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    College Media Should Ignore Siren Song of Pay Walls

    by Dan Reimold
    January 28, 2010
    Image via Wax Impressions

    The drumbeats are growing louder, as Rupert Murdoch, Steven Brill, and now the New York Times have confirmed: Pay walls or metered pricing systems for online news content will soon be coming to a high-profile website frequented by you. Too little, too late? Journalism’s savior? A final nail-in-the-coffin separation between old and new media?

    The implications for the news industry and Internet as a whole are enormous. For college media specifically, meters and walls could be a veritable game changer, a final helium burst in their rise to professional press-level prominence — provided, of course, they turn them down.

    At present, I can see no reason why college media outlets should erect pay walls or enact pricing meters for their online content. Some independent student newspapers with higher bottom lines have endured financial hiccups lately but, overall, college media are holding strong. A majority of outlets are fully or mostly supported. Staff work for free or are paid a pittance. Annual profit expectations are zero to uber-low.

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    With no pressing need to enhance their revenue streams, my advice is: Keep sites free. By offering readers an open window instead of a wall, college media can become more of a trusted, viable alternative to the pro-press pay plans.

    Attracting the Mainstream

    Beyond niche outlets like The Chronicle of Higher Education and rich information centers like the New York Times, most meters and walls will only be scaled by the most passionate readers. (For example, I used to read Variety online, but there is no way I am shelling out its new asking price of $248 per year.)

    If enacted en masse, the new “walledoffedness culture,” as a snarky colleague of mine calls it, will leave general web surfers in the lurch and looking for more affordable options. Cue college media. If they react to the meter/wall onslaught correctly, student outlets can entice these more routine news seekers, who are in the majority.

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    Making it work will require some changes in student media’s editorial approach. Two main alterations are worth consideration.

    1. Increase Off-Campus Reporting

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    The web-age adage of how to succeed online is currently centered on hyper-localization. Cover a topic or geographic area like no one else, and your outlet will gain value for its uniqueness and market dominance. So far, student outlets have embraced this simply by continuing their long-established focus on campus and student news. But if the new journalism world is going to separate will-pay and won’t-pay readers, some extra reporting about local and even national news could be a huge draw.

    Last January, The Villanovan, a student newspaper at Villanova University, was criticized for failing to cover much of President Obama’s Inauguration. At the time, editors offered a hyper-local response:

    The Villanovan is and always has been the student paper of Villanova, not a national newspaper. There are four complimentary national papers on campus; students should turn to these for daily coverage. When you want to read about Villanova and students’ reactions and reflections, though, we’re your paper.

    In the pay-era, this type of thinking might have to go. Readers may not be willing to pay for access to sites belonging to national or city papers. They might be looking for a free alternative, something relatively trusted that captures the pulse of their hometown. Offering some “outside” news may be a wonderful enticement to draw readers to student media sites. Hopefully people will also stay to read about what should always remain the student press’s main focus: campus news, with a student-first editorial philosophy.

    So, how do you add in this extra news component, especially since it’s tough enough already to cover a single campus?

    2. Extend Peer Content Sharing

    We are living in a post-UWIRE world in which content distribution among college media is tougher than ever. (Though I have high hopes College News Network or a similar future initiative will save the day).

    In order for student media sites to become more popular with casual news browsers, they will need to republish more news from their peers — especially biggie items about, say, the recent special election in Massachusetts or the current Sundance Film Festival.

    Most high-profile news events and issues have relevance to a school in some way — at times simply because they occur near a campus — so usually at least some student media will provide coverage and commentary. Student outlets looking to fill the gap created by pay walls should seize and display these news items more prominently on their sites, providing visitors a well-rounded glimpse of the world.

    Strategy for Success

    So to sum up, my three-point strategy for college media success in a walled-off news media world:

    1. Stick with local news reporting depth.
    2. Add national news breadth.
    3. Be an open window, not a pay wall.

    In a New York Times piece about pay plans, Rupert Murdoch is described as a Pied Piper hoping to lead a mass of media to pay-walled nirvana. My advice to college media is simple: Do not follow Murdoch the Piper. Remember that in the fairy tale, the children are lured by the lovely music into a cave, never to be heard from again…

    Dan Reimold is a visiting assistant professor of journalism at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the daily blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His first book on a major modern college media trend, “Sex and the University: Celebrity, Controversy and a Student Journalism Revolution,” is due out later this year by Rutgers University Press.

    Tagged: college media college newspapers metering new york times pay wall rupert murdoch
    • Steven Brill

      Dan,

      I think you should know that the way in which we are engaging college newspapers is quite limited, quite logical, and quite different from what you suggest we have in mind: They are going to use a metered approach to charge ONLY VISITORS WHO COME TO THEM from an email address that is outside of their college community. For example, anyone reading the TK College newspaper who does not have a TKCollege.edu address might be asked to pay. That way, interested parents and alumni who might read the online version of the college paper every day or almost every day to keep up with their kids or their old school might contribute, say, $2.00 a month — which, while small in total, would be a good shot in the arm for most college newspaper budgets.

      Best regards,

      Steven Brill

    • Mark Hamilton

      College newspaper paywalls are a terrible idea, given that one small function that college newspapers serve is a link to clips for those moving into journalism beyond college. Are potential employers going to have to pay to read links, or do we force every college newspaper reporter to maintain their own, separate site for collating all of their college work?

    • Steven & Mark,

      Thanks so much for your comments. To be clear, what I am advocating is a complete avoidance of pay walls or meter systems by student press outlets. As I mention in the piece, and Mark as you argue, I do not see a wall or meter being a benefit in any way. Steven, I absolutely agree that the most likely candidates for the pay approach are alumni and parents of students- interestingly these groups record the highest viewing totals of student newspaper websites. (Meanwhile, at least for now, the students still love the print editions most!) And your limited approach does sound like the most logical way to charge for content. I just do not see the point. Most student media outlets do not need the money. It would almost undoubtedly be a small influx of cash at best. And it would more likely turn off their most passionate online readers- people who view the student press content as a nice dessert treat more than bread-and-butter news worth shelling out the bucks to consume. With pay walls and meters soon to be in place across the professional media spectrum, this is a chance for college media to better stand out, serve a niche for readers turned off by the charges, and reap the benefits of providing content for what Chris Anderson has dubbed “the radical price.”

      Very respectfully,

      Dan

    • Maguire

      I certainly hope that we don’t experience college and university news mounting pay walls. There is so little media that isn’t corporate spun, that college press is one of the few places you can still find unbiased news.

      There is an interview series that you might enjoy about professional women in online journalism.
      http://www.ourblook.com/Table/Gender-Studies-and-Media/
      It was conducted by the University of Iowa Gender and Mass Media class from this past fall.

    • Siti Arbaiya

      At the end of the day, it is the ‘amount’ that will be the breaking point if students would or would not want to pay for it.

      For example, as what Steven have said $2 for a month, anyone would be willing to pay to read for that amount. Look, any students with a credit card would. It’s a mere sum of money which could possibly be the same cost as a Time Magazine subscription for a year.

      I understand the question is to pay or not but where does these college press or online newspaper get their funds from if they are getting non paying advertisers? If students are so willing to pay for social media, what will set them apart from paying to view college press?

      Give it a thought.

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