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I am writing an adviser’s confession: Our student newspaper blog stinks.
Amid many scoops and successes this semester, The Minaret, the weekly campus paper I advise at the University of Tampa, has endured a major bust. Roughly three months in, our efforts to launch a buzzworthy and newsworthy blog have failed — spectacularly.
But I will not go quietly into that long production night, which for us is Tuesday.
Instead, I want my staff to learn from our mistakes and grow our blog, The Crescent, into something better. I also want to ensure others do not follow in our #epicfail footsteps.
In that spirit, here are the top ten reasons I believe our student newspaper blog, so far, has flopped.
1. We don’t have a dedicated blog editor.
Our managing editor oversees the blog. At first glance, that makes sense. He’s a workaholic new media whiz kid with design chops and an unbridled passion for journalism and the newspaper. So far though, it has been hellish for him.
I know we live in a journalism age in which everyone is supposed to be equipped to do everything. And I know that student newspaper staffers regularly double and triple up on their defined job scope for the greater good of the paper. But for our managing editor — someone who is already enmeshed in layout, staff oversight, copy editing, reporting, and budget issues — launching and overseeing the blog appears to be a step too far.
Even in the short time I’ve known him, I’ve been able to measure his stress not by the look on his face, but the fuzz. When he’s clean-shaven, I know all’s well and we have a solid issue. When he sports two-day stubble, I know there’s a major misspelling in a published headline and a reporter who’s gone MIA. When he periodically dives into blog work, his scruff becomes a full-blown “defeat” beard, the kind Al Gore grew after he lost the 2000 presidential election and the one Conan O’Brien continues to sport after being ousted from “The Tonight Show.”
A blog is important enough to have a staffer whose sole or most significant responsibility revolves around its maintenance. Just because a staffer in a separate position has the skills, knowledge or willingness to augment their work with additional blog oversight does not mean that they should.
2. We don’t have a blog-first mentality.
The Crescent should be our spot to break news and provide real-time previews and post-event reviews. But the power of print is subverting the blog’s potential. Students continue to hold content for the hard copy paper, seeing their role as weekly newshounds instead of real-time watchdogs. In this sense, writing for the Crescent is not perceived as a perfect avenue to report in the moment, engage readers or experiment. Instead, it is viewed as extra work, the type most staffers do not have the time or energy to take on.
3. We haven’t integrated the blog into the paper.
In our early planning, we excitedly defined the Crescent as the last piece of our puzzle, the driving engine of a three-tiered presence that also includes our print edition and website. Instead, it’s been the spare tire hidden in the trunk.
There is no real interplay between the blog and other parts of the Minaret. At editorial meetings, while brainstorming story ideas, we talk about news angles, sources, photos, editorial illustrations, information graphics, and full packaging options. The Crescent rarely, if ever, comes up.
We randomly run a few Crescent headlines in RSS feed-fashion on the side of our home page, but otherwise the blog exists in no-man’s land. It sports its own web address and masthead. At first glance, it is not immediately clear what the blog is, why it exists or who it belongs to.
4. We don’t embrace the blog’s multimedia potential.
The Crescent sports bare text and Flickr photos by the truckload. We are not running podcasts, audio slideshows, news videos, Dipity timelines or PDFs of campus security reports or student government budgets. At this point, we barely offer active links.
5. We haven’t made the blog feel very inviting.
The design is what I’ve dubbed “minimalist bleak.” The text is there, presented in the classic centerpiece one-column format, but it is tiny. The sparse whiteness of the page also appears just a bit too white, overwhelming the words and images embedded within it. We also don’t tease out enough of each post to entice readers to click through. And the small photos running with the text are not grabbing anyone’s attention.
6. We haven’t made the blog interactive.
There is no dialogue with readers. We haven’t solicited crazy Halloween stories, messy dorm room photos or #epicfailatUT tweets.
We have attempted to stir up interest in a poll question asked at the end of a big story in each week’s print edition that students must travel to the blog to answer. Our enthusiasm has waned after realizing that not many people are answering. I recently responded to a question, selecting one of the three choices, and found each one had been chosen by 33.3 percent of respondents. It turned out only three of us had answered, each one giving a different response.
7. We aren’t promoting the blog enough.
In an informal poll a few of my students and I conducted on campus, we came across only one student who even knew the Crescent existed. He had only been to the site once. When asked how he had heard about it, he giggled, replying, “Honestly, I don’t remember.”
We have not yet taken advantage of the massive power of social media to hype our efforts. Heck, we haven’t even handed out flyers or papered dorm hallway walls with the web address. And while we drop in occasional quarter-page promos about it in our print edition, they don’t sport an image, tagline or concept that in any way stands out from the bodybuilding and “quit smoking” ads running nearby.
8. We aren’t running enough fresh content.
We never expected hourly updates, but we barely scrounge together three or four solid posts a week. They tend to go live at random and rarely relate to anything timely happening on campus or in the world. The bottom line: There is absolutely no reason for anyone to check out the blog on a regular basis or in the midst of breaking news.
9. We don’t have a coherent voice.
This was a planning problem. We wanted a blog, plain and simple. But at the outset, we never really established why or what we wanted it to be. Is it meant for us to let our hair down and write without objectivity? Is it for us to tackle tougher issues and be more explicit? Is it to speak with sarcasm? Is it to drop the nonsense and literally be all-interactive, letting students write in and sound off? Is it to simply flesh out our print coverage? Answers still to come…
10. We don’t offer a consistent editorial slate.
Our blog content is scattered. As recent headlines reveal, we jump randomly from “Gossip Girl Spoiler Chat” and “How Real Men Treat Women” to “American League Cy Young Predictions” and “Another Reason Canada Should Apologize to Justin Bieber.”
The best blogs fill a niche, providing the most relevant and comprehensive information on a single slice of life, geographical area or area of interest. By contrast, our blog is a ditch- one in which we have been throwing unwanted or unneeded content, regardless of form, quality or relevancy to our readers.
Still Have Hope
On the bright side, the beauty of the web is that failure can often turn to success — and you can watch it happen in real-time. I hope in the months to come the Crescent will become a central part of our web presence. The dream scenario is for the blog to be the students’ home page, their first check in the morning, something for which they are excited to contribute, and something that fills their information niche.
But for now, as Usher once sang, this is my confession: Our student newspaper blog stinks.
Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. 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, was published this fall by Rutgers University Press.
Education content on MediaShift is sponsored by Carnegie-Knight News21, an alliance of 12 journalism schools in which top students tell complex stories in inventive ways. See tips for spurring innovation and digital learning at Learn.News21.com.Related