A Case Study of Integrated Student Media
By Patrick Howe and Brady Teufel
This study explores the quantifiable and cultural changes that occurred at one large college student media outlet during the five years after it combined several distinct media to form a fully “integrated” newsroom. The study draws on participant observation, in-depth interviews, examinations of web and social media analytics and written analysis performed by student leaders to identify key objectives and outcomes. It explores obstacles, both cultural and technological, that arose, and it identifies opportunities for other college media to serve audiences using a similar approach.
The Best Medium for the Story: A Case Study of Integrated Student Media
College media outlets are often thought of as places where students learn the basic skills, tools, techniques and ethical standards that they will hone in the professional world.
Sometimes, however, student media operations are uniquely suited for the forging of paths ahead of trends in the profession. Because they are partially insulated from marketplace pressures and have fewer barriers to change, student media operations can serve as laboratories for ideas that professional newsrooms are unwilling to gamble on, or whose economic value is unproven.
This paper explores one ambitious student media makeover effort over a six-year period (2012-2018) at California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo, California). Journalism department students, faculty, and staff collaborated in the makeover, which aimed to overhaul traditional labels, duties and cultural distinctions, and combine all student media into one digitally oriented operation, while still retaining all the original outlets. These outlets included a broadcast television operation, a print newspaper, a website, a public relations agency, an advertising firm and a music-oriented radio station. The ongoing effort has been largely successful, and this case study is an attempt to provide guidelines to those who might attempt similar transformations.
Cal Poly’s student media overhaul was, on its face, a type of convergence in that it was the unifying of several distinct entities. And yet that term is somewhat ambiguous due to the wide variety of ways it has come to be used. Thus, examining this change first entails an exploration of appropriate terminology. As past work has identified cultural, physical and organizational and structural factors as obstacles to integration efforts, these will be explored in turn. Finally, this research provides an examination of the current expectations, curriculum and cultures of modern campus journalism.
Problems with “Convergence”
Wotanis, Richardson, and Zhong (2015) noted that scholars have tried for 15 years to nail down an accepted definition of media convergence, without success. Nicholas Negroponte first popularized the term in the late 1970s to describe the overlap of broadcast, print and computer industries (Fidler 1997), but Jenkins (2006), argues that media convergence encompasses ideas beyond Negroponte’s technological approach that extend to cultural and economic factors. Some theorists (e.g. Lawson-Borders 2003) have adopted broad positions such as choosing to view convergence as a realm of possibilities or cultural changes enabled by the digital revolution. In practice, Kraeplin and Batsell (2013) found that from 2000-2010 the term media convergence was used primarily to describe cross-platform partnerships such as newspapers partnering with television stations. Since 2010, however, the trend has been toward individual news outlets offering their own media products.
Quandt and Singer came close to using terminology that describes the sort of media transformation observed in this study. The authors suggest that “full” convergence, “ideally entails planning and producing stories based on the use of each medium’s strengths” (2009, 131). This idea corresponds with the goals student media leaders identified for their integration. The Quandt and Singer model, however, is problematic in that it, firstly, conceptually limits the output to two platforms (a legacy platform such as a broadcast or newspaper, and a digital version of that platform) and, secondly, assumes that all content will be produced for both outlets. To avoid nomenclature-related confusion, the term ‘integration’ will be employed to describe the type of philosophical and organizational structure embraced by Mustang News at Cal Poly.
Adapting to change in media organizations
Change at media organizations is often difficult and disruptive (Sylvie and Witherspoon, 2001). A rich body of work has identified common obstacles to organizational change in media. These include social identity constructs, the perceived needs of customers or audience members, conflicts related to news values and newsroom culture, and stresses over organization and autonomy.
Culture and values
Numerous studies have found that cultural issues impede newsroom convergence efforts. One source of tension is the creation of social identity based on platform affiliations. Filak, in a 2004 study and a 2016 follow-up, found that TV and newspaper journalists were biased against each other and that these biases influenced their perceptions of the value of convergence. B.W. Silcock & S. Keith (2006), observed that print reporters would look down on the one-source stories used in broadcast but dismiss the audience’s appreciation for actually seeing a news event with their own eyes. One early student media convergence effort at Brigham Young University failed in part because print and broadcast reporters remained distrustful of each other five years into the effort (Hammond, Petersen, and Thomsen 2000).
Yet cultures change. Singer (2004) observed in four case studies that print and broadcast journalists could be “resocialized” to respect each other and each other’s media. Relevant to this study, Singer noted that journalism schools could be agents of “pre-newsroom socialization” to foster integration.
Robinson (2011) found that physically integrating newsrooms to place traditional print workers, online editors and producers in the same room helped integration efforts. Yet, even at the height of TV-newspaper partnerships, physical integration was rare. Lowrey (2005) found that only 2.7 percent of 193 partnerships physically shared a centralized news space. A survey of campus media by Wotanis, Richardson and Zhong (2015) found that only 8 percent of converged media organizations physically shared the same newsroom space.
In addition to spatial challenges, one of the most difficult problems in integrating different legacy platforms is settling on a management structure that works. In interviews with print and television reporters newly working together, Silcock and Keith (2006) noted the shock that print reporters felt when confronted with high-energy, fast-paced news budget meetings, which they found both exciting and, at times, reckless with regard to solid coverage of the news. Similar clashes happen in the online realm. In their account of what went wrong with digital news pioneer First Look Media (Greenwald 2014), editors described the mismatch between freedom-loving journalists and Silicon Valley-trained managers. Hammond, Peterson and Thomsen (2000) identified the increased complexity involved in managing an integrated student newsroom as one major obstacle.
Journalism education in the 21st century has embraced the concept, or at least the terminology, of digital convergence, with most college programs offering classes or tracks in the area (Kolodzy et al. 2014; Sarachan 2011). There have been proposals regarding how to do this well within the curriculum (Bhuiyan 2010), but the student media operations associated with these colleges seem to have been slower to truly integrate. Half of 142 campus media advisors surveyed by Wotanis, Richardson and Zhong (2015) reported that they were “converged,” but half of those defined cross-platform partnerships as the extent of their convergence. Most did not consider collaborative management or shared space essential to their efforts. The authors found that barriers to student media integration included platform-specific social identification and competition, a lack of resources, and lack of support from peers and administrators.
Interviews and research conducted by Cal Poly staff and faculty leading up to integration (J. Jenkins, 2014, S. Buttry, personal communication, May 13, 2013), indicated that only a handful of college media organizations across the nation were known to have combined their broadcast, print and digital operations under one common management while still maintaining the distinct entities. Former Mustang News Editor J.J. Jenkins, in a 2014 senior project capstone reviewing the Cal Poly integration effort, singled out four campus newsrooms that had undergone similar (but not identical) transformations. These included the Emerald at the University of Oregon, the Spartan Daily at California State University (San Jose), TCU360.com at Texas Christian University and the Red & Black at the University of Georgia. None could be found that included public-relations outlets in the transition. This literature review could find no academic work examining the effects of such full integration efforts. Some college media have eliminated distinct media such as print publications or broadcast operations and now publish only via their web and social media platforms. But this is different from the full integration discussed here. That single-channel publishing is an integration motivated by economics and convenience, where the only option is to publish digitally regardless of which medium might tell the story best. In contrast, this study encompasses the full-integration question of: Given a variety of media, which is the best for a given story?
One finding from a review of the relevant research is that this style of media integration is difficult and rare. Thus, it seemed appropriate to ask questions related to the objectives, outcomes and obstacles faced in the Cal Poly attempt. This examination of convergence-related research as well as media management theories and reviews of campus journalism curriculum influenced the construction of the following research questions:
RQ1: What were the major outcomes from the integration effort?
RQ2: What factors contributed to success?
RQ3: What obstacles were identified and, if they were overcome, how were they?
RQ4: What lessons were learned that could help other media organizations with similar transformations?
The study is essentially a case study based on in-person observations, interviews with student media leaders, review of faculty meeting notes and student media leaders’ own published analyses. Quantitative measures included examinations of social media metrics, website analytics, and a review of data from the organization’s content management system.
Yin (2003) notes that case studies work best in three situations: To explore new areas where there is little precedent, to describe the effects of an event or change, and to explain something that is complex. Each of these circumstances are present in this study.
Observer effect, the impact of the observer’s participation on the object studied, is a known validity threat in case studies. In fact, the authors were both observers of and participants in the integration efforts as advisors and faculty members. It is believed that the validity threat has been mitigated here, however, via a reliance on a database of contemporaneous notes taken at weekly meetings over nearly six years, a reliance on thick description that attempts to place events in context, and the use of multiple data points, including quantitative data where available and interviews with other faculty members.
Faculty and students made a commitment in 2012-2013 to transform student media into one fully unified, digitally oriented operation. As conceived, breaking news content would be distributed first on the website, but students would still produce a twice-weekly print paper and a weekly broadcast show. Most importantly, a common editor would oversee the entire operation and print, broadcast and digital reporters would collaborate on stories.
The plan envisioned broadcast, print, and multimedia operations all working from a newly renovated, physically combined newsroom with broadcast editing bays and a studio backdrop as well as workstations and computers for print and multimedia use. It also foresaw the print edition being redesigned, with a new focus on features, analytical pieces and investigative work that would be more conducive to a “lean-back” print experience. The plan had broadcast content appearing first on the website, with new one- and five-minute produced segments.
The new website would retain its domain name of www.mustangdaily.net, and other media would be branded to correspond with this change (i.e. “Mustang Daily TV’). The public relations entity would newly find a formal role within newsroom operations. As conceived, four faculty advisors, with primary responsibility for print, web, broadcast and public relations, respectively, would assist. Each of the advisors would also run media-specific practicum classes at the same days and times, to better facilitate communication and collaboration. A five-person student media team would lead the new newsroom. The titles and duties, as originally conceived, were as follows:
- editor, charged mainly with facilitating coordination between platforms.
- integrated content editor, charged with coordinating digital content for distribution via the website.
- manager of public relations; this person would be in charge of audience engagement via social media, etc., and would work to promote the new organization.
- broadcast editor, with traditional assigning and editing roles.
- print editor, with traditional assigning and editing roles.
Outcome #1: More thorough news coverage
What worked: The overall number of news stories produced nearly doubled the year after integration went into effect (see Table 2) and, on average, have increased by 16 percent. In addition to story count, the depth and quality of news coverage increased as editors had more staff members and skills at their disposal. “Coverage became more nuanced and thorough when we could employ multiple tools in one story — a breaking news story with a print focus but accompanied by a photo slideshow, a data-driven story with photos to enhance it, etc.,” said former Mustang News editor-in-chief, Jacob Lauing (Lauing, personal communication, 2018).
What didn’t work: Initially, there were instances where sources would be contacted by multiple student journalists asking for an interview or quote. This was time consuming and confusing for sources who didn’t always understand whether they were being interviewed for the newspaper, the television station or a class assignment.
Lessons learned: Students contacting a source for an assignment in a course should state as much, whereas a reporter for Mustang News should be very clear that they are reporting for the newspaper, television, radio station etc. Encourage students to pair up when they need quotes and clips from school officials. If you have to choose between one or the other, send the person with a video camera and use quotes from the on-camera interview in other media.
Outcome #2: Increased revenue and reach
What worked: Along with integration came new opportunities for experimentation across platforms. As editorial students were encouraged to use the best medium to tell a story, advertising students were encouraged to think outside the box as well. This included forays into the following services:
- Native advertising: Mustang Media Group’s first native advertising firm was founded in 2012. This not only provided clients with another avenue to reach target audiences, it also represented unique resume material for the students who were involved. As the student who first led the native studio recalled: “I’m still asked in job interviews about my work on native ads at Mustang News.” (Lauing, personal communication, 2018).
- Social media campaigns: Mustang News launched a hugely successful campaign in 2014 to increase Facebook likes that included contests, weekly giveaways, staff incentives and more. “Likes” rose from approximately 2,200 before the campaign to 5,900 after. By increasing Facebook reach and linking back to stories, key metrics such as page views, bounce rate and unique visitors showed significant growth (see Table 1).
- Livestreaming services: The business side of Mustang News began offering livestreaming services for campus events such as graduation. These offer students opportunities to practice live shots and standups, participate in news or sports event coverage and cover breaking news with minimal equipment.
What didn’t work: Audience members and advertising clients did not always fully understand what native advertising was, and how it was different than editorial content. In dealing with social media posts or comments, student reporters and editors sometimes revealed biases or conflicts of interest and/or failed to adhere to basic news editing standards.
Lessons learned: Provide real-world examples to both students as well as clients when working with native advertising. Come up with a social media policy for all staff members to avoid awkward, embarrassing or unethical scenarios. Make sure copy editors understand that social media copy is just as important as any other, and should be scrutinized as such.
Outcome #3: More experimentation
What worked: Freed from the perceived constraints of legacy media models and media, students, teachers and advisors were able to experiment with new and different forms of storytelling on the web, on video and in the newspaper. In one interview, longtime student media general manager Paul Bittick said the single biggest benefit from the effort was, particularly early on, a new focus on the sort of digital-first storytelling demanded in the workplace. What follows is a look at what worked, by platform:
- Web: Editors discovered the value and aesthetic appeal of parallax-style story layouts that worked well for certain types of multimedia project containing text, photos, videos, maps etc. They used tools such as Scrollkit (a former plugin for WordPress) and Aesop Storytelling (current WordPress plugin), and designed and coded custom templates to publish stories that went on to win awards multimedia storytelling.
- Video: As the web-first mentality took hold, students experimented with live reporting on Facebook Live, producing shorter updates and wraps for the website and providing a-roll (interview) or b-roll footage to supplement a web story or social media post. Students in the capstone broadcast class also learned how to publish videos on YouTube, embed them in a post and provide text-based summaries. “[The experience] certainly prepared me for my first newsroom job where the environment is fast-paced and my measure of success is based on how quickly I can edit video, vet information from public officials or update my viewers through Facebook live,” said Chloe Carlson, former broadcast editor for Mustang News (Carlson, personal communication, 2018).
- Newspaper: The digital-first approach taken by Mustang News steadily shifted the role and personality of the weekly newspaper. Before integration, the paper contained news stories from the past 24 hours and was mostly identical to the website in terms of content. After integration, the paper shifted away from simply providing all the news that would fit and instead focused more on providing longer features and more photos.
What didn’t work: While increased experimentation with amount and type of news, advertising and social media content was largely successful, new challenges with organizing, editing and disseminating arose. Here are some specifics, by platform:
- Web: Presenting all the content being generated from the editorial, advertising and social media arms of Mustang News became a challenge within the existing content management system (and WordPress theme). One priority became designing a new site that would offer the reader/viewer more items to select from on the home page. This included adding slider-type main images with corresponding headlines on the side as opposed to just one main image and headline that would change every day or two.
- Video: Initially, it was a challenge to integrate broadcast content, especially traditional-style packages and full-length newscasts (roughly 30 minutes). At first, these were posted to the website unaltered, and they didn’t generate much engagement. Eventually, longer packages and broadcasts were replaced by shorter and more streamlined updates (1-minute, 5-minute), and specific stories/packages were joined with traditional text-based stories to increase the depth and efficacy of both media.
- Newspaper: It took time for page designers and editors to ‘unlearn’ old practices and transition to more visual storytelling. Advisors noted how one editor who hired for her strong digital skills ironically ended up focusing so much on mastering print-centric skills that she neglected digital-first storytelling.
Lessons learned: A digital-first focus requires managers and editors with skills ranging from coding to interactive graphics; continual training and mentoring are needed to provide these skills.
Outcome #4: Positive culture shift
What worked: Once there was enough momentum to support integration, the result was not just more cohesion between the formerly isolated arms of student media, but more cohesion between students in classes, faculty members and the student media organization overall (between editorial and advertising teams, for example). The value of this cultural shift cannot be understated. Working toward a common goal afforded everyone in the department a new opportunity to get onboard and involved, reducing age-old antagonisms and promoting fresh and engaging discussions about the overall organization of the department, student media, coverage and even curriculum. One decision that helped change the culture was to abandon plans to keep the existing Mustang Daily name and instead rebrand as Mustang News in an effort to be more inclusive to all platforms.
What didn’t work: Not all students and faculty advisors were equally dedicated to changing the status quo. The students who were affected by this change ‘midstream’ during their undergraduate studies were often resistant to the increased interdependency of print, broadcast and web as well as to things like name changes and new branding initiatives. This problem was somewhat ameliorated by year-to-year student turnover (i.e. within four years, most students no longer identified with the old names and acronyms and had fully adopted the new ones). Reluctant faculty advisors eventually followed suit. Another cultural challenge grew from the physical layout of the newsroom. Budgets and timelines prevented a planned renovation and broadcast operations remained in a studio a floor above the rest of the newsroom. A smaller renovation did allow for student media leaders to meet in the former print newsroom and some video shots to be conducted from there. This partially addressed the separation but a common newsroom would likely have sped integration.
Lessons learned: Shifting the cultural mindset of students and faculty members ‘midstream’ was challenging but rebranding helped. Also, letting students lead the way when it came to figuring out roles, duties, titles, workflows and coverage plans was slow, but ultimately very effective in terms of getting more conservative-minded faculty members to buy in to the integrated model. As such, it’s important to find open-minded and resourceful students to take the reins and steer the ship during the first couple years of integration when workflows, boundaries and expectations are not as well established.
Outcome #5: Increased recognition
What worked: Honors and awards increased after integration. Although student media had been recognized in the past, recognition now expanded into new categories, such as social media usage, information graphics, and video and multimedia storytelling. Applications for positions within the organization increased (In 2017, for example, more than 250 people applied for 80 positions). Students also reported increased recognition when attending national conferences, noting that Mustang News was becoming a model for student media integration. The organization received the following recognition from 2013 to date:
- Online Pacemaker award from the Associated College Press (2014)
- Nominated for six Pacemaker awards in 2018, including Best Newspaper Four Year College/University Division
- Numerous Pinnacle Awards from the national College Media Association
- More than 20 excellence awards from the California College Media Association
What didn’t work: With the uptick in applications to Mustang News, top-level editors sometimes had a difficult time finding room for new members on the staff, which resulted in some talented students being turned away.
Lessons learned: Ensure that there is always room for all students to participate in student media, even if it’s just writing briefs or producing word-on-the-street style videos until additional opportunities arise. Though it might take time, integration will result in higher quality journalism being produced by nature of the fact that students feel a bit more pressure to do their best because their work is reaching a broader audience, appearing on social media channels and receiving valuable recognition when it’s exemplary. Promoting a culture of ‘friendly competition’ and platform agnosticism results in more students being willing to step up when needed (during breaking news, for example) and depend on one another for mentorship and guidance. When content produced in classes and submitted to Mustang News for potential publication gets recognized, it makes it much easier to engage students in that type of coursework since it has the potential to reach a ‘real’ audience and possible result in accolades that can be noted students’ resumes and job applications.
Outcome #6: Public Relations Integration
What worked: As social media really began to take off, news organizations everywhere grappled with how to integrate this new, but hugely popular form of content. In a recent Media Shift article, “Why Social Media Editors Should be Better Integrated into Newsrooms,” the author mentions that this is an ongoing challenge: “A decade after the introduction of Facebook and Twitter, most newsrooms continue not to appreciate the journalistic potential of social media” (Lew 2018). At Mustang News, the medium provided a bridge between editorial content and the more persuasive forms of communication taught in public relations courses, thus affording public relations students a chance to practice their craft while furthering the mission of the news organization. Equally as important, the job of a ‘social news editor’, whose primary responsibility is engaging with the audience on behalf of the news organization, addressed many of the longstanding concerns about mixing editorial operations with public relations.
In terms of curriculum, the capstone public relations course shifted away from working with external clients on campaigns and toward working with Mustang News and Mustang Media Group as their primary ‘clients.’ Creating social media editor positions to oversee and coordinate the promotion of published editorial content and to work with the public relations capstone class has been largely successful, and has enhanced the overall cohesion of the entire media organization as evidenced in this quote from Cara Benson, Mustang News’ first ‘social news’ editor: “On a more personal note, being a [public relations] student in [Mustang News] made me much more well-rounded. It gave me skills that the classroom couldn’t have. Learning how to talk to people, build relationships, gather news and be a storyteller are skills I use every single day in my professional social media role now. To truly progress in my current role, I have needed the skills both from [public relations] as well as from [Mustang News],” (Benson, personal correspondence, 2018).
What didn’t work: Initially, there was a lot of resistance to integrating public relations since doing so could potentially affect the independence of the editorial division. Fitting this piece into the larger puzzle took the longest, but this was mostly due to lack of prioritization. The first student to tackle the challenge head-on, working with a newer public relations faculty member to come up with opportunities for public relations students to integrate themselves with the larger MMG structure. She had this to say about the experience: “I found that students were challenged in a way they were not used to thinking before. The breadth of projects I worked on with students was the most exciting part for me. From video production to event planning to relationship building, students were subjected to a wider scope of projects and problems they will likely face in the ever-growing world of communications,” (Avdalovic, personal correspondence, 2018).
Lessons learned: Despite concerns and early resistance from faculty and staff, public relations students contributed to the newsroom by, for example, conducting audience research, creating native advertising content, talking to sources after the fact about their experience, promoting stories and events and proposing SEO strategies.
Outcome #7: Curriculum improvement
What worked: Aligning student media integration with curriculum change in the department helped introduce, reinforce and refine the style and manner in which a digital-first news organization operates. Using the classroom as a laboratory to experiment with new forms of multimedia storytelling (drones, 360 video, virtual reality etc.) often translates to these tools being used in the newsroom. The ‘learn by doing’ ethos is well-represented when students can take the knowledge they acquire in the classroom and apply it to the jobs as editors, reporters, videographers etc.
What didn’t work: Although a new multimedia capstone was added, two other practicum classes that offer Mustang News content remain tied to legacy platforms (print and broadcast). Although both classes encourage some multimedia storytelling, an ideal curriculum might be entirely platform agnostic. Students also complain of gaps in practicum classes; for example, student media has a platform editor in charge of social media, but no class supports this effort.
Lessons learned: Expect the integration to reverberate across your curriculum. Move as swiftly as the process allows to respond.
Outcome #8: Leadership structure changes
What worked: Within a year of the integration, a newsroom leadership structure had evolved into one that largely (albeit with some regular tinkering) survives today. This structure has one overall editor-in-chief supported by individual platform-level editors (e.g. video, print, public relations and multimedia) and content-level editors (e.g. news arts and sports).
What didn’t work: “Conflict was evident from the start,” recalled the original print editor (Jenkins J. 2014). The original flowchart, designed by the faculty, did not have a functional leader since the editor was envisioned as more of a facilitator. Within three months, student leaders had moved the print editor into a more traditional editor-in-chief role and placed the original overarching “editor” in a news editor role, more in line with his strengths. As time went on, students began tweaking and tailoring the original organizational structure, job duties and workflows to better suit their needs.
Lessons learned: A leadership structure that makes sense on paper may not work in reality. The most important thing is to fail fast and work directly with student leaders to brainstorm functional solutions.
There are a few takeaways from this case study that deserve emphasis. One is that, while faculty and student leaders must plan ahead to achieve success—by, for example, studying past efforts such as this one and working out coordination with departmental curriculum— this process need not stretch on interminably. In fact, so many variables are inherently unknown that, if one has to choose between planning and flexibility, the latter may be the more important factor.
Another takeaway is some changes may take longer than others. The integration of the student-run public relations operation was not truly successful until year four. Integration of the college radio station remains a work in progress.
A final takeaway is that, despite these challenges, integration can yield great rewards. Some of these are in quantifiable terms such as page views, revenue growth and awards won, but others are evident in less quantifiable ways such as visible energy in the newsroom and a shared sense that the students were pushing the boundaries of journalism and preparing themselves for both today’s, and tomorrow’s, opportunities.
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Pageviews Pre & Post Integration
Number of Posts Published to Website Pre & Post Integration
Associate Professor Brady Teufel teaches courses in multimedia journalism and is the adviser for mustangnews.net, the award-winning student media portal at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Teufel earned his bachelor’s in sociology from the University of California Santa Cruz and his master’s in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia. Teufel’s work experience includes stints a reporter, photojournalist, graphic designer, web designer and social media consultant. His teaching interests span from writing and photography, to coding and drone journalism. Teufel was named ‘Journalism Educator of the Year — 4-Year Division’ in 2018 by The California Journalism & Media Affiliates.
Associate Professor Patrick Howe has worked as an investigative reporter and political correspondent in Washington, D.C. and statehouse newsrooms. He covered Congress and the Clinton White House for the Arkansas Democrat Gazette and was a politics and government newsman for The Associated Press. He has won state and national-level awards for investigative reporting, public affairs reporting, column writing and layout and design. His research has focused largely on the effects of advertising on online news.