Tuesday, August 04, 2009

College Newspapers

Why are we training students for a dying industry?

My college, like so many others, has a student newspaper. It's published on newsprint, it comes out twice a semester, and it sometimes gets facts right. (I always enjoy the man-on-the-street parts the most.)

Our local daily newspaper, meanwhile, is in a death spiral. That's a common enough phenomenon that I can say that without really revealing my location.

Between craigslist and google news, it's increasingly unclear just how local journalism will support itself. Yet colleges keep blithely producing student journalists trained in newsprint, as if it were still 1950 and the major competitor was radio.

Why do we do this?

I'll admit some affection for any project that gets students writing readable non-fiction. The ability to assemble a coherent narrative out of a swirl of rapidly-changing facts is useful in all kinds of contexts, certainly including business. But it's not clear to me why that needs to happen in the context of a newspaper.

In my youth, the future of journalism was assumed to be television. (For a wild time capsule, watch the movie Broadcast News.) "Real" journalists wrung their hands at the prospect of pretty faces reading from teleprompters.

Now, both newspapers and pretty faces with teleprompters are suffering. While the number of people producing 'content' of one form or another -- hi! -- seems to be climbing, the number who can actually support themselves this way on a full-time basis seems to be shrinking. (I'll admit not having a clear sense of the number of full-time professional bloggers, but I doubt that it would compare to the number of people who used to work for newspapers.) News aggregators and popular blogs build collages of information from many sources, with little regard to how, or if, those sources are paid.

I'm all for training students in fact-gathering, clear writing, and getting a sense of the outside world. But I'm wondering if the time-honored student newspaper is still the best way to do that.

Has your campus found a more contemporary way to get students the benefits that newspapers used to offer? Maybe a way that doesn't automatically doom them to the ashbin of history?