Research (Vol. 52) Do college students want to see political news in their newspaper?

Campus Readership Habits

Jeffrey B. Hedrick, Ph.D.
Jacksonville State University


The future of print newspapers is a topic for discussion due to declining circulation numbers over time, as online news consumption rose sharply in recent years, coupled with the costs and technological challenges of the rapid advance of the mobile era (Sasseen, Olmstead, & Mitchell, 2013). Some publishers have decreased their fulltime staff, while larger papers have eliminated bureaus in hot news zones. Several daily newspapers with high circulation numbers in one Southern state (Alabama) have in fact reduced their publication frequency, eliminating at least one day and as many as four days. The Anniston Star no longer prints a Monday edition, while the Huntsville Times and Birmingham News have eliminated their Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday print editions. Those who work with students in college media are challenged by survey findings that indicate the job market for 2013 communication graduates seeking employment has “stalled,” unfavorable findings recruitment-wise for programs in general (Becker, Vlad, & Simpson, 2014, 1).

Jeffrey Hedrick
Jeffrey Hedrick

University newspapers have also been affected by economic conditions and socio-cultural changes as well (Craven, 2013). Educational revenue is unpredictable and undependable, particularly in southern states like Alabama that practice “proration,” the process of making mid-year budget cuts (Public Education in Alabama After Desegregation). States are spending about 28 percent less on higher education than they did in 2008, with Alabama spending 39.8 percent less per student (6th highest cut) over the past six fiscal years: FY08 to FY13 (Oliff, Johnson, & Leachman, 2013). These conditions are prompting student media advisers nation-wide to explore ways to make ends meet and maintain circulation numbers.

The current study examines a campus newspaper that has experienced approximately a 40 percent reduction in perceived readership, based upon papers left in the eight distribution bins across campus, over the past four years. Study participants (N=241) are students surveyed within courses at a smaller southeastern public university of approximately 9,000 students at that time. The student media are managed in a way that allows the newspaper editor to independently make decisions with regard to content. The university setting is a “college town,” one where a majority oflocal residents work for the university. From a socio-economic standpoint, local school calendars mirror the university’s, and businesses experience “down time” during the spring and summer break(s). The content of the campus newspaper does not focus on community news, and it is not published during the summer terms.

The rising popularity of social media, particularly amongst teenagers and young adults, has led to considerable research of how managing editors might spark readership interest, perhaps through social networking sites, online features or digital editions. The focus of this research, however, is more concerned with the typical student’s overall perception of the newspaper and its possible usefulness as a resource, whether it be print or online. Also of interest is whether university students at a midsize university in a more rural media market perceive their own campus newspaper as their preferred source for political and community news.

LITERATURE REVIEW

The financial outlook for colleges and universities is a continued decrease in allocations, particularly those that are dependent on public revenue (Majumdar, 2014). Many newspapers are entirely student run and produced independently from course credit, which also separates them from fulfilling a direct educational purpose. From a budgetary standpoint, because no tuition revenue has been earned (from the existence of a course), there is less justification for university funding. While most campus newspapers seek to be financially independent from their universities to preserve the student paper’s independent editorial voice, they often do not generate enough revenue to cover their publication costs. However, it is rare to find a campus newspaper that charges students for print editions.

Most student newspapers (approximately 95 percent) have needed university aid to keep publishing “amid the economic pressures that have hammered the newspaper industry” (Otto, 2014). There has been pressure on campus newspapers to consider various strategies for cutbacks, with the transition from print (hard copy) to electronic (digital file) seen the mainstay of most efforts to save money. Many universities have in fact considered the viability of the campus newspaper in print form, particularly in light of the cost savings associated with the alternative means of online-only distribution; the university studied in this research has already adapted production of its yearbook, making it available only electronically.

Student interest in reading newspapers

Both campus newspapers and the newspaper industries have a common desire to provide content that their target audience will read on a regular basis, which will increase advertising revenue as circulation numbers rise. In an article in USA Today in 2013, Kaz Komolafe, editor of the Cavalier Daily, asserts less interest in the print editions on the part of student readers has made things harder financially. Student media adviser Hillary Warren (Otterbein University) notes that bigger college papers must protect advertising revenue from the print edition, as their operating budget is amassed solely through advertising (Craven, 2013).

Depending on the size of the institution and its local media market, campus newspapers usually target their own faculty, staff, alumni, and students, while serving the young adult market demographic. Some papers, particularly those with daily editions, will cover a broader range of news topics that might interest local residents as well. A number of previous studies (e.g. Barnhurst & Wartella, 1998; Diddi & LaRose, 2006; Lewis, 2008) have explored whether members of the young adult generation, college-age students for the purpose of the current study, represent a promising market for newspapers to pursue, focusing particularly on the demographics of student readers.

Student tendency to read newspapers

A study by Barnhurst and Wartella (1991) found that the college students’ subjective experience of newspapers characterized it as a factual yet boring source for citizens, containing information that they perceive unrelated to their lives. The regular consumption or use of newspapers was identified as part of a ritual for young adults, something many do because they were introduced to the practice as children. That study was undertaken before the invention of the World Wide Web, at a time when the Internet was not an option for attaining news information. A later study was undertaken when young adults were able to use dial-up Internet service to attain their news information, with access primarily provided by America Online. A young adult sample in Schlagheck (1998) indicated the majority (68.4 percent) had read a newspaper within the past week, with 49.4 percent responding that they have used the computer to access information.

RQ1: Demographically speaking, what type of college student is more likely to read the newspaper?

One focus group of 12 college students in Nevada revealed they rarely read newspapers or books, while their interests varied from music to personal technology use. When asked what gets their attention when they do seek out news, a few females respondents indicated they don’t usually read newspapers and aren’t interested in anything that doesn’t directly affect them; one male responded he goes online for all his news, particularly information related to technology (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2007). A study by Burgess and Jones (2010) found that males read newspapers more often than females, while females prefer to read books for fun and magazines more than their counterparts. Males were more likely to read a section of the newspaper, but not necessarily any more likely to read an entire page or even a complete article. Different perceptions for reading (or not) between gender were found, with being too tired or lacking the time the typical response for not reading amongst females. Their male counterparts, on the other hand, indicated lack of interest as the key non-motivational factor, or that the content was too boring. For the current study, both the campus and local newspapers included in the survey have a heavy focus on sports and in particular football, but both contain content related to the university (that might affect or interest students). This set of circumstances suggests that gender will not be a defining variable of difference, readership-wise, in the current study.

H1: There will be no significance difference between genders, with respect to readership of both the campus and local newspapers.

Campus versus local newspaper

There have been numerous older studies by uses and gratifications researchers (e.g. O’Keefe & Spetnagel, 1973; Henke, 1985; Vincent & Basil, 1997; Parker & Plank, 2000) that have explored why people select certain news media sources over others. A study by Collins (2004) surveyed students to find that high satisfaction with the campus newspaper isn’t necessarily related to devoted readership, with the majority of students (most with high satisfaction) reading no more than one in every four issues (24). When searching for predictors of newspaper readership, age and year in school were positively correlated among undergraduates. Ethnicity was also found to be a relevant factor, with Hispanic and black students reporting higher newspaper exposure than white students. A study by Armstrong and Collins (2009) looked at credibility differences between both campus and local newspapers perceived by young adults. What they found was that whites find both campus and local newspapers more credible than nonwhites, defined by blacks and Hispanics in their study (106). Blacks were found to have lower perceptions of newspaper credibility than both white or Hispanic readers (109). Their findings for race were more statistically significant for the local newspapers, which prompted interest in addressing race in the current study. A positive correlation between exposure and perceived credibility was also noted.

H2: Race will be a significant determining factor for campus and local newspaper readership.

The significant finding by Armstrong and Collins (2009) was a lack of difference in the credibility rating from young adults between local and college newspapers. The local paper was the Gainesville Sun, which targets college students and employs student writers to engage readers. The college newspaper used for comparison was a largely circulated daily at a larger university (Alligator, University of Florida) with similar target demographics. Despite this finding of comparable credibility from a young adult readership at the University of Florida, a different survey study by these same authors notes that Florida students prefer the campus newspaper (107). Collins and Armstrong (2008) found that more students indicated reading the Independent Florida Alligator at least four days a week than those who read the Gainesville Sun even once a week (77). Both were free editions for the Florida students, available five days per week with the circulation of either newspaper close to 40,000.

RQ2: Do college students consider their campus newspaper or other local newspapers as a preferred source for political news information, as opposed to other traditional or online media?

PRINT NEWSPAPERS VERSUS ONLINE SOURCES

The technological innovation of smart technology as it might affect media behavior, in particular the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 by Apple Inc., provides an alternative method for students to acquire online news. Consumers are increasingly turning to online sources to acquire information (Cravens, 2013), with the growing popularity of smartphones fueling this trend (Asymco.com). The iPhone exploded in popularity in 2008 once the iPhone 3G was released with a more affordable $200 price tag (Chen, 2009). With the current generation of college students, the assumption can be made that they have access to online news sources, either through their own personal devices or school computers.

Media behavior studies that research newspaper consumption from 2008 forward (iPhone explosion) often focus on college students, members of the young-adult generation that Hong, Teh, and Soh (2014) have been identified as likely early adopters of more sophisticated mobile technology devices. Separate from technology adoption, the current study is more interested in what media format college students prefer when attaining their newspaper information, whether it be print or online/digital. Diddi and LaRose (2006) found the campus newspaper as the most frequented news source of communication students, with Internet portal sites and late-night comedians (e.g. The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Tonight Show) used to a lesser extent.

H3: Communication majors will be much more likely to read the campus newspaper than other majors.

A campus newspaper study of the Eastern Tennessean by McCallister (2009) found 68.5 percent of students surveyed likely to “read a printed newspaper from newsstand,” while only 49.4 percent indicated they were likely to read an online newspaper (23). An online research study in 2011 gathering information from 600 college students, a sample comprised of only those who had read the college newspaper, found 60 percent prefer to read the print version, 16 percent the online version, and 24 percent prefer either format equally (re:fuel resource, College Newspaper Readership, 2013 report).

RQ3: Will college students consider online sources better (or worse) than traditional news sources?

Outlook for print newspapers

Two more recent studies (Ha & Fang, 2012 and Panek, 2014) utilizing the uses and gratifications theoretical perspective indicate that student’s overuse of technology leads to a possible displacement effect in that more time is spent online and less time is devoted to traditional news media consumption. Contrary to the popular notion that the youngest generation relies too heavily on online sources, Lewis (2008) used an online survey of college students from two large public universities to find that most young adults feel that in five years they will be less dependent on the Internet (42). Those students, with mean age of 22, responded that their behavior of attaining information using Internet news sites or social media will likely change to a heavier reliance on traditional television news and newspapers. Another emerging pattern of news consumption from that study was the lack of interest (as construed by seldom used, generally less than one day per week) for in-depth coverage of national or international news.

Student interest in political news

The college years, because it is the time when young adults come of age as voters, is an important period to observe students’ interest in political news. Previously scholars such as Ben Bagdikian (1990) have attempted to define a correlation between newspaper reading and political engagement, while others have sought to define broader dimensions of student interest. For instance, Jeffries and Atkin (1996) surveyed students taking basic computer courses and used academic major, non-media leisure (activi-ties), and news content preferences as variables associated with newspaper media use. They found positive correlations between newspaper reading in all subjects (defined by their parameters) except those content areas related to leisure-time activity (Jeffries & Atkin, 18). Where academic major was concerned, humanities majors such as English were more inclined to read newspapers, while those majoring in the engineering, math, and sciences indicated less desire to use print media.

Student preference(s) for campus newspaper.

A telephone survey of college students from one southern university in McCallister (2009) reveals that almost half of the respondents felt the editorials, columns, editorial cartoons, and letters to the editors “sometimes reflect issues of interest to them.” The minority students were less likely to feel that the paper reflects issues that interest them, and the respondents who were seniors gave less favorable reviews of content el-ements than their freshmen counterparts. When responding to a question asking what type of subject(s) they would like to see more coverage of in the paper, politics was the seventh most popular category from slightly more than 5 percent of respondents. When asked why they didn’t read the newspaper, the most prevalent response from more than 30 percent was “no time to read the East Tennessean.” When given the opportunity to provide ways to improve the newspaper, community news/events outside the campus made up more than 8 percent of the suggestions.

Lizzio and Wilson (2009) found that university student representatives, those that by definition have some interest in politics through their organizational participation, reported that the personal networks are their preferred way of collecting information. The question of what prompts interest has been investigated many times by other researchers, with Schlagheck (1998) revealing that many students reading the newspaper feel that it assists them by informing them about important issues.

There are two local newspapers published by the same company that are the main competitors for student readership: one weekly consensus-oriented newspaper that serves the community, and a second daily newspaper that serves the surrounding counties (circulation base of approximately 25,000). A few communication faculty members proposed a new focus for the campus newspaper that might include local community news. The underlying questions were: (1) whether the students creating the content of the campus newspaper (primarily communication majors) would embrace such a change?; (2) whether the prospective student readers would be interested in such a revised format?

RQ4: Will students living in a college town welcome local, political, or community news in their campus newspaper?

The current study predicts a correlation between media use and interest and/or perceptions of credibility concerning campus newspapers found in previous studies (Jeffries & Atkin, 1996; Schlagheck, 1998; Armstrong & Collins, 2009).

H4: Students will indicate a preference for the local newspaper for its non-campus related information, whether it be local, state, or national political news and events.

METHODOLOGY

After an informal pre-test using graduated communication (COM) students, revisions were made and questionnaires were distributed and collected by the investigator.

Survey questionnaire

The purpose of the questionnaire was to gather information from current students, self-report responses from young adults to inquiries about their newspaper use. The first three questions addressed whether (or not) political news was part of their news gathering routine. This was followed by a set of two questions designed to verify any interest with respect to local political news. The first inquired whether they were aware of local government council meetings that addressed housing policy in the local city, in particular a regulation zoning areas where no more than two un-related adults could occupy a household or dwelling. The second ascertained where or how they learned about this news event, if responding in the affirmative. Another set of two questions queried the participants about their use of different media formats, in the particular context of providing information related to their college town.

The survey then specifically addressed their reading habit(s) with respect to the campus newspaper, as well whether they considered it an appropriate forum for community news. This was followed with a question concerning their use (if any) of other newspapers, whether print or online. Students were then asked for their media format preference for acquiring news, whether it be print, broadcast, or online. A different group of questions addressing attitude towards technology use and in particular mobile device use and texting habits followed. The last survey question concerned the importance of free speech to their personal life. The survey concluded with a section that gathered important demographic information about each respondent, including age range, ethnicity, gender, academic major, and voter registration status.

Sampling procedure

A variety of students were needed to contrast newspaper reading habits by academic major, in an effort to survey prospective readers of the campus newspaper. The researcher obtained permission from ten professors, only five of which were from the communication department (COM), to reach students in a variety of different academic areas, as well as provide enough response to make a valid comparison between COM students and other majors. About half of the participants were recruited from general education courses, those that every student must take to earn their degree, regardless of major. Whenever administered, the researcher introduced himself to students as a professor conducting a study on students’ use of newspapers, relating that the primary purpose was to gather information to assess the future of the campus newspaper. Students were informed that participation was voluntary and that completion of the survey would be construed as consent. The average time spent on the questionnaires was 10-15 minutes, with some individual students taking as long as half an hour.

Sample

The goal of this sampling procedure was to obtain representation from a cross-section of students representing various fields of study, in an attempt to exemplify the diversity of the target population for the campus newspaper – the entire student body. The students’ participation was voluntary, with only two non-communication students that declined. In all, 26 different majors were represented with groupings clustered as administratively overseen by department (Table 1).

TABLE 1. DISTRIBUTION OF PARTICIPANTS, BY ACADEMIC MAJOR

Study emphasis

COM undecided

Frequency

39

Percent (a)

16.2

COM public relations 36 14.9
COM broadcasting 30 12.4
COM print journalism 8 3.3
COMMUNICATION 113 46.9 a
Political science/pre-law 8 3.3
English 7 2.9
Biology 7 2.9
Math/computer science 5 2.1
Music 5 2.1
Art 4 1.7
Chemistry 4 1.7
Psychology 3 1.2
Drama 1 0.4
ARTS & SCIENCES 44 18.3 a
Health, physical. Education, exercise science 13 5.4
Criminal justice 13 5.4
Education 12 5.0
Business/finance 12 5.0
Nursing 12 5.0
Social work 2 0.8
PROFESSIONAL (b) 64 26.6 a
Undecided/undeclared 11 4.6
Masters English 5 2.1
Masters education 4 1.7
OTHER 20 8.3 a
  1. All percentages are calculated by row, rounded up and based on 241 participants; section totals do not necessarily add up to column totals accordingly, and overall exceeds 100 percent accordingly.
  2. The Professional category includes all majors not within the College of Arts & Sciences at the university being studied.

Sample demographics.

Of the 241 students who participated, 110 (45.6 percent) were male and 131 (54.4 percent) were female. The age ranged from 17 years old (2) to more than 30 years old (8), with the majority (121) falling within the 20-22 year-old range. This sample was predominantly comprised of younger adults, with 179 (74.3 percent) traditional-age respondents, defined for the purpose of this study as 17 to 22 years old. This also reflected the typical university student age-wise, which had been defined as 22 years old during the last enrollment year. A total of 150 participants (62.2 percent) indicated they were Caucasian, 70 African-American (29 percent), 6 Latino (2.5 percent), 1 Asian (0.4 percent), and 13 selecting “mixed/other” as their race; one student declined to answer this field. This closely resembled the ethnic profile of the university at that time, which was 65.2 percent, 28.3 percent black/African-American, 1.4 percent Hispanic, and 0.8 percent Asian (JSU Fact Book, 2012).

RESULTS

RQ1: Demographically speaking, what type of college student is more likely to read the newspaper? The study found there was little difference based on gender, race or age that could accurately identify the typical newspaper reader in college.

H1: There will be no significant difference between genders, with respect to readership of both the campus and local newspapers. The study results affirmed H1, that there were no significance differences in campus readership between respondents based on gender (Levene’s test for equality of variance, p = .004). A Pearson test rejected the null hypothesis as well, finding that there was no correlation between gender and campus readership (p = 0.533, needs to be p<.05). Males and females were found to have the same inclinations, based on their response to a question that asked when and how often they read their campus newspaper. When that question changed to their reading habits of other newspapers, there was a similar finding of no difference between genders (p = 0.488).

H2: Race will be a significant determining factor for campus and local newspaper readership. The results of this survey significantly rejected H2, going against what had been the case in previous studies introduced in the literature review. There was no relationship between a respondent’s ethnicity and their likelihood for reading the campus newspaper, as well as lack of correlation with respect to likelihood for race to be a factor in determining whether a respondent reads other newspapers (p = .687 for campus newspaper; p = .714 for local newspaper; either needs to be p>.05 to be significant). Ethnicity was tested across eight different variables, showing only one correlation of difference(s) to exist. The results showed a relationship of significance between a respondent’s ethnicity and his/her perception of the importance of free speech (p = .025, needs to be p>.05 to be significant).

The only other determining demographic variable found was similar to Jeffries & Atkin (1996), which found that humanities majors such as English were more likely readers.

H3: Communication majors will be much more likely to read the campus newspaper than other majors. There were 113 students that indicated they were communication (COM) majors, while 115 indicated no affiliation to the communication department. The question asked how often the respondent read the campus newspaper with the following ordinal scale choices (1= “never”; 2= “not often”; 3 = “sometimes”; 4 = “often”; 5 = “always”) as shown in Table 3. Those that were COM majors had a (2.88) mean response, while those with no relation to the Communication program had a (2.26) mean response. Both were low averages, between “not often”(2) and “sometimes”(3), but the difference was of significance (p = .001, needs to be > .05 to be significant). This affirms H3, finding that Communication majors were more likely to read the newspaper, as opposed to all other majors, though none of the majors were found very likely be a “typical newspaper reader.”

RQ2: Do college students consider their campus newspaper or other local newspapers as a preferred source for political news information, as opposed to other traditional or online media? The student response for reading newspapers in general was low, that students were not reading them often. Documented in Table 2 was the low reading rate for all newspapers, with a comparable finding in Table 3 for the campus newspaper. Students indicated a modest preference for online over traditional sources (Table 4), further suggesting their lack of affinity for newspapers in general as a political news source.

TABLE 2. DO STUDENTS READ OTHER NEWSPAPERS?

Frequency Percent Cum. Percent
I rarely do (read) = 1 91 37.8 37.8
once per week = 2 64 26.6 64.3
two-three times per week = 3 51 21.2 85.5
four-five times per week = 4 12 5.0 90.5
basically every day = 5 23 9.5 100.0
TOTAL 241 100.0

Notes. Statistically speaking, the mean response was 2.22 (about once per week) and the mode response was 1 (“I rarely read other newspapers”).

TABLE 3. DO STUDENTS READ THEIR CAMPUS NEWSPAPER?

never = 1 Frequency
80
Percent
33.2
Cum. Percent
33.2
not often = 2 45 18.7 51.9
sometimes = 3 46 19.1 71.0
often = 4 46 19.1 90.0
always = 5 24 10.0 100.0
TOTAL 241 100.0

Notes. Statistically speaking, the mean response was 2.54 and the mode response was 1 (“I never read the campus newspaper”).

TABLE 4. WHAT ARE THE STUDENT’S CURRENT NEWS MEDIA PREFERENCES?

Online preferred over
Traditional (a)
Politics as News
Routine (b)
Community News in Campus
Newspaper (c)
not at all = 1 25 (10.4) 34 (14.1) 10 (4.1)
probably not = 2 42 (17.4) 64 (26.6) 33 (13.7)
somewhat = 3 60 (24.9) 77 (32.0) 73 (30.3)
probably so = 4 50 (20.7) 47 (19.5) 79 (32.8)
definitely = 5 64 (26.6) 19 (7.9) 46 (19.1)
TOTAL RESPONSES 241 (100) 241 (100) 241 (100)
mean response 3.36 2.80 3.49

Note: Response rate(s) reported as “Frequency (percent)”

  1. Response to Do you prefer to get your news online, as opposed to either print or broadcast?
  2. Response to Is keeping up with local or state politics a part of your daily/weekly news search(s)?
  3. Response to Would you like to see media coverage of the local community in the student newspaper?

RQ3: Will college students consider online sources better (or worse) than traditional news sources? An Internet news source was the discovery means for 10 students, only 4.1 percent, which actually goes against the average response in Table 4 that indicated a modest preference for online over traditional media outlets. With respect to the importance that college students place on various media issues that involve the acquisition of news information in general, the findings were that students place little importance on national political news (Table 5).

TABLE 5. STUDENTS’ PERCEIVED IMPORTANCE OF VARIOUS MEDIA ISSUES

Traditional News (a) Online Resources (b) National Politics (c) Free Speech
Communication (d)
not important = 1 8 (3.3) 5 (2.1) 24 (10.0) 2 (0.8)
slightly important = 2 26 (10.8) 27 (11.2) 72 (29.9) 11 (4.6)
neutral importance = 3 47 (19.5) 51 (21.2) 52 (21.6) 46 (19.1)
somewhat important = 4 81 (33.6) 81 (33.6) 56 (23.2) 53 (22.0)
very important = 5 79 (32.8) 77 (32.0) 37 (15.4) 128 (53.1)
TOTAL RESPONSES 241 (100) 241 (100) 241 (100) 240 (99.6)
mean response 3.82 3.82 3.04 4.22

Note: Response rate reported as “Frequency (percent)”

  1. Response to How important do you feel it is for students to pay close attention to print newspaper or broadcast television media coverage of local news and events in their college town?
  2. Response to How important do you feel it is for students to make good use of the online resources providing news and event information relevant to their college town?
  3. Response to How important is keeping up with political news around the country to your daily life?
  4. Response to How important is your personal free speech with respect open/unfettered communication?

RQ4: Will students living in a college town welcome local, political, or community news in their campus newspaper? The approach used to ascertain how much interest students might have in political news relied on the response to three questions. First, students were asked, “How closely do you pay attention to the media coverage of local political news?” The response in Table 6 indicates that they have a “passive” interest, with 64 percent indicating they devote casual attention or less to political news. The typical student (mode) of a middle-heavy distribution responded “casually=3” with 3.08 as the average response as well. Second, when students were asked whether keeping up with local or state politics was part of their news routine, most responded that it was not (Table 4). These two findings were taken into consideration, along with a third survey question that determined whether or not students had knowledge of a council meeting that addressed changing city zoning codes that might impact the student’s ability to find housing. That question assessed awareness of the fact that the local city council was voting on an ordinance that would make it illegal for more than two non-related adults to reside in a dwelling within a district that adjoins the campus. If passed, the ordinance would affect students desiring to share an off campus dwelling/ home, limiting their possibilities. It had received attention in the campus newspaper, in other local newspapers, on nightly newscasts, and through fliers placed in resident mailboxes by lobbyists.

TABLE 6. DO STUDENTS DEVOTE ATTENTION TO MEDIA COVERAGE OF POLITICS?

Frequency Percent Cum. Percent
not at all = 1 12 5.0 5.0
very little attention = 2 59 24.5 29.5
casually = 3 84 34.9 64.3
somewhat closely = 4 70 29.0 93.4
very closely = 5 16 6.6 100.0
TOTAL 241 100.0

Notes. Statistically speaking, the mean response was 3.08 and the mode response (typical student) was 3 (“I pay casual attention to media coverage of local political news”).

With respect to attaining political news, the results reveal that only 107 of the 241 respondents (44.4 percent) were even aware of the ordinance vote, regardless of source (Table 7). Word of mouth, either through friends or professors, was the dominant source for approximately 61 percent, with the local daily newspaper the most popular traditional media type. The results indicated that the majority of young adults seeking to acquire local political information were NOT reading newspapers, however, with 19.6 percent using off-campus newspaper outlets while only 8.4 percent consulted their campus newspaper. This suggests most are not necessarily interested in acquiring political news (in general) from such media sources as well. The results infer that, while students might respond “yes,” that they would be interested in seeing more local, political, or community news in their campus newspaper, their current news awareness suggests otherwise.

TABLE 7. STUDENT SOURCE FOR LOCAL POLITICAL NEWS EVENT

News information source Frequency Percent Awareness
Percentage (a)
no source (did not know) 134 55.6
from friends or others (students) 53 22.0 49.5
Anniston Star (daily newspaper) 15 6.2 14.0
professor in class 12 5.0 11.2
television newscast 12 5.0 11.2
internet news source 10 4.1 9.3
The Chanticleer (campus newspaper) 9 3.7 8.4
student government association 4 1.7 3.7
Jacksonville News (weekly newspaper) 4 1.7 3.7
landlord/mailbox 3 1.2 2.8
facebook 3 1.2 2.8
job/realtor 2 0.8 1.9
other local weekly newspaper 1 0.4 0.9
other national newspaper 1 0.4 0.9
email 1 0.4 0.9
radio 1 0.4 0.9
media professional 1 0.4 0.9
flier on Mountain Street 1 0.4 0.9
TOTAL STUDENT PARTICIPANTS N=241

Notes: 15 students indicated multiple sources for acquisition of this information; two indicated as many as four sources (daily paper, campus paper, Internet, friends).

  1. The Awareness Percentage column calculations are based on the 44.4 percent of the total respondents that were aware of the local news event, and specifies percentage-wise how those 107 respondents acquired such knowledge.

H4: Students will indicate a preference for the local newspaper for its non-campus related information, whether it be local, state, or national political news and events. When asked whether they would like to see community news in their campus newspaper, the response suggested that students that would prefer inclusion of such reportage. The 3.49 average response (Table 4) was roughly between “somewhat” and “probably so.” The students’ lack of awareness in the local political event, however, did not support this response. The numbers in Table 7 reveal how students learned about one local political news issue, and only nine students (3.7 percent overall) relied on the campus newspaper. There were 21 students (8.7 percent overall) that used print sources, with 20 reading one of the local newspapers (there was one national). Those students using traditional news media increases to 13.7 percent once those who used broadcast news sources (12 students) are considered.

LIMITATIONS

The study was an initial attempt to obtain a sample from students that might be representative of the entire student population, and surveys were administered in general education courses accordingly. Because of time and budget limitations, the researcher could not gather data from all the various upper division courses at the university, so many of the majors were under-represented. The results do not necessarily reflect the readership habits across the full range of students in various class standings either, a sample representative of the number of freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior students enrolled. What the results do offer, however, is a cross-section of current and quite possibly continuing students that will be representative of the prospective readership of the newspaper for the next few years.

DISCUSSION

This research has uncovered some interesting details about the typical college student’s inclination to read newspapers. Many might consider these as disturbing trends, if a survey of one smaller southern university can be generalized to other universities with similar attributes; these might include a more rural setting, a college-town environment, and a smaller media market, just to name a few. To dispel any possible notion(s) that the students in charge of editing/producing the newspaper were inadequately trained in the basics of news production, the communication department has been ACEJMC-accredited since 2008, and was recently re-accredited in 2014 while given an excellent review by the visiting team. The program has made every effort to adapt to the changing media landscape, including changing its print journalism sequence to digital journalism while making social media, Internet production, and multimedia production course requirements for all majors.

The popularity of social media outlets have led many college students to adopt a lifestyle where their mobile devices are their primary device for acquiring information, and the fact that in 2012 about half of college students owns an iPhone or other smartphone is a testimonial to this. In 2013, the percentage of college students who owned smartphones rose to around three-quarters, including 77 percent amongst the younger students and 74 percent of the older students surveyed (Dahlstrom, Walker, & Dziuban, EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research, 2013). The current study found that most students rely on their friends or professors to attain news of one local political event, however, a word-of-mouth acquisition of information as opposed to media-reliant. This doesn’t match the results from a telephone survey of southern college students by McCallister (2009), where that study found mass emails from the university to be the main source campus news and events. This use of personal networks for collecting political information, previously found in Lizzio and Wilson (2009), continues to be observed even with the increased use of mobile technologies by students in the current study.

From a workplace perspective, student media advisers are feeling pressure from administrators above to cut expenses, while also addressing the demands that rapid technological change represent. Academic programs need to “find ways to do more with less,” when addressing the use of new media technology (Swanson, 2011, 84). From an audience perspective, Becker, Vlad and Simpson (2013) surveyed recent bachelor’s degree recipients to note a decreasing trend in their likelihood to read a newspaper or magazine. The communication graduates were found to be more likely to read news on their mobile device, as well as more likely to have viewed a video online, when compared against survey results from the previous year. These findings support the popular notion that mobile devices and social media are the ‘wave of the future’ when targeting those in the young adult demographic. This study was one example of an effort to find some way to reinvigorate student interest in their campus newspaper.

CONCLUSION

A few things were made clear by the numbers: (1) Most of the students were not reading their campus newspaper regularly, and about a third had never read it; (2) This same lack of interest in reading applies to all newspapers. This belies the alternative explanation that the reason students aren’t reading the campus newspaper might be a lack of professionalism. This study found students to have little interest in local community politics, and the assumption is that the more professional newspapers in the area are doing an adequate job of reporting the news. There are, in fact, four community newspapers and two dailies newspapers operating under the same publishing company in the area, all with established online editions that might attract the attention of the primary target audience (18to 24-year-old college students) of this study. This target age range is based on students beginning college as 18-year-olds, and relies on evidence from the recent accreditation self study that revealed the typical communication student takes between five and one-half and six years to graduate.

The future of campus newspapers is in a precarious state, as the findings of this study attest to the fact that students simply do not consider the newspaper as their first or preferred choice for news information. The university under study had in fact already instituted major cutbacks to one of the other student media, the campus yearbook, making it an electronic-only (PDF) publication in 2011. The yearbook is no longer a student media publication, and is now produced under the guidance of the marketing and communications department. Because the university has instituted a new program (Quality Enhancement Program) that will issue incoming freshmen new iPads beginning in the fall of 2015, this will invariably affect the strategic choices made for distributing student media into the future. This will be further incentive to repeat the surveys again in the spring of 2016, once the incoming freshmen are acclimated to their new technology. The limitations of the current study with respect to budget and audience reach may well be alleviated if studied in the (future) context of the new iPad technology. Further research needs to be conducted to ascertain just how interested students are in political news as well.

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Jeffrey Hedrick
Jeffrey Hedrick

Jeffrey B. Hedrick, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Jacksonville State University, teaching undergraduate courses in mass communication that include law, public relations, research, media literacy and Internet production. He served as a media adviser for the campus yearbook at Baker University and has served as a webmaster for several student publications and the Great Lakes Interscholastic Press Association.


APPENDIX. NEWS AWARENESS SURVEY

  1. How closely do you pay attention to the media coverage of local political news?
  • 1=very closely | 2=somewhat closely | 3=casually | 4= very little attention | 5=not at all
  1. Is keeping up with local or state politics a part of your daily/weekly news search(s)?
  • 1=definitely | 2=probably so | 3=somewhat | 4=probably not | 5=not at all
  1. How important is keeping up with political news around the country to your daily life?
  • 1=not important | 2=slightly important | 3=neutral | 4= somewhat important | 5=very important
  1. Did you know that there has been considerable debate in a Jacksonville City Council meetings concerning a proposed revisal to housing policy, a revision to the current zoning regulations, that has attracted considerable media attention?
  • Yes continue or No skip to #6
  1. If yes, where did you first go/how did you first learn about this news event?
  • Anniston Star | other local daily newspaper | local weekly newspaper | national daily paper | The Chanticleer | Internet news source | political blog | email | professor in class | Television newscast |from friends or others | other             
  1. How important do you feel it is for students to pay close attention to newspaper or television media coverage of local news and events in their college town?
  • 1=not important | 2=slightly important | 3=neutral | 4= somewhat important | 5=very important
  1. Do you read the student newspaper, The Chanticleer, on a regular (weekly) basis?
  • 1=always | 2=often | 3=sometimes | 4=not often | 5=never
  1. Would you like to see media coverage of the local community in the student newspaper?
  • 1=definitely | 2=probably so | 3=somewhat | 4=probably not | 5=not at all
  1. Do you ever read any other newspapers, whether they be print or online, on a regular basis?
  • I rarely do | once per week | two/three times | four/five times | every day
  1. Do you prefer to get your news online, as opposed to either print or broadcast?
  • 1=definitely | 2=probably so | 3=somewhat | 4=probably not | 5=not at all
  1. How important is your personal free speech with respect open/unfettered communication?
  • 1=not important | 2=slightly important | 3=neutral | 4= somewhat important | 5=very important

Important voluntary personal data would also be appreciated:

12. What is your age? (18-19) (20-22) (23-25) (26-30) (over 30) ; other: 

14. Race? Caucasian Black/African American | Latino | Asian/Pacific Indian/So. Asian | mixed/other

15. Are you living on campus or in an apartment/house close to the university? Yes or No

16. Are you a registered voter? Yes or No

17. Are you a communication major or minor? No ; If Not, Please specify your major: Undecided or                                                                  

18. What is your gender? Male or Female

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