‘Rogue Campus Blog’

Onward State, a student news site at Penn State University, has been dubbed a “rogue campus blog” and a “sociological petri dish.” Its founder, Davis Shaver, calls the outlet simply “a blogging fraternity.”

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The frat rushed into hyperlinked existence in November 2008, built atop Shaver’s frustrations with what he considered the “technologically-phobic bureaucracy” of the campus newspaper, the Daily Collegian. Just 16 months later, even while still “as new as Joe Paterno is old,” it has grown into a 20-student operation averaging 40,000 visitors per month, regularly breaking stories, and “giving the Daily Collegian a run for its money.”

(A similar online-only publication, NYU Local serves the New York University campus.)

Blueprint for Reinvention

Onward State’s “flash-bang success” is a chin-up for college media in mayhem, and a reason for the troubled Technician to take heart — and take notice. The site’s structure and style serve as a potential blueprint for saving (and reinventing) a student newspaper in peril.

The key rules it breaks are as follows:

  • Print, Out: Print publications provide student media an undeniable presence on campus, but they are expensive and require extraordinary care and special design skills to produce. Onward State’s online-only push has allowed fewer staff to put out more news with much greater ease. Staffers serving on what I’ll call Technician 2.0 could conceivably publish on their own terms, at their own speed, and without the specter of empty pages looming over them, waiting to be filled. As a student editor at an online news outlet at Ohio University told me a few years ago, “Ink stains are so 20th century.”
  • Virtual Workspace: Face-to-face meetings and nights in the newsroom can be great for bonding, but are increasingly overwhelming for students already weighed down by classes, club meetings, and upcoming Spring Break trips. Onward State operates digitally, with a (Google) wave and a nod to the online-inspired portability of modern undergrads. Staff can live their lives and balance their outside workloads while still communicating constantly and feeding the site. No last-minute trudging across campus or sigh-inducing newsroom shifts needed.
  • User Friendly: Onward State has 20 dedicated staffers, and more than 40,000 potential contributors. Since its inception, the outlet has focused on generating involvement and content from the student body, in part by using social media. As Shaver recently told Mashable, “We focused on our Twitter presence from the very beginning, and it’s paid dividends for us in terms of referring traffic to the site and really becoming a part of the community … in the sense that people will actually send stories to us on Twitter.”
  • Dress Down: Onward State is snarky, personal, occasionally gossipy — and extremely well-informed. Too many student media think the key is parroting the professionals. One student described it to me as “dress up journalism.” A campus outlet with a tiny or inexperienced editorial board should not pretend to be the New York Times. It’s a disservice to student readers, and a turn-off to potential staff. Drop the pretense. Do something else, something new. As journalist and blogger Will Sullivan wrote, “College is one of the few times in your career that you can try something totally wacky, fail and it won’t really set you back or ruin your career. Try alternative story forms. Learn new technologies. Break the mold of traditional journalism. Your generation and its ability to innovate will save the craft.”

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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