The Newsonomics of College News Innovation
First published at Nieman Journalism Lab
On May 29, the news of the death of daily newsprint swept two ends of the country.
In New Orleans, the rumors were verified: The Times-Picayune would be going to three days a week of printing. In Eugene, Oregon, one of the country’s oldest college papers, the Oregon Daily Emerald announced it would print only on Mondays and Thursdays. Both institutions implemented their plans this fall. While the newspaper world is still awaiting fragmentary signs of success or failure out of New Orleans (“The Newsonomics of Advance’s New Orleans Strategy“), we can begin to learn a few lessons from the Daily Emerald’s first-quarter experience. Those lessons, importantly, apply to all newspapers; colleges, here, are really a new kind of lab for the press overall. And some of those lessons are surprising.
What makes it interesting is that, in transforming from five-day-a-week print to a “media group,” the bones and tissue of a newspaper organization are laid out naked. That forces the kind of top-to-bottom, side-to-side reassessment of both business and journalistic practice fundamental to all news media change.
The Daily Emerald’s decision got a lot of ink, in part because its publisher Ryan Frank laid out an ambitious strategy and rationale for the largely unprecedented move in the college press (“Why the Oregon Daily Emerald is transforming what it means to be a college newspaper”). (Disclosure: Decades ago, I served as features editor at the Emerald, wrote a “Beef Box” campus-complaints column, and now serve, unpaid, on the Dean’s Advisory Council for the School of Journalism. The Emerald has long operated independently of that school.)
The Emerald’s move is just part of a wider movement of transformation and innovation in the college press. There are several other major college papers going this direction. The State Press, Arizona State University’s paper, recently announced its own move to weekly print, formally joining the Emerald and the University of Georgia’s Red and Black. The Red and Black’s experience in going digital, well chronicled by Poynter, involved much staff turmoil. In talking with a number of those involved in and around college dailies, it appears that as many as another six to 10 college dailies may soon join the trend.
The reasons are familiar: the decline of print ad revenue, print readership falling off, student readers whose lives are now natively digital. College frosh literally grew up on Facebook; it’s not something that they, like most of us, adapted to. Steve Buttry described a rationale of college papers going digital in part due to that recognition. More ironically, waves of wannabe journalism majors have, when asked by j-schools, described relatively traditional journalism jobs as their ambitions — even though, when surveyed, they showed tiny print usage among their digital news habits. That disconnect was amusing from the outside, if not to those students’ parents.
Now, finally, that’s changing. J-school curricula are in the midst of great change. The college press is going increasingly digital. The jobs that graduates are moving into are more hybrid, says Tim Gleason, University of Oregon journalism dean. Rookie reporters do legwork, but increasingly their social, video, and multi-platform skills are put to use early on.
In Eugene, The Daily Emerald’s results are based on only three months of real experience. That’s not enough to draw conclusive datapoints. Yet, the early metrics are encouraging, so let’s look at the newsonomics of the Emerald’s change.
- Ad revenue is up 0.5 percent for the second half of the year; with holiday break having begun, the year is essentially over. Ad revenue makes up 76 percent of the Emerald’s revenues. Though print copies are free, student fees pay 23 percent of the Emerald’s costs. Ryan Frank says that the number of advertisers has dropped a bit, but on average, their spending has increased. Significantly, the Emerald’s two editions — a Monday one heavy with sports and a takeout or two, a Thursday weekend-directed one — are still what sells the advertising. The Emerald has bundled its buys; when you buy print, you get digital, and though digital-only sales are offered, they make up a small percentage of revenue.
- Digital readership is up. Direct comparisons to fall 2011 don’t work, because of the Emerald’s misuse of Google Analytics, Frank says, but previous-year comparisons look promising.
- 2012 v. 2010: Pageviews up 40 percent; uniques up 88 percent
- 2012 v. 2009: Pageviews up 43 percent; uniques up 92 percent
- Expenses are flat. The Emerald traded reduced printing and production expenses for an investment in technology and app creation.
Given the massive amount of change, Ryan Frank is fairly happy with flat; he says the pickup rate for print is up some as well. Many college papers are reporting declines of 10 to 20 percent in ad revenue. Yet he can’t plan to take those numbers to the bank. Fundamentally, the Emerald is testing out the stability of its new platform. As it proceeds into next year, it can draw on its own early learnings and those of others, like innovators at UNC and UCLA, in the trade:
- You can call yourself a media company, but that’s an aspirational positioning. The revenue is still in print. That’s what advertisers want, and that’s still what delivers customers, emphasizes Kevin Schwartz, general manager of The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina. Schwartz is looked to by his peers as a leading digital innovator. Yet his paper is producing just 12 percent of its revenue from digital, up from 8 percent last year. That’s a still-small $135,000. The Emerald is moving to becoming a media company — the Emerald Media Group — but all papers, from these college ones to Advance to The New York Times, all base their near-term fortunes on print.
- You can call yourself digital-first, but flexibility in when and how to deploy print is essential to this transition. Frank, an Oregonian reporter for 11 years, modeled his new print product on Portland’s Willamette Week, long a leader in editorial quality and now a city institution. Yet, with the advice of Willamette Week publisher Richard Meeker, he adjusted that alt-weekly format to fit his own student audience and its rhythms. That meant two print editions a week, and going big on print — including back to daily for the first week of classes. Those moves are a big reason that ad revenue hasn’t dropped. For each print publication, knowing audience and advertisers may lead to differing deployments of print; in New Orleans, the Times-Picayune added back a Monday-after-Saints games edition for similar reasons.
- Innovation, digital and otherwise, may be led by well-worn feet on the street. Even though college print is free, its pickup rate has declined across the country, as students turn to their smartphones for news and info. UNC’s Schwartz is among those who say better physical distribution is part of the answer. “If you are on one side of the brick walkway, you move 150 papers, and on the other side you move 20,” he says. “We take siting seriously.” Schwartz says it takes 215 locations to move 90 percent of his 17,000-copy press run; in the old days, it took only 100 to move 20,000. It’s more than physical, of course: UNC uses Twitter and Facebook to promote the next day’s print stories, so social media and print are associated in new ways.UNC’s street team also aggressively hawks the paper. The street-team notion is one the Emerald has borrowed. Further in the Emerald’s strategic plan, the team provides more and more physical distribution — fliers and such — to merchants. Real-world bulletin board meets the innovation of marketing services, which we see leading daily newspaper sales strategies (“The Newsonomics of Native, Indigenous and Immigrant Content“).
- The local retail market is the key to success or failure of these college enterprises. National ad revenue to college papers is down by as much as 50 percent, as those advertisers are in the lead in switching print budgets to digital. That means effectively transitioning, and transitioning with, local merchants will decide these operations’ futures.
- Dominate the new space. UCLA’s Arvli Ward, long-time director of student media, has an ambitious, ahead-of-the-curve strategy — and he’s implementing it. His plan is to dominate the campus-related mobile space. “We want students to use 15 of our apps before they graduate,” he says.Ward has created an app farm, powered by 10 to 15 paid students and 40 to 60 interns. In less than a year, they’ve created 85 apps; Ward says his goal is three a week, starting in January. (Check them out in iTunes.) The idea: Devise an app for every activity, from Bruin football to sororities and fraternities to campus departments and clubs. Ward has also produced a Pac 12 basketball app for 8 (so far) of the league’s 12 teams — each separately branded, but built on the same platform. The key: developing technology that allows quickly replicable native app products, at a low cost. Mobile monetization — maybe at the rate of $12-15,000 a year each for the top dozen of so high-performing apps — will come, says Ward. We can also see how a larger college (and greater) mobile ad network can develop. Curiously, Ward says his surveys show more than 60 percent of UCLA’s student body is on iOS, so that’s where his development efforts focus.The Emerald, with its new investment in tech, is following this model, planning to debut a housing app (modeled on a successful UNC housing app). Hugely important here: knowing your audiences, knowing where they are moving (mobile) and betting (large scale, small incremental cost) on it. That’s a strategy every local publisher should consider.
- Pay attention to what’s gained and what’s lost: Huge shifts in product and workflow mean big changes in the journalism done. Emerald editor-in-chief Andy Rossback already sees the reader value in “cutting out the stuff people don’t read.” Importantly, the Emerald still covers campus meetings — that boring news of record that is vital to understanding governance — but now often files three-paragraph digital briefs, rather than its former standard of 17-inch print stories. It’s also been able to focus on larger takeouts, but Rossman says, he sees how “we’re missing personality profiles.” Change lesson here: It’s not a one-time or two-time thing, but a continuous process to get it right.