I am late in noting here that I had a guest post at Nieman Lab about why and how student media should move swiftly to become digital-first.
I elaborated on the points I made earlier this year about student media after doing some consulting for Texas Christian University and the University of Oregon and after teaching some digital-first workshops for TCU and the University of Texas at Arlington.
It’s a thoughtful response that Jim Romenesko framed as a debate between Dan and me. After I commented on Dan’s blog, he responded that he “truly loved” my Nieman piece and that we are “pretty much in lock-step.”
I’m glad that Dan appreciated my piece, and I am enjoying the discussion, but I do think his comments merit a response here. Dan’s initial nine points expressed partial agreement with some of my points but responded in some way, often about why something might be difficult or complicated. An example, quoting from my piece first and then responding:
“Staff members move on naturally, so restructuring between semesters or school years is easier.” (I disagree here. First, student media restructuring needs to include input from students. And students are not around between semesters or school years. Second, the constant staff turnover within college media, ironically, negates mass change in some cases. Students are inclined to fit into the system, keep it running, and hand it off. Being involved in a major restructuring on top of all that is not what they sign on for when stepping up to run or write for the campus paper. Should advisers motivate them to do it anyway? ABSOLUTELY.)
Actually, I am confident that the constant staff turnover will facilitate change, and I saw the start of that in my visits to TCU and UTA, where the summer shutdown of student newspapers did actually set them up to handle an abrupt change easier than professional media can. I did not say that the change would be easy for student media, just that they have significant advantages over professional media in making this change.
Where I really want to push back on Dan is on his final point:
All of Buttry’s mostly excellent points aside, there is one last ginormous X-factor that still looms as a major impediment to mass digital experimentation among student media. People still love reading campus newspapers in print. Journalism wunderkind Dan Kennedy: “I’ve found that the student newspaper folks like print even more than us old farts. [The college campus] the last place on earth where the print model still works: free distribution in convenient locations to a largely captive audience. I’ve encouraged several editors at least to think about what it would be like to drop print altogether, but I can’t say I’ve made any progress.”
Kennedy is right that student journalists can get addicted to print swiftly. I have seen that in a lot of students. The rush of seeing your byline in print has not diminished from when I felt it as a TCU student 40 years ago. But print does not mean as much to the student audience (or even the faculty audience) as it used to. Universities are some of the most digital communities anywhere. I have walked around many college campuses and I see way more students staring into smartphones (or even dumbphones) than I do reading their free student newspapers.
I took the photo above at about 7 p.m. during my consulting visit to TCU last spring. It shows a rack of free Daily Skiffs with dozens, maybe more than a hundred, of unclaimed copies. And that’s with a notably smaller press run than when I was a student (and the circulation manager, so I picked up the unclaimed copies each day; I may never have picked up a stack this big, and this was one of four or five similar photos I shot). And I have noticed unclaimed stacks of student newspapers on many campuses I have visited.
I don’t see how you can dispute the main point of my Nieman Lab post (and I’m glad Dan agrees with it): Students live digital-first lives and student media need to become digital-first.