College media adapt to online only formats

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Adjustments from COVID-19 may mark permanent changes for student newspapers

By Angel Trinh

While universities across the country have suspended in-person classes to limit the spread of COVID-19, the future for student newspapers remains unknown because being online-only until physical classes resume could create long-term changes.

More than 600 universities responded to a survey conducted by the American Association for Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to gauge the changes institutions are making or considering in response to COVID-19. According to the press release published April 2, 81% of institutions have moved completely online for the rest of the spring term. Of the universities that have moved online, 23% have decided to keep classes online for the summer and 38% are considering doing so.

Student publications have had to quickly adapt to producing web-only content, and some may not return to printing once classes begin again.

College Media Association Treasurer Steven Chappell said the number of student newspapers that decide to move online-only increases each fall, and he thinks he’ll see a larger number make that decision this year than any previous.

“There are some publications that have been looking at this for a long time,” Chappell said. “This will probably be the exacerbating event that pushes them over the line and forces them to take the plunge into an online-only universe.”

Funding concerns

Without print newspapers for the rest of the semester, publications may be losing crucial advertising revenue. Others may lose advertisers permanently.

Jim Rodenbush, adviser for Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University, said IDS has lost money from advertisements but hopes that the relationships with the advertisers are strong enough to continue once printing resumes.

“The biggest concern, I suppose, is what is this going to look like when we’re on the so-called other side of it?” Rodenbush said. “A lot of the Bloomington community and advertisers that we have relationships with are restaurants and small businesses, and there is no guarantee for a complete recovery for some of these places.”

Student newspapers that are more reliant on print revenue are more likely to stop printing, Chappell said. Student newspapers are either part of an academic program or part of student affairs, often funded by student fees. The newspapers on the academic side tend to have better support and are more stable than the latter because they are partly funded by tuition money.

Chappell is the adviser of the Northwest Missourian at Northwest Missouri State University. Most of its advertisers have agreed to move their ads online or reserve printing in the fall. Chappell said that means losing revenue in the future, but he doesn’t know to what extent that may be.

“The businesses that tend to advertise with the Missourian heavily are those kinds of business that may not survive this if it lasts a long time,” Chappell said. “If the economy tanks, state tax revenues are going to go down, and the first thing the state of Missouri cuts every time their tax revenues go down is education.  … That could definitely impact us as well, so we could see lost funding on two fronts.”

What does this mean for printing in the future?

Tammy Merrett, adviser for The Alestle  at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, said she is 99% certain the Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs will force her to publish the newspaper completely online,  because he’s been trying to do it for years.

In the past, Merrett has been able to justify printing because it generates the most revenue. Not printing would eliminate more revenue than it would save in print costs. However, she doesn’t know if printing will still be the main revenue generator once classes resume.

“The only way we would know is trying to go back to print and seeing what happens with revenue,” Merrett said. “But that’s kind of what’s hard to pin down, so, after this, we may get to a point where print does not generate as much revenue as or more revenue than what we’re paying out of printing costs, and if it’s at that point, then I would have no choice as the fiscal officer but to say, ‘you know, it’s not cost effective anymore to print.’”

Merrett said she hopes this doesn’t happen, but she tends to prepare for the worst case scenario so she can be pleasantly surprised. However, seeing what’s going on in the professional world keeps her expectations low.

Many professional papers, such as The Des Moines Register, are laying off reporters. Some, such as The Tampa Tribune, have stopped printing entirely until the pandemic ends. Others, such as two newspapers in South Dakota, have shut down completely.

Chappell said he doesn’t know if student newspapers will follow the professional trend.

“Historically , college newspapers mirror what happens to professional newspapers,” Chappell said. “We’re just a few years behind because it takes forever to make change at the academic level.”

Developing a Digital-First Mindset

In some ways, the COVID-19 pandemic has strengthened students’ ability to produce content for their newspapers. Many have had to write stories remotely while adjusting to online classes for the first time. Although there have been challenges in getting interviews and staying motivated, many advisers are proud of how their students have handled it.

The Torch  at Valparaiso University has been working on converging the newspaper with its TV and radio stations since January in an effort to give students experience with a bit of everything and make them more mobile. Publishing online-only has helped them make this change, adviser Paul Oren said.

“It’s kind of force-feeding it,” Oren said.

Oren wanted to focus on their online content because his students often didn’t like to produce content that wasn’t going to be printed in the weekly newspaper. He said they would treat it like a punishment. Now that they can only publish content online, he hopes they are learning how valuable the website is.

Oren  also wants his students to promote their stories more on social media. He said it takes time to get used to because now they are competing with everything online for page views, whereas The Torch  was the only newspaper on and around campus.

“Our students are learning how to be their own self-promoters on social media, and that’s a great skill to have,” Oren said.

Students on the University Times staff at California State University, Los Angeles also prioritized  the print newspaper over updating online content. When Julie Patel Liss became the faculty adviser two semesters ago, she had the goal to have her students develop a digital-first mindset.

Patel Liss said being forced to go online-only has helped the students make that shift because they no longer have to worry about the print edition. Her students cover breaking news well, and she hopes they’ll retain those skills.

“The fact that they’ve been able to consistently get stuff up within hours, or in most cases within minutes, I think at that point kind of shows them that they can definitely do it,” Patel Liss said. “What I’m hoping that comes of this is that … when it comes time for print, they already have a whole base of stories. So then they don’t need to worry so much about print because the content will be there.”

Final Thoughts

Student newspapers are adapting to unprecedented circumstances. They are strengthening their communication skills and learning from this experience.

“There’s no blueprint for this,” Oren said.

Merrett said she hopes her students can use this situation to further build a positive perception of The Alestle  because SIUE hasn’t provided clear communication in its updates. She told her students to take the opportunity to be a central resource of information for the community.

“I think a lot of student publications are doing just that,” Merrett said. “They’re doing lots of good work, and they are stepping into that void where universities are not communicating well. … No matter how many awards are won by the student publications, there’s still a perception that they’re students ‘playing journalism.’ It’s a serious endeavor, and people need to be more aware of that. University administrations also need to be more aware of that and hopefully will take positive steps to encourage that rather than be threatened by that.”

Angel Trinh

Angel Trinh is a Multimedia Journalism Major and a Writing Minor at Northwest Missouri State University.