The Red & Black: The making of a student media revolution

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The move from daily print to digital impacts advertisers, readers and, most of all, students

By Ed Morales
University of Georgia

The Red & Black: The Next Generation

Dynamic shifts sometimes find roots in the oddest of places, so the genesis of The Red & Black‘s move to a digital-first format can trace back to a summer night when an athletic director was caught red-handed with a pair of women’s underwear resting in his lap.

It was an early Thursday in the summer of 2010 when Damon Evans, then the athletic director at the University of Georgia, was pulled over in Atlanta and charged with driving under the influence. With him in the car when the arresting trooper approached the driver’s side window was a young woman who was not his wife, her red panties in his lap.

The news broke at 6 a.m., just as a weekly summer edition of The Red & Black (the paper was daily during the fall and spring semesters, weekly during the summer) hit the boxes.

I woke up that Thursday with an alert in my email about the arrest. The full details were not available (it would be two days before the incident report was released), but I knew it was a monster story, one The Red & Black had to chase with a host of other publications and update constantly on the website. Just a few days earlier a recent UGA graduate, who was serving as the designated driver for the night, had been struck and killed in a DUI accident.

“It’s going to be a long couple of days,” I told the editor in chief.

What followed – a contrite Evans’ news conference, a shocking police report, a hasty athletic board meeting, Evans’ resignation and the hiring of an interim director – happened in a matter of days, leaving the paper’s weekly summer print publication out of the loop. For years, the paper had pushed the student journalists into embracing the immediacy and importance of the website, but it took a major scandal and no paper in sight for them to fully understand it. The coverage, which would win an award from the Society of Professional Journalists, was proof the students were ready to take on the future of journalism. So when the publisher asked me months later if student editors would embrace a shift from a daily newspaper to a digital-first platform, my answer was simple: They already had.

A necessary change for readers and students …

The Red & Black before the revolution

Established in 1893 and gaining independence in 1980, The Red & Black has been a constant and popular staple in the University of Georgia community. Ten years ago someone walking through campus would see rows of people with open newspapers in their hands – a reader survey done in 2000 revealed the biggest problem with the paper was that no one could find a Red & Black after 11 a.m. on any given day. But as the rise of iPods, smart phones and free Internet took hold of campus before that decade had ended, circulation had tumbled like the many journalism jobs across the national landscape. Add to that a struggling economy, lagging advertisement sales and a generation whose connection to a daily paper ranged between infrequent and nonexistent, and it was clear for The Red & Black that something had to be done to for it to continue being viable.

The Red & Black is governed by a 15-member board of directors, and in late 2010 it asked publisher Harry Montevideo, who has served in his role at the paper since 1983, to brainstorm ideas to keep the newspaper on the forefront. Scrapping the print product was a no-go, since its revenue kept the paper in business, but what if the printing schedule went from five days a week to an expanded one day a week while the website became the daily publication seven days a week? The main goal of the newspaper is education, after all, so why not make the experience the same as professional newsrooms across the country?

I will admit, the plan took me aback. I’ve spent my entire professional life working for a daily newspaper, and the thought of taking away the everyday product both conflicted and saddened me. But it was obvious, from talking with former students at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Chattanooga, Annapolis, Nashville and Atlanta, that they spent more than half their time producing for the web. “If they aren’t ready to work for the newspaper website, they shouldn’t bother,” one former student told me. “I do a blog, videos, audio clips and constant updates. There are weeks my name doesn’t appear in print, but it does online every day.”

It didn’t take long for me to understand it was the right way to go. Both Harry and I worried how the students would respond if the opportunities to see their names in print lessened and thought the idea of a monthly magazine would help to sweeten the pot. The paper has sought more magazine majors – the largest of journalism majors at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication – and this would be a way to bring more into the fold. It was much to our surprise when, after bringing the top editors in to tell them of the plan in March 2011, they were on board right away. “Students are on their cell phones all the time,” editor in chief Mimi Ensley said. “That’s where most people get their news.”

A plan was to be developed to unveil the new platform in August for the start of the fall semester. Incoming EIC Rachel Bowers was to work on a schedule of how the daily digital/weekly print publications would function, while putting together a magazine staff to produce the initial magazine, slated for a Sept. 1 release. There was one other main question to answer: Would it work financially?

… but would advertisers support it?

Some days in the spring 2011 semester, the ad revenue from the daily newspaper didn’t pay the cost to print and distribute it. Most of the newspaper’s advertisers were in the paper once a week (90 percent), choosing the day that best suited them. Many times they didn’t care which day the ad appeared, so would dictating the day make much a difference?

The Red & Black: The Next Generation

Advertising director Natalie McClure had her orders: To see if advertisers would continue to stay with a weekly Red & Black, and if so, would it matter which day? She was to determine if our online advertising could be ramped up as the website became the paper’s main arm of daily news. Because moving the paper’s print frequency from five days a week to one would cut costs on printing and distribution, The Red & Black didn’t have to keep 100 percent of its advertisers. But it needed to keep more than half to remain fiscally viable.

“We went to our top 50 customers and asked them what they would do if we went to an expanded weekly,” McClure said. “Ninety percent of them said they would spend the same amount. We benchmarked a goal of 75 percent of ROP and 200 percent for online sales.”

It turned out that reducing the press run to once a week didn’t bother advertisers, and many of them were ready to move ahead with online advertising as well.

“I think we both arrived at the party at the same time,” McClure said of the move. “Advertisers were ready to push ahead with the paper as it moved to digital first.”

Unique products, unique plans for content

So, what to do with the weekly print product and the monthly magazine?

The magazine was easier to figure, since the staff was starting from scratch. The idea was for it to be its own entity – the name Ampersand was chosen and trademarked – while taking a certain theme each month to tie the content together (and give the ad crew a leg up on selling to possible buyers). It would be a full glossy, using themed topics such as football, food, sex and holidays, with fashion spreads in each edition (employing the goods from advertisers). Long-form articles would join 300-word features, all punctuated by tasteful design and top photography. There was no publication of this kind in the Athens market, so there was an opportunity to fill a much-needed niche.

But the direction of the weekly publication was not as easy to ascertain. First off, it had to look different – there’s no sense unveiling a new product without putting a fresh look to it. A freelance designer was brought in to take a look at the plan and worked with the student editors come up with new design across the four sections – News, Sports, Variety and Out & About. The design, based on award-winning papers in Europe and South America, relied on splashy fronts with a more subdued but clean inside set of pages. The publication couldn’t be a telling of the week’s previous events – that’s what the website is for. It had to offer fresh information packaged differently from the website – whether it be investigative stories, in-depth features and profiles – as well as giving the audience a larger level of news they can use – calendar of events and analyses of upcoming issues.

Led by Bowers, the editors went about creating criteria for the weekly newspapers while maintaining a daily set of stories for the website. This led to another aspect of journalism the paper sought to engender among the staff: Competition. Getting a story in the print publication was not easy, the stories had to be strong and well-researched, and there were fewer spots for stories in the sections. Because the pay scale at The Red & Black is based more on a story’s merit than its size, those appearing in the print publication also earned more per story.

Handling the website was also at issue, for most of the editors weren’t sure how much they should be supplying to it each day. As a general rule, we wanted each sections editor – news, sports, variety and opinions – to add four stories a day to the site, but the key was to run them only when they were ready. One of the heightened aspects of the change was to ensure we adopted quality over quantity – at times the responsibility of filling a daily paper made the staff run stories not fit to print. Without having to fill a set print hole each day, the stories ran only when they were ready. Editors also pushed for more multimedia – photo galleries, videos, podcasts – to bolster the copy online. The editing process would be the same as with a daily paper, without the pages and design.

We didn’t tell anyone. A campaign was created to unveil the new shift, dubbed “Red & Black (version 2.0): Witness a media revolution.” The four-page pullout section accompanied the first newspaper of the fall semester, explaining the supped up website, weekly paper and monthly magazine. We were off.

One semester in, a revolution realized

It’s been a little more than a semester since the change, and the common question I hear is: How’s it going?

Ampersand at UGa

From a financial perspective, it’s great. The advertising department surpassed both its goals in the fall semester, reaching 79 percent retention for ROP and 204 percent for online sales – putting the tally at 87 percent for the semester as a whole. The goal for advertising on Ampersand was to make the money to pay for it, which has been the case for every edition so far (the November issue made a modest profit). Combined with other Red & Black revenue streams – an on-campus Housing Fair, seasonal Athens Living magazine and annual UGA Visitor’s Guide (which is the main guide used in the UGA Visitor’s Office on campus) – the newspaper has turned a profit in tough times.

We expected pushback from the faculty and the student body – some students and professors in the journalism department didn’t like the idea at all. One professor lamented that there would no longer be a paper of record, and everyone, it seemed, missed the daily crossword. Despite a marketing push to make the campus aware of the Thursday arrival of the paper – street teams passing out papers, tables at the student union showcasing the weekly product and constant mentions on our various social media sites – some students still aren’t aware when the paper comes out.

We have seen an increase in website readership, though not as much as we expected. Comparing online statistics from August 15, 2010 to Feb. 15, 2011 and August 15, 2011 to Feb. 15, 2012 shows an increase of 932,000 page views and 288,000 unique visitors. We saw a 10 percent increase in visitors from the Athens area as well.

Our student staff, as always, has been up to the task. The revamped weekly edition has included some of the best investigative stories we’ve had during my time at the newspaper, and the website is updated constantly with fresh and important news. Others have noticed. The revamped paper won Best in Show at the annual CMA/ACP Convention in Orlando, while Editor & Publisher awarded a Webby Award for the Best Collegiate Newspaper in the country.

But the main indication the newspaper is doing what’s right for the its educational mission came during the application time to fill the top editor positions. The process to become the paper’s editor in chief or managing editor is not an easy one: students must provide a résumé, cover letter, transcript, two letters of recommendation, provide a paper on what they wish to achieve as a top manager and face an intensive interview with three board members. Usually no more than three people apply for the two slots, and on a rare occasion it’s been four. But the tally of applications for the spring semester reached six, with each candidate bringing forth a wealth of good ideas.

The current that ran through each application was the same: The Red & Black is preparing them for the next step.

It’s reason enough.

Ed Morales, University of Georgia

About Ed Morales: Ed Morales has served as the editorial adviser at The Red & Black, the independent student newspaper at the University of Georgia since 2006. Originally from Miami, Fla., he graduated from the University of Maryland too long ago to remember and has worked for six newspapers, accumulated hundreds of bylines, and covered hurricanes on both the football field and from the Atlantic Ocean. Morales has worked as a news editor (Palm Beach Post and Milledgeville Union-Recorder), sports copy desk chief (Tallahassee Democrat), sportswriter and designer (Centre Daily Times) and soccer columnist and agate clerk (Washington Times).