Why on Earth do college newspapers still exist?

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In an increasingly digital world, why on Earth do college newspapers still exist? I mean they’re entering a disrupted industry that frequently looks to the young for innovation and hope.

That’s the question I posed to Dan Reimold during an interview about a trend of student-led publications launching crowdfunding campaigns to stay afloat or dissolve debt.

Dan and I got to speak earlier this week about the future of news from the college journalism perspective and I had a lot of fun.

Dan knows his stuff and has an incredibly unique vantage point. He’s a professor of journalism at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and writes the blog College Media Matters, which reports on trends and top stories from America’s student-led press. By his count, there are between 1,800 and 2,000 student-led news outlets nationwide. Less than 10 percent are online only.

Read on. It’s super interesting.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Through the Cracks: One of the things I’ve been really curious about is the obvious question that comes to a lot of people’s minds is this problem that a college newspaper is having trouble getting money specifically for a print product is why are college students printing a newspaper. Why not go all digital? How do you feel about that?

Reimold: [Sigh] It’s the existential question. It has many different perspectives and individuals who are falling very passionately on both sides of the fence and somewhere in between. It’s something for example that I wrestle with personally as someone who likes to write about the cutting edge and is very excited about the digital and mobile and other tech initiatives happening.

I can’t say I’m someone who gets their hands dirty with ink stains anymore. At the same time, I advise a student newspaper that still prints weekly with a published print edition, and I still see it for the most part being taken from the news stands.

So it is, it’s absolutely the existential question right now and many papers are cutting back, either from necessity or as an attempt to get more control over their digital process, a chance to step back from the grind of putting out a print paper every night and focusing their energies on doing more innovative stuff online. And of course, it does cut costs but for many the biggest concern financially is that for many papers print is not only the biggest cost but also the biggest and sometimes only revenue generator.

The ads in print and the special editions they publish – graduation, housing edition, the best of editions they publish for campus communities – that tends to be the main way, and in some cases the only way, they’re getting money. It’s certainly not true for website advertising or through other means at this point so that becomes an issue as well, where the students are putting out a product that in many cases they wouldn’t actually need in reality. But that’s the way it’s still being done and that’s where the money is flowing in.

Through the Cracks: And this is a little bit different from school to school, right? Because of the student fees question that you brought up earlier, some schools pay staff to run it some require students to manage the paper as part of their curriculum right so it just varies all over the place.

Reimold: Yeah, it’s extremely specific depending on the school. Literally almost every school has a different model when you get down to the details of how much and how it’s funded and how it’s aligned with the school and things like that, absolutely.

Are college journalists too conservative?

Through the Cracks: A while back I was listening to a media innovation panel that had a lot of pretty impressive people on there and one of them was Andrew Haeg from the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University in Georgia.

He said something along the lines of student journalists tend to be too conservative. And what he was getting at with that is that they tend to see sort of a classic role of what a journalist is and try to fit into that and he advised students to get away from that. Innovate, try and really use these years that you have where you have a better understanding of tech and trends to just explore that. Do you believe in that in any way that student journalists can sometimes be too conservative?

Reimold: I definitely agree with some of the sentiments that you’re pointing out but I would take that plural. It may not be so much the individual student journalist in terms of what they are consuming and the types of dreams or ideas they have but I do think that you see a conservative group think mentality when student journalists align with student media.

I think the toughest part is you come into a working system, so to change that may be very difficult when you’re there for maybe two or three years as part of the staff. You get one year as a top leader and then you move on. To truly start from the ground up and innovate can often be beyond the scope of a student who is still learning the craft and has to work as an editor on top of a full course load and outside internships and work opportunities.

So I think that can ultimately be what I think has held back student media from really leading the way in innovation in a lot of cases. The system has kind of ruled everything you know more than the Millennial generation being able to really make a difference. And that’s why most of the exciting things that are being done in student media circles, depending on the definition you would use for that, tend to be outside the scope of the student newspaper and that’s sort of a shame.

Everything from the Facebook Confessions pages that became quite popular to the YikYak app to even if you go to the idea of Facebook or Snapchat being developed by people of student age or while they were still in school.

What do you think? Are college journalists too conservative? Share in comments or visit the Through the Cracks Facebook page to sound off.

To read more from my talk with Reimold, see How does a college grad fund their news startup and Paid cuddling and other examples of interesting and innovative college media.

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Khari Johnson
Khari is founder and editor of Through the Cracks: Crowdfunding in Journalism. He also writes about bots and artificial intelligence for VentureBeat. He has built news startups in the U.S. and Europe for the last decade.

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