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?

At my CC, I don't think the students on the newspaper staff really think they're going to be journalists -- but, it does give them a nice CV line to support the claim they have 'written communication skills' -- especially if the newspaper gets 'published' on-line.
I'm not entirely sure what we're seeing in the world of newspaper journalism is a death-spiral so much as a complete restructuring, a reversion to norm. Here in Ann Arbor the "city paper" had been a stupid monopolistic fishwrap for at least a decade, and recently (in light of the changes we're discussing) it was "let go".

Meaning the owners fired all the employees, sold the historic building off and the presses for scrap, and started "one of those there blogs".

Of course we already have a half-dozen or dozen blogs, some of which have become better and more appropriate sources of actual news and journalism than the newspaper ever was.

So maybe (as Dave Askins, the Chronicle's editor suggests, there are just going to be more, smaller places. Again.

I'd say train the kids to write more, and better, and more reasonably (though please not more "rationally"), and brace yourself for the fun.
The skills students learn by working on a newspaper will continue to be valuable even if newspapers per se disappear. Google News may be a nice aggregator, but it needs something to aggregate, and that means someone needs to be doing the reporting and writing and editing that currently goes on in newspapers. (What's likely to go away are the back shop activities--the presses, the printers, the delivery trucks, the home delivery people...)

For national and international news, I think some consolidation is likely, so the number of reporting and editing jobsis likely to decline.

And I think local newspapers, covering local news are likely to survive in some form. Mostly, no one cares about this except locally. The issue will become how to get it paid for. (And if I knew the answer to that...)
DD, if we only relied on blogs, we wouldn't know when or if that change in federal financial aid policy is taking effect!

What doc misses is the key question: How will the AP pay for its worldwide group of reporters if its only outlet is Google? Will the Huffington Post join AP and give away its stories so AP can give them to Google?

As for our CC paper, which publishes on a schedule like at DD's college, it has at times turned a collection of coherent facts into an incoherent swirl not unlike what you get when you buy your word processor from Cuisinart. But that is usually the first issue of the semester. I enjoy it because it reminds me why I'm glad I don't teach composition. I see enough 3-page paragraphs in lab reports.
This is in my field actually. where I was at I tried integrating a web component--teaching students to write content for the web (our paper is updated daily on the web and has blogs, our TV anchors have blogs...etc). I created courses, (writing for web for ex), I tried integrating the technology into existing courses and was shut down constantly. Recently my line was cut, so all they have is faculty and staff who know how to do traditional media and nothing more. Students at my former college were told that was all they needed and many were not capable of even attaching a document to an e-mail let alone anything else with technology. As ItPF said-they probably won't be journalists, but geez they should still know how to use the internet.
Large journalism programs are, perhaps, a mistake in this day and age but all kinds of skills are taught at the campus paper. These include advertising sales, accounting, collections, layout, typography, staff management, time management and photography in addition to writing. All of these are transferable skills and I got my start in accounting at that same campus paper.

There is no journalism program at my institution (although it graduated some famous journalists), but take a look at the enrollment rates for journalism at Texas A&M sometime for a surprise. Apparently it isn't all about the cows!

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
"it does give them a nice CV line to support the claim they have 'written communication skills' -- especially if the newspaper gets 'published' on-line."

Only if the written communication skills claim is true ... otherwise the online publishing is a serious problem!
My alma mater ran a daily newspaper. It likely had a larger subscription base than the local for-profit paper. There was also a TV news reporting segment, but I rarely watched it. The parts I did see reminded me a bit of this.

I'm now doing a stint at a CC, and the situation is similar. The student run paper publishes a tabloid-format paper every month, and there's a broadcast format studio.

One challenge of broadcast is reaching the target audience you'd expect from a student organization. Student papers distribute to students by way of copious paper on stands throughout campus, competing with sometimes dry lectures and the downtimes between (or during!) classes.

In contrast, student broadcasting has to reach students in the home, and competes with homework, television, jobs, video games, movies, the internet and so on. And it's much harder to reach students through the filter of TV broadcasting, cable companies and so on. You wind up occupying the marginal slots people skip over.

I guess what I'm saying is, student papers bring in tons of ad revenue and support themselves, while student TV news has yet to find that path.
If you think that print jounalism majors are a problem--how about broadcast journalism. In our college it is probably the largest major, and you can be sure that most graduates will never be anywhere near a TV camera, although they all think they will. It sort of reminds me of the student athletes who sure they are going to the NFL/NBA.
I have to aree with whoever wrote that newspapers are in a restructuring phase. Can you imagine all those writing and acting majors looking at career prospects in a sea of reality shows? It seems there are many majors with industries in a flux and many graduates are going to do nothing with their degrees.
Interesting article, you make some interesting points.
CCPhysicist -- as long as AP continues to be a propaganda organ for GOP policymakers, it can pay its reporters as little as it cares to. We'll still have BBC.
I am a current intern for The Dallas Morning News and was the editor-in-chief of my school paper. The newspaper industry is not dying, it is restructuring. Unfortunately, many newsrooms are stubborn to change and are therefore losing profits and having to slow or even stop publication. Many newspapers are doing a wonderful job moving their publications online, engaging new audiences with Facebook, Twitter and other outlets that the web has to offer.

Journalism schools are doing the same thing. In my experiences, some journalism schools are even adapting much better than “professional” publications. College newspapers are doing incredible things online that rival the most experienced newsroom staffs. Online journalism is where all media outlets have to adapt; even broadcast journalism is having to figure out how to operate online. It is not about TV stations and newspapers anymore, it is about information sharing, for which there will always be a need.

If you, as a dean, approach the student newspaper as a dying entity, then you are not fostering the education necessary to help revitalize the information industry. I sincerely hope that you encourage your newspaper staff to experiment online, look what other papers are doing and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Otherwise you are simply closing your mind to what you've heard reported instead of finding a way to make your program successful in the digital age.
Newspapers provide valuable experience to those who are NOT journalism majors.

My alma mater was a predominantly science/engineering school. One of my college friends was an editor at the paper, and this experience writing eventually caused him to make the leap from engineering to editing a trade publication for engineers, and eventually a job switch to editing other trade publications not even related to engineering. Good writing skills are always in demand, and student papers help develop those skills.
If we are getting rid of programs that don't directly apply to the "real world," why don't we get rid of history, political science, and philosophy?
and math!

no one uses college math!

[/sarcasm off]
I too am in the Ypsi-Ann Arbor area, and I know of what Vaguery speaks: the Ann Arbor News closed up for good a couple weeks ago, annarbor.com has come in (and has already been widely panned), and there are lots of other blogs in the area.

But where I teach, EMU's student newspaper also publishes on the web, and figuring how the web aspect works is part of the work/learning experience there. So besides the writing skills, people are getting that experience too.
In my CC days, I really wanted to see our school paper go online, but no dice. The advisor/instructor was very much a print guy. For a while, their web presence was a static page about the program. I think since then they've gone to some sort of external vendor to publish online.

I find that especially disappointing since the school also had a program that included web design. It would have been interesting to see the two programs work together.
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