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Student newspapers innovate or perish

Student newspapers innovate

Student newspapers innovate

As endowments and funding have withered at journalism programs across the country, student-run publications have started to feel the pressure. When it comes to budgets, many educators find it difficult to advocate for their students. After all, journalism students are being trained for a field that can no longer be defined and broadcasts its own death knell. “Any student-run newspaper dependent on its college is in serious danger of losing its funding,” warned an editorial in Chico State’s independent student newspaper, The Orion.

On many campuses, student newspapers that can no longer count on automatic funding have been forced to adapt, innovate or perish. This sink-or-swim collegiate media climate is analogous to the plight of newspapers in the real world in a way college experiences seldom are. Student journalists at cash-strapped schools or those with online-only newspapers are confronted with the problems facing the industry before they graduate, and they must develop into the exact print/digital/social media chameleons many publications are currently seeking for their newsrooms.

The Ventura County Community College District in Southern California is a pioneer in making lemonade from the lemons of budget cuts. Their biweekly Student Voice newspaper is a joint venture produced by students from its three colleges: Oxnard, Ventura and Moorpark. The current organizational scheme is the result of a 1995 budget crunch, prior to which each college had its own journalism program and newspaper. The hard times forced the schools to consolidate their resources, but Joanna Miller, journalism faculty and student news media adviser, noted in an e-mail that they remain committed to preserving a student press presence on each campus.

Aspiring journalists from all three campuses can take journalism classes and interact with the entire newspaper staff through a videoconference system. Together, these students produce The Student Voice and its companion Web site for the nearly 36,000 students in the district’s community colleges.

Miller elaborated on how this system allows the shared paper to be both cohesive and hyperlocal: “I usually stay at my home campus on Thursday and then hold the [journalism] class at alternating campuses on Tuesday. It works pretty well, since that allows students at Ventura and Oxnard Colleges to stay there, attend class and meet with other editors and reporters, while covering their own campuses.”

Besides utilizing technology to produce the paper, the staff also maintains a Facebook and Twitter presence and offers a smart-looking Web site complete with a digital edition for online readers. “Students know they need skills for all platforms,” Miller said. “Students are working to learn skills in telling the story in multiple ways, including with video and audio.”

Other colleges have responded to budget woes and the morphing nature of the media in much the same way as real world newspapers – by shifting their publication models to less-costly online-only distribution. Three years ago, the Tacoma Community College student paper, Challenge, went online-only. In response to a post on InsideHigherEd.com, the college’s e-learning director said that under the online-only publishing model, the interaction between staff, students and faculty has been “fantastic.”

Student publications with established online audiences and sufficient budgets took a hit last November when college news content-sharing service UWIRE halted operations with little explanation. Left scrambling for last-minute editorial content without UWIRE’s network of stories, two student editors at Ohio University’s The Post decided to launch their own content-sharing vehicle, The College News Network. Three months after its creation, the not-for-profit service is going strong and boasts over 50 member publications.

Necessity aside, college newspapers are investing in innovation because it gives their graduates an advantage in the job market. Texas Abilene Christian University’s Optimist recently announced that it plans to be the first college publication formatted for Apple’s new iPad. The paper is already distributed via the iPhone and iPod Touch, but journalism department chair Cheryl Bacon told MacNewsWorld that her students need to continue leading the charge towards digital distribution. “They’re going to be going into work environments where they have to adapt very quickly to technological change, and they have to understand how mobile delivery differs from other types of news delivery,” she said.

While many student newspapers have embraced new media, from formatting their papers for iPhones to featuring their own YouTube channels, some papers remain recalcitrant and have yet to cultivate a Web presence. Bryan Murley, director of the Center for Innovation in College Media, said in a PBS article last August that these colleges may be hesitant to make their student newspapers accessible on the Web because they fear controversies. “A college that will not allow their student journalists to practice online journalism in a “real world” setting is abandoning its commitment to education in order to save face,” he said. “And that is a tragedy not only for the college, but for the students who look to higher education to prepare them for the future.”

— Marissa Maybee

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