13 Lessons from Killing Our College Daily Paper and Pushing Digital
The party, the pizza, the beer and a duck changed everything for our campus newspaper.
On a warm October night last fall, 500 students celebrated the start of our Revolution. They sipped Revolutionale beer and swarmed the free pizza. They danced to the DJ and goofed off at the photo booth with the Duck — the school mascot here at the University of Oregon.
A year ago, we announced the death of our daily newspaper, the Oregon Daily Emerald, and the birth of a modern college media company. But it was that October night when the Emerald Media Group really took charge.
In the seven months since that party, the Revolution has worked in most of the ways we can measure. But we also see flaws yet to be fixed and lessons yet to be learned from our college peers. Here’s more on the results, the lessons and the future of the Revolution.
News: Our print readership (with just Monday and Weekend editions) grew by nearly 7 percent per issue compared to a year ago and 17 percent from two years ago. Visits to our website jumped 156 percent from a year ago. Both figures cover the first nine months of our budget year through March 30.
Business: Our total sales revenue is up 1.7 percent through April. Compared to our budget, revenue is up nearly 9 percent.
Tech: We launched four major technology projects and several smaller ones. Our Ducks GameDay iPhone app has more than 2,500 downloads and 1,000 active weekly users. Ducks Housing, our biggest project, is solving a problem for students (simplifying the housing search) and generating new revenue online.
Events: Our new marketing team organized eight major events with more than 1,000 student attendees. The team’s objective this year was to grow our Facebook audience, which is up 170 percent from a year ago.
1. Less is more: Our newsroom staff had been so overwhelmed by the duties of daily print publication that they were missing out on so much more. This year, editorial quality (especially design) is better, online news production is way up, and digital skills training has improved. You can see evidence of that in our recent coverage of a student’s death and the women’s volleyball team’s trip to the national championship match.
2. Change generates energy: The new Emerald got people’s attention and made us a campus conversation topic. The Revolution party in October was the start. A veteran editor said recently: “This year, it’s cool to wear an Emerald shirt around campus.”
3. Get the content mix right: We introduced more features and entertainment coverage to appeal to our college audience. But the biggest criticism we received from students and our own alumni is that we’ve gone soft with stories about Instagram, fashion and travel. Our newsroom team has worked to find the right balance with expanded investigative and explanatory reporting on rising tuition costs, the growth of international student enrollment, and Nike’s influence on campus.
4. Enterprise reporting is hard: We wanted hard-hitting stories. But we underestimated the support required to deliver stories at that level.
5. Format goes with frequency: We cut our print publication from five to two days a week. But just as essential, we shaved about 4 inches off the height of the paper and eliminated the “folded” newspaper look. That change created more visual magazine-style covers that pop in our distribution boxes. (More print edition samples.)
6. Change the org chart: Our editor in chief, Andy Rossback, split the newsroom into two news teams: online and print. That change gave reporters and editors more clear priorities and freedom to focus on either short, fast-breaking news online or longer, slower in-depth stories in print.
7. News is our mission but…: We exist to produce journalism that informs and educates our community. But as an independent non-profit company, we work in a hyper-competitive and fast-changing industry. We must adapt and create new ventures that serve our community in nontraditional ways. (More on this below.)
8. Marketing and brand matter: For the first time, we have a dedicated marketing team of about 10 students. They led or helped with concerts, art contests, photo booths, movie screenings, election parties, political debates and more. Their work has led to higher readership, a stronger connection to students’ daily lives, and new relationships with key advertising clients.
9. Starting new stuff is hard: We launched lots of new ventures. But we — mainly me — consistently underestimated the marketing and promotion required to grow the reader or user base.
10. Print revenue dominates, digital builds slowly: With all our changes, we still depend on our print product to produce 95 percent of our total sales revenue. It will be many, many years before digital revenue competes with print. That’s true for us and for most legacy publications, as Ken Doctor, Alan D. Mutter, the State of the News Media and countless others have documented.
11. Go beyond banner ads: All our print advertisers receive a website banner ad as part of their purchase and we sell online-only campaigns. But banner ads are not the future, for reasons well covered by PBS MediaShift and others. We started to look at new ways to serve our users and clients in digital, keeping a close eye on advertising innovators, including BuzzFeed’s work in “native advertising” and Yahoo’s advertising ideas for Tumblr. But we must go much deeper in the next year.
12. Be entrepreneurial: Journalists often shy away from the business of journalism. But we always seek ways we can share business details with our newsroom students. That’s led to new ventures like Quackd -– to generate more local web traffic –- and improved special sections that serve news and business objectives — including 25 Ducks, Best of Campus and Duck Season football magazine.
13. Think like a startup and embrace chaos: We want our staff to be comfortable with uncertainty. That’s what they will face when they leave us for the professional world. We encourage our students to dream up a business idea at breakfast, then launch after lunch.
The Revolution isn’t a one-year project. It’s a way of life for the Emerald now. We’ve adopted one of Steve Jobs’ classic lines: “If you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” And we aim for 10x projects, as Google’s Larry Page calls his company’s moon shots.
With that in mind, we’re rolling out a new list of ventures for next school year. Each of them helps meet our mission to train students, serve our community, and run a financially sustainable business. We also applied lessons we learned from Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen and Doctor to leverage our existing skills and expertise to create products that solve problems.
Snow Fall: We’ve dedicated $5,000 to fund a special projects news team. Their job: Publish one ground-breaking story per term. The team, led by next year’s editor, Sam Stites, will include reporters, photographers and multimedia producers. They will publish a cover story in print and experiment with new online storytelling techniques. We call it “Snow Fall” because we’re using The New York Times’ project as a vivid example.
Creative agency: We’re launching an advertising agency to help campus departments and small businesses connect with college students. Rossback, this year’s editor, will lead the agency with a student staff specializing in design, photography, video and copywriting. The concept has been led by professional media companies, including The Dallas Morning News, Meredith Publishing and others.
Photo booth: A student last summer suggested we try a photo booth at our Revolution party. I was skeptical. Then I was proven wrong. Students love it, and people started offering to pay us to bring the booth to their event. Next year, the photo booth will spin off as its own business serving Greek houses, student groups and campus departments. About five students will run the operation, from crafting the business plan to shooting every frame.
Ducks GameDay: Last year, we built an iPhone app for Oregon football that offered some new features but the news streams largely emulated most other sports apps. This year, our goal is to build a new social media experience for Oregon football fans — which no one else is doing.
QuadPath: Soon, we will launch a new online marketplace where students can buy, sell and share goods and services. The service is available exclusively for students and staff. Doctor’s writing on Amazon encouraged us to explore online shopping.
EmeraldU: We will expand our training programs to make sure students’ learning keeps pace with the changes in their industry.
What about you?
Newspapers at Arizona State, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and many others are doing ground-breaking work in journalism, tech and business, as Doctor covered last winter. What’s your story? Share your feedback and ideas for new ventures. Post in the comments here or:
- Twitter: #collegemedia
- Facebook: College Media Lab
- Google Hangout: We’re talking college media during a Google Hangout today at 5 p.m. Pacific time. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to join.
Ryan Frank is president of Emerald Media Group. He previously spent 11 years reporting for The Oregonian. Many, many years ago, he was the Emerald’s editor in chief He blogs about news, tech and business at The Garage and he spends too much time on Twitter.