Roughly a month ago, Kyle Plantz agreed to shout strangers’ names in a newsroom for only $5.
Plantz, 20, a junior journalism major at Boston University, is not crazy. He’s passionate — about The Daily Free Press. In early November, the FreeP, the 45-year-old independent student newspaper at BU, launched a fundraising campaign to pay off a $70,000 debt and maintain some semblance of a print presence.
So what’s with all the shouting? As the paper’s editor-in-chief, Plantz promised to scream the names of everyone who donated at least $5 to the campaign — at random moments during production nights.
In the end, although Plantz temporarily lost his voice, the paper’s pleas were heard. The crowdfunding effort, hosted on GoFundMe, raced past its goal and beyond the editorial board’s wildest dreams in less than 48 hours. More than 300 people contributed, including prominent BU and FreeP alumnus Bill O’Reilly and auto magnate Ernie Boch Jr.
As Plantz wrote a week later in USA TODAY College, “Student journalism isn’t dead and neither are newspapers … but just like other media outlets, we are learning from our mistakes and we are figuring out how our old print model can adapt to the digital world.”
This print-to-digital adaptation — and the innovative leaps, funding crises and shouts of joy and despair it spurred — is the central theme of college media’s journey in 2014.
‘Go to Hell & Take the Print Newspaper with You’
This past April, John MacArthur, president of Harper’s magazine, resigned from The Columbia Daily Spectator Board of Trustees, declaring he does not “want to be associated with the disappearance of Spectator into digital oblivion.”
The reason for MacArthur’s sudden resignation and strong parting words: the decision by other trustees and the editorial board to reinvent the Columbia University student newspaper into a web-first news outlet. Among other changes instituted this fall, the paper began publishing weekly instead of daily in print.
According to Spectator publisher Michael Ouimette, “We are not doing the best journalism we can do if we’re devoting so many hours to print.”
It was a common sentiment shared by student press publishers, editors, advisers and business managers in 2014. If not quite a tipping point, this past year definitely represented a turning point in college media’s relationship with print.
A growing number of campus newspapers and magazines cut or considered cutting the amount of print editions they publish each week or month. Others trimmed their page sizes or reduced the number of copies or pages produced for each issue. A few outlets dropped print entirely, opting to reboot as online-only enterprises.
In a related press release, ASU student media director Jason Manning confirmed, “We are no longer a so-called ‘digital-first’ media organization — we are a media organization in the digital age. Our audience and our advertisers are highly mobile and social and the legacy print product does not serve their needs.”
The Daily O’Collegian also veered from its legacy. In the fall, the 119-year-old student newspaper at Oklahoma State University adopted a new format, publishing schedule and digital focus. It even changed its name to the O’Colly, the pub’s longtime nickname.
According to Kyle Hinchey, the paper’s editor-in-chief in 2013-’14, “By making this change, we are transitioning from a five-day-a-week newspaper to a 24/7 media company.”
By comparison, student journalists at California’s Mt. San Antonio College went for revolution more than transition. In September, Mt. SAC’s campus newspaper dropped its print edition, changed its name (from The Mountaineer to Substance) and switched its web host. It is the first college media outlet to operate primarily on the publishing platform Medium.
Substance adviser and Mt. SAC journalism professor Toni Albertson described the arrangement as “the perfect merge of tech and college journalism.”
As she explained about the impetus behind this merger, “While [staffers] used to like putting out the print newspaper, they began to loathe it and the long hours and late production nights it took to produce it. You know there’s a problem when the editor-in-chief yells, ‘Go to hell and take the print newspaper with you’ and half the room walks out. Maybe if the student population was reading the paper they might have felt differently. Each semester they would go out on campus and take a survey: ‘Do you read the student print newspaper?’ The answer was a resounding ‘NO.'”
‘Welcome to the Future of the Future’
Apart from reinvention, the other resounding trend among college media in 2014 was financial duress — and efforts to either beat it back or at least keep it at bay.
For example, facing an “apocalyptic threat” due to low cash reserves, The Daily Texan entered into a once-unimaginable partnership with the Moody College of Communications at the University of Texas at Austin. The Texan’s top editor at the time confirmed to readers that “the paper I’ve made the cornerstone of my college experience may never turn a profit again.”
After similarly failing to turn profits or secure needed student fees support, The Famuan at Florida A&M University, The Collegian at the University of Richmond and The California Aggie at the University of California, Davis, dropped their print editions.
Meanwhile in February, in the midst of “really frightening” budget woes, The Daily Utah Chronicle at the University of Utah staged a “Shark Tank”-style meeting to gather ideas to invigorate the paper’s bottom line. As the school’s student media director Jake Sorensen told The Salt Lake City Tribune, the question driving the pitches: “If you were going to build a modern media organization on campus, what would it look like? Just pretend we could start from scratch.”
Six months later, the Central Florida Future at Central Florida University put ideas into action, scratching its print design, website and publishing schedule in favor of “a new kind of news source.”
As Central Florida Future staffer Jessica Saggio wrote cheekily in a note to readers, “Perhaps you may have noticed, or perhaps you are like a bad boyfriend and haven’t noticed, we got a makeover — a really big makeover. No longer are we that clunky newspaper that was impossible to sneak into class and read. No longer are we that website that looked like it was out of the AOL instant-messenger era. No longer are we ‘just a newspaper.’ We have found our wings, people, and queue the R. Kelly [song] because we believe we can fly.”
The note’s headline: “Welcome to the Future of the Future.”
‘A Complete War Zone’
Over the past year, student media and student journalists inserted themselves into a number of hot-button national and international issues and events.
For example, during the 2014 Winter Olympics, the mastermind of the massively popular Twitter account and social media phenomenon @SochiProblems was a 20-year-old journalism student at Toronto’s Centennial College.
— Cabbie Richards (@Cabbie) February 6, 2014
Three months later, in the wake of the Isla Vista shootings, The Daily Nexus student newspaper at the University of California, Santa Barbara, earned praise for its quick-hit, on-point coverage. At the same time, a competing campus paper, The Bottom Line, elicited controversy for initially declaring it was refraining from covering the story “to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists.”
By comparison, in August, Christian Lee, a student photojournalist at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, did not hesitate to cover the chaos of the initial Ferguson riots.
“In a nutshell, it was a complete war zone,” said Lee, a business management major from Richton Park, Ill. “I have to admit, I was really scared, really scared. I saw people running past me with clothes they had just stolen out of stores. I saw people being injured from the riots. I saw [police] officers roaming the streets with a real intensity, on edge. … It took a lot for me to keep going, keep moving. But I didn’t turn around. I just kept shooting.”
College media covered no issue or event as relentlessly, passionately and comprehensively in 2014 as sexual violence. Student outlets nationwide pushed to raise more awareness about the problems of sexual assault, rape and domestic abuse on their campuses. They addressed the alleged and convicted perpetrators and increasingly called out their schools for questionable investigations and punishments. They also published candid reflections and commentaries from survivors, presenting their experiences and perspectives on a relatable, human level.
One example: In October, the O’Colly at Oklahoma State published a cover story detailing “a sexual assault case in which the system failed.” The 2,100-word investigation by O’Colly digital news editor Kassie McClung spotlighted the many internal doubts, peer pressures, investigative procedures and cultural norms that can leave a sexual assault victim re-victimized and feeling “like a statistic pushed under the rug.”
As McClung wrote about “Ashley,” who reported a rape to campus police in spring 2012, “She was too ashamed to tell her parents what happened and felt discouraged by police officers. Ashley said because she didn’t want to spend years fighting for a case she would likely lose, she closed it. Almost three years later, Ashley sees a chaotic process in which justice didn’t play a part. The process was so discouraging, Ashley said, she regrets reporting the incident to the police.”
In recent weeks, the most complicated related tightrope has been walked by The Cavalier Daily at the University of Virginia. The paper has earned praise, professional news shout-outs and social media shares for its coverage of the “Rolling Stone rape fiasco” — both before and after the nationally-known gang rape allegations were called into question.
As Cavalier Daily public editor Christopher Broom wrote at one point, “It really felt like the CD was just everywhere on this, which is about as high praise as I can think to give a newsroom working a story.”
‘Students Speak, Change Happens’
As someone who reports and blogs daily about college media, my high praise also extends to Oklahoma University student Joey Stipek and The Oklahoma Daily campus newspaper.
Stipek, the Daily’s special projects editor, filed a lawsuit last year calling for the release of the university’s parking ticket records — which he believed were public. The school stalled, until last month, when the Daily dropped an editorial bombshell across its entire front page: The paper was planning to join Stipek’s suit.
The school almost immediately caved, releasing the records. Administrators at Oklahoma State followed suit soon after. The bottom-line lesson, as the headline of a related Daily special report confirmed, “Students Speak, Change Happens.”
In April, The Daily Kent Stater similarly pushed for change. In a front-page editorial, the student newspaper criticized the “secrecy and evasion” surrounding Kent State University’s presidential search. The paper described it as nothing less than a “public transparency crisis.”
The Student Press Law Center agrees, targeting this growing collegiate crisis nationwide in a new special project called “Sack Secrecy.” As the project’s introduction argues, “Hiring a college president shouldn’t be like running a drug ring.”
Speaking of secrecy, this past spring, Georgia State University administrators announced they had arranged a secret $150,000 deal to replace daytime student programming on the campus radio station WRAS with outside content. The move immediately earned the ire of college radio supporters worldwide.
Two months later at Columbia, the Spectator temporarily closed its newsroom due to the threats of an angry ex-convict. The man, recently released from prison, wanted old articles about his role in a murder case removed from the Spectator website. After sneaking into the building where the paper’s newsroom is housed, he allegedly told a university employee, “I’ve killed someone before and I can do it again.”
When his actions went viral, he claimed it was all a misunderstanding.
‘Poking Fun at an Inherently Funny Topic’
Much more lightheartedly, the most viral college media story of 2014 involved sex, not murder.
In February, The Daily Evergreen at Washington State University published a column focused on the prevalence, psychological underpinnings and physical concerns of, ahem, anal sex. It mixed references to an iconic Robert Frost poem (“The Road Not Taken”) and a comic strip joking about “backstage passes” with some basic advice about “safety first” and engaging in Kegel exercises post-anal-sex to help regain “bowel control.”
The piece entered the viral stratosphere, appearing on “The Colbert Report” and serving as the centerpiece of a Huffington Post article headlined, “The Latest Rage on College Campuses Is Apparently Anal Sex.”
As Candace Baltz, director of student media at WSU, told me at the time, “Colbert did a great job poking fun at an inherently funny topic. We all laughed pretty hard. The students learned how quickly a story can go from their paper to the national stage, and the experience solidified for them why it’s so important to take their roles seriously and do good work … There’s never a dull moment when you advise college newspapers, is there?”
One last zeitgeist moment involving college media in 2014 occurred via a separate Comedy Central program.
“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” featured The Michigan Daily in a late July episode. During a segment of the show, correspondent Jordan Klepper satirically mocked the University of Michigan student newspaper’s valiant effort to practice serious journalism in the clickbait era.
At the start of the segment, Klepper asked the paper’s top staffers what journalism is all about. Their earnest replies: “Well-researched … Informative … Journalism is the ability to tell a story in a way that empowers people.”
Klepper’s take in response: “Is this what they’re teaching you here? Oh, we are so f—ed.”
Dan Reimold, Ph.D., is a college journalism scholar who has written and presented about the student press throughout the U.S. and in Southeast Asia. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, where he also advises The Hawk student newspaper. He is the author of the textbook Journalism of Ideas (Routledge, 2013) and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters.