I have recommended digital-first approaches recently to faculty and student media leaders at my alma mater, Texas Christian University, and the University of Oregon.
I am delighted that Emerald Media in Oregon has announced that it will be digital-first next year, stopping Monday-Friday daily newspaper publication in favor of a timely digital news approach and two weekly print magazines. The University of Georgia’s Red and Black shifted to digital first with its move to weekly print production last fall (I played no role there).
TCU will continue publishing the Daily Skiff (I am a former Skiff editor, spring semesters of 1975 and ’76) four days a week, but will produce all content first and primarily for digital platforms. “We are moving from some of the news being produced and distributed first on a digital platform to all of the news being produced digitally with the intent of distributing it first in real-time via a digital platform,” Schieffer School of Journalism Director John Lumpkin told me in an email.
Even where the changes involve cutting the frequency of print production, we should not regard these moves as cutbacks but as moving forward. “This step is critical to expanding news coverage for our audience, in addition to preparing students for the changes in our profession,” John said.
The Schieffer School set the stage for this move by launching a news website, tcu360, that operated largely independently of the Skiff and TCU News Now, the student TV operation. “We made the philosophical decision to go ‘digital first’ in the spring of 2011 by creating tcu360,” John said.
This is the direction student media need to go. Journalism students must prepare to work and compete in the digital news marketplace and journalism schools and student media must do a better job of preparing them.
I played a minor role, if any, in the Emerald decision. Plans were already well under way when I conferred by telephone in April with Publisher Ryan Frank and student leaders of the Emerald. I answered their questions and encouraged them in their digital-first conversion. And now I cheer them on.
I have played a more active role in the TCU transition to digital-first student media. I took vacation from my job to spend three days on campus last month, interviewing faculty and students involved with student media and observing media operations. I gave them detailed recommendations, which they are largely following.
Some student media, like the Emerald, are separate corporations independent of their universities. Others, like TCU, are university-owned. Whatever the structure and governance of student media, I encourage making the changes necessary to support a transformation in platforms, publications and processes. Newspaper and broadcast operations, often structured separately, need to integrate in one digital-first operation, as TCU is doing.
Recommendations for student media
The initial draft of these recommendations came from my report for TCU. With the Schieffer School’s permission, I have adapted and edited them for a general audience, stripped out points that were specific to TCU and updated to reflect Oregon’s decision:
My boss, John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, has likened our company’s transformation as trying to change tires while driving a car down the highway. Most student media, though, have the advantage of stopping their car for the summer and/or winter vacations. Student media should take advantage of their breaks to change the tires, install a new engine and do some body work.
I recommend that student media adopt a digital-first approach as quickly as possible. If you’re not digital-first yet, you should make the transition during the 2012-13 academic year. If it’s too late to start planning all the changes for the fall semester, make some changes then and more for the spring.
This approach will prepare graduating journalists for professional careers where digital skills will be their path to success. And it will serve the university community, where faculty and especially students increasingly connect with the world through digital media, and where many alumni live beyond the reach of student print and broadcast media.
Journalism schools and student media need to make necessary changes throughout their operations, including any classes tied to student publications. Specific issues they need to address:
Student media need one content-gathering team, producing content first and primarily for digital platforms. Production teams would produce newscasts and print products using the digital content (with some ability to supplement as needed for their platforms).
Daily newspapers should cut back production to once or twice a week. In professional news organizations, the daily demands of print production and the resulting cultural focus are the primary obstacle to a digital transformation.
Community and metro newspapers serve an older audience that remains loyal to print, and cutting the frequency of print production is a serious business decision. I expect news organizations will increasingly decide to cut the frequency of publication Advance Publications yesterday announced it is cutting back the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Birmingham News, Mobile Register and Huntsville Times from daily publication to three times a week).
Universities serve a different audience. This is a much easier call for their communities. They can and should take dramatic action with their print products. Cutting frequency of print production will allow a digital focus, while still providing print experience, which still has some value for students preparing for journalism careers.
Advertisers in student newspapers spend their money for either or both of two motivations: reaching the student audience and supporting student media. Student sales representatives should be able to shift that spending entirely or heavily into one or two weekly print publications and into student digital media, where those motivations would still apply.
Student journalists covering events or breaking news should routinely provide live coverage: liveblogging, livetweeting, livestreaming, livechatting, web cams. For some events, the coverage will be a few paragraphs of intro to the live coverage (updated after the event for the replay). Other events will require a fuller story afterward for web and/or print. Issue coverage should be posted to the web when it is finished and timely, regardless of plans for use in a broadcast or print product.
If you can’t convert entirely to a digital-first approach for the fall, you might start with a digital-first sports operation, since sports teams have a following beyond the campus base where student publications are circulated. Live coverage of sports can be highly engaging, and Monday-Friday student newspapers provide old coverage of Saturday events anyway.
TCU and Oregon have nationally prominent football programs, and student liveblogging and live-tweeting of football games could draw a national audience and provide excellent experience. Television networks have live broadcast rights, but student media should do livecasts before and after football games. (For less prominent sports, a liveblog or video livestream can provide the only live coverage.)
If current content management systems do not support digital-first publishing, student media should consider buying or developing (perhaps in partnership with computer science students) publishing systems where content is created once and published to multiple platforms. I recommend studying the Create Once Publish Everywhere approach of NPR and the self-developed content management system (using Google docs and WordPress) that Will Davis developed for the Bangor Daily News.
Student media products can and should serve different audiences. Print or broadcast products available only or primarily on campus should focus on the immediate university audience of students, faculty, staff and administration. Digital media can and should serve the broader university community: students, faculty, administration, alumni, donors, parents, potential students, community partners, sports fans.
In addition, universities should provide opportunities to work on media focused on the off-campus community, such as TCU’s the109, serving people and businesses in the 76109 ZIP code.
Student media leaders and advisers should discuss among themselves what their standards should be and should decide in which situations those standards should vary for different platforms. Some of these are mere style matters, such as how you handle “today” when a story is being written for immediate publication online but for print publication the next day.
Others are matters of ethics and values, such as your standards for verification before publication (no one wants to repeat the error that Onward State made) and when and how you correct (you should not just fix the error online; you should have standards for how you acknowledge the error).
Efforts to redirect student media for a digital-first focus must protect students’ freedom to cover the powerful on campus and to address controversial issues in news and opinion content.
Still, you absolutely want to give the students the benefit of sound faculty advice. Faculty advisers should take a strong role in giving student media leaders advice in their practice of journalism and in providing responsible leadership to the staff.
Use of social media – not just Twitter and Facebook, but Pinterest, Google+, YouTube, Instagram, Flickr, Foursquare and others – should be taught effectively in classes and integrated effectively with student media.
I recommend that the content team have a social media editor whose job it is to lead the social media efforts of student media. This person should not be solely responsible for social media, but should have primary responsibility for the social accounts of student media and should be monitoring new social tools and exploring how they should fit into the student media plans.
I encourage student media to use blogs in at least three ways:
- Journalism students should blog about their beats. Sometimes this would be where stories (or early, iterative drafts of stories) might appear first. Sometimes the blogs would be used for crowdsourcing. Sometimes brief items not appearing elsewhere would go into blogs. Some blogs might feed the opinion sections of student media.
- Student media should aggregate and curate content from blogs by non-journalism students.
- Sales students should sell opportunities for local businesses to write commercial blogs, labeled as advertising content, but providing information and advice in the advertisers’ areas of expertise.
Student blogging is not without risk: Their copy will be rough and they won’t always make good decisions. But blogging is a significant part of the present and future of media, and journalism students should gain experience and receive feedback on their blogging, aggregation and curation.
Blogging about student media
I strongly encourage journalism students and faculty pursuing a digital-first transition to blog about what you are doing – about the changes in process and structure and about new tools and techniques you use. Blogging will share the story of what you are doing internally and with others in student media and journalism education.
Frank and the Emerald student leaders are blogging about their transformation in The Garage.
I’ll certainly consider offering a guest post here to faculty or students involved in such a transition. Contact me at stephenbuttry (at) gmail (dot) com if you’d like to do such a post.
Students and faculty at universities undertaking a digital-first transition should network and share their experiences. I’m certain other student publications and journalism schools besides Oregon, Georgia and TCU must be considering similar steps. I encourage schools involved in this transformation to start a Google or Facebook group to share lessons and challenges regularly with those and other universities considering or pursuing similar approaches. Frequent conference calls, web meetings or Google+ Hangouts would help you share experiences with other journalism students and faculty pursuing similar goals.
Update: Thanks to Andrew Chavez, the Schieffer School’s Director of Digital Media, for sending these slides that show how the student media covered the biggest story of the spring semester: