In the fall of 1986, I was one of a group of young upstarts who thought we would take on one of the oldest student newspapers in the country.
I was a writer and editor on the staff of The Badger Herald, a weekly at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Founded in the campus turmoil of the 1960s, the Herald long saw itself as an alternative to The Daily Cardinal, Madison’s storied campus voice. In 1986, we got a head of steam to take the Cardinal on in a daily battle for news and advertising revenue, making us the only campus in the country with two daily student newspapers.
When the Herald announced this spring that it was returning to weekly in print and embracing a digital-first strategy, it took me back to those heady days. I had picked the Herald over the Cardinal largely because one of the editors at the orientation meeting was super hot. But the competitor in me fired up when we dove into the daily battle. The Herald had given me experience, excitement and, eventually, a husband.
Yet in looking at its new strategic direction, the paper gave me something else: the feeling that we’re fast approaching a tipping point on print in college media.
The bottom of the bottom line
College newspapers are a special business model in the disrupted media environment. Distributed free, they survive largely on local advertising dollars. Without any subscriptions as one leg of the revenue stool, they’re particularly vulnerable to declining ad buys. And while some papers are supported by institutions or student fees, the Herald and Cardinal are entirely independent. They don’t receive a dollar from the University of Wisconsin. (Some Herald watchers are going to predictably quibble here that the Cardinal lives in university space, but that was the result of a long-ago real estate deal. They’re both fiscally independent.)
When it comes to advertising, campus papers have had a wonderful thing to sell — a captive audience of young spenders who like clothes, activity and especially a good party. Bars, restaurants, retail shops and vacation companies all wanted to advertise in my beloved daily Badger Herald.
But today, those same entities have countless other ways to reach this coveted demographic. Freed by digital devices and new, targeted means to deliver information, the college audience is no longer captive. The Kollege Klub bar doesn’t need the Herald and Cardinal to run its specials when it can start its own social campaign to reach drinkers directly.
Three other factors have dinged the advertising bottom line for our papers, as well, according to Herman Baumann, an alum who leads the Cardinal’s board. As universities expand physically, they push local businesses further away. In Madison today, businesses in the immediate campus area are only about 40 percent of their density in 1970. In addition, national chains have moved in and choked out local businesses. Campus ad staffs have a much tougher time selling to the Abercrombies of the world than to a local retailer. Finally, universities themselves have gotten into marketing competition with campus media, inking massive contracts with national and big local advertisers for athletics and other events.
Yet campus media knew the vast majority of their ad revenue was still coming from print, not any of the digital efforts they were trying to gin up. Trying to save on the costs of putting out a daily paper while still trying to capture revenue from print, the Herald moved to twice weekly print in 2013. Coming out in hard copy four days a week, the Cardinal is now the only remaining daily student newspaper in Wisconsin.
Making sense of audience
From essentially the moment the Herald went to twice a week, outgoing editor Tara Golshan wanted it to go weekly. She thought of the Herald as an innovative entity, but reporters weren’t doing even the digital basics — getting a photo to illustrate a story online or hyperlinking within text.
“I started at the Herald when it was a daily, and it was so ingrained in the print edition,” Golshan says. “It has had a tradition of being forward-thinking, but when I started working, digital was an afterthought.”
She wanted to meet an audience of her own generation on their own terms and in their own preferred spaces. She challenged her colleagues to question why they made print primary when even they didn’t consume their own news in that medium. The staff’s hope is to now use digital platforms for breaking news and constant updates while focusing the weekly print on long-form storytelling and deeper dives into campus issues.
“We should really capitalize on these things (and) how people are using their news, especially our own generation,” Golshan says.
For college media expert Dan Reimold, the Herald’s gambit makes sense. Top-tier papers have steadily moved away from daily print as costs increased, revenues declined and audience habits changed. “This is the biggest reinvention of the student newspaper since it arrived in its current form in the late 1800s,” he says.
The meaning of campus presence
Yet this migration is certainly not without risk. Reimold says any student news organization that goes halfway on a transition will not succeed. A digital-first strategy has to be an all-in proposition.
“Is it full-on revolution or is the ‘R’ in parentheses?” he asks. “If student readers feel the Badger Herald is the same thing it has always been but it’s simply coming out less, that would be my concern.”
At SMU in Dallas, Jake Batsell is helping his student media team plan for a move to once a week in print. They’re excited to embrace a digital focus, he says, but they have work to do to draw audience. “When you shake up the business model like this, it’s going to take some explaining to customers and rebranding,” Batsell says. “The risk is that the market doesn’t respond the way we think it will.”
Golshan adds the complicating factor of staff turnover as an ingredient in the risky recipe for change: “You have a bunch of 20-year-olds running a business, and they’re changing every year. That’s something that doesn’t happen in other businesses. You don’t replace your top four leaders every year.”
Reimold sees genuine risk in these outlets losing their voice on campus and getting lost among the many apps, outlets, and services crowding students’ digital streams. “The biggest fear across the board is the idea of losing that presence on campus. It’s important because the college campus is one of the last key places besides train stations in which there are a bunch of people milling about outside and walking around and gathering en masse,” he says.
At the Herald, staff hope to maintain primacy on campus by rebranding efforts that will include new attention to events, apps and other revenue generators. They’ve already played with new story forms, shunning the traditional game story in sports, for instance, in favor of a nugget-based approach covering best quote, top play and the like. Beyond the excitement, though, Golshan says her colleagues do recognize the risk.
“You don’t know if it’s gonna work,” she says plainly. “That’s it. You just don’t know. We’re betting on it, and I think it will.”
A live training ground
Yet that risk may well be one of the most instructive elements for students learning to work in media organizations. Nadia White, an associate professor at the University of Montana and adviser to its Kaimin newspaper, sees tremendous benefit as her students learn to take their publication from four days in black-and-white broadsheet to weekly in a color tabloid. She says business reasons were part of the motivation for the change, but the educational value is also a key factor.
“To change such a traditional outlet is as hard for students as it is for professionals,” White says. “Change is hard. The students are getting a very close experience with something that I hope informs their sense of entrepreneurship.”
With feet on the ground and heads in analytics, the students have to learn how to attract and retain audiences and sell them to advertisers. That’s been a challenge recently for the Kaimin.
“I don’t think our audience has been as strong as it should have been for the last few years,” White says. “College campuses continue to be a strong niche audience for print products. If nothing else, students pick up the newspaper to do sudoku in the back of my class.”
The fleeting attention and brand browsing of today’s student audience vexes most campus media outlets. Many were struck when a University of North Carolina student editor lamented her peers’ lack of loyalty to the student newspaper she bled to produce. Reimold sees this apathy problem replicated on virtually every campus he encounters.
“You spend long nights in the newsroom pumping this stuff out, and the student readers respond with a sigh,” he says. “I’ve seen bits and glimmers of evidence and enthusiasm as student media wrestle with this, but I don’t think that in any long-term or large-scale sense, they have surmounted that apathy wall.”
Like me, Batsell has a wistful sense of disappointment that his students will not be locked in that daily print battle. Yet we both know disruption offers new opportunities for learning and experimentation. White states it matter-of-factly: “Our students will be leaving the Kaimin ready for the media world they’ll be entering.”
As the Herald tackles its new reality of weekly print and constant digital, the Cardinal is plotting its own future. Baumann says the team plans to stay daily through December, and then assess the market and analyze business model options. Reimold hopes the fire my friends and I started in 1986 will continue to blaze brightly in Madison.
“From afar, the battle royale among those two papers is certainly smile-inducing and has always been a pleasant reality that there can still exist a campus that had two strong and strong-willed papers that are battling it out for readers.”
Join the conversation on campus media transitions in our live #EdShift Twitter chat at 1 ET Tuesday, June 23, featuring the sources in this piece and other advisers and staff. Dan Reimold also is leading a DigitalEd training module on how these outlets can reinvent themselves. Join him Wednesday, July 15, at 1 ET by registering in advance.
Kathleen Bartzen Culver (@kbculver) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for PBS MediaShift.