Student media are currently undergoing their most massive transformation since the introduction of campus newspapers in their somewhat modern form in the late 1800s.
In that spirit, I recently led the DigitalEd training “Reinventing Student Media.” The session and related resource handout focuses on the steps outlets should take and the techniques and tools they should consider when making the leap to online-only, digital-first or simply more digital-and-mobile friendly. The training is available to watch here. And my next DigialEd training will be about taking your student media to the next level; it’s on August 26, and you can sign up here.
Amid all this reinvention, student media editors, advisers and journalism professors are increasingly wrestling with issues of audience engagement and reader relevancy. To address this lingering concern, I recently asked a group of current and recent student journalists across the country and in Canada to offer their perspectives, ideas and advice centered on a single question: How do we get the student audience to care more about the student press?
A sampling of their responses is included below. For a look at the full 20-part series, check out my blog College Media Matters.
“How do we better engage our student audience? How can we grab their attention? And how do we get them to keep coming back to us online and — ever the illusive question — in print? In my years at the paper, we answered these questions through trial-and-error. We’ve introduced new podcasts and blogs, increased our video output, redesigned our website time and time again and changed our approach to social media.
“The most effective approach to student engagement I’ve seen has been our magazines. They’re twice-yearly editions which are anchored by a central theme. They feature our best writers doing in-depth long-form content and our designers and visuals team at their finest. During my year as features editor, we revamped the magazines, creating a new visuals-heavy microsite to house them and transitioning them out of newsprint and into a staple-bound 40-page publication.”
“Though we might not always be able to make anyone care as much about news as we do, I do think college journalists can build a relationship with a student audience in a way that creates recognition (so they know what services we can provide for them), loyalty (so they come to us for news) and ease of access (the easier it is for our news to get to them, the more influence we have).
“Three years ago, The Emerald’s redesign created a catchy logo for the newspaper to brand itself by. This was the first step in creating a product students could easily recognize. We also started an in-house marketing team — then called Emerald Presents — to educate students on what The Emerald is all about and to host events that encourage them to come to us for news
“This year, we discovered that a large majority of students on campus weren’t aware that we have a website — a shocking realization considering the entire purpose of our “revolution” three years ago was to drive traffic online where we publish about five times more than we do in our biweekly print issues. So, we launched a team called Emerald Extras comprised of former newsroom reporters who would rather focus on educating their peers about what The Emerald does, and inspiring them to join our community.
“Starting in the fall, Emerald Extras will host weekly events on campus to interface with students, spread the word about the Emerald and collect feedback on what our audience likes and dislikes about our paper. We believe this on-the-ground interaction and entertainment is the next step to increasing relationships and loyalties with the University of Oregon student body.”
“When I was working at the Collegian, a weekly student newspaper, we took a number of steps to revitalize the paper and bring in readers. We moved from traditional newspaper front pages to colorful, graphic covers. We regularly ran special sections. My favorite was a massive dive into the paper’s archives for a look at the ’20th Century Through the Eyes of the Collegian.’
“Student readership seemed unaffected by these and other steps. But faculty regularly complimented the Collegian staff on putting together a more robust paper than they’d seen in years. Ironically, everything we did to bring in student readers did a better job of attracting faculty. This helped persuade me that, though we ran a student newspaper, there was no real reason we had to focus narrowly on a student audience. So we ramped up our off-campus distribution program, tripling or quadrupling the Collegian’s off-campus circulation. The best part? At the coffee shops, restaurants and other haunts to which we deliver the Collegian, the papers are usually gone by week’s end.”
“We added a technology section to meet our audience’s growing use of mobile and of course the Internet. In every issue, the tech section boasts an “app of the week,” reviewing an app that’s useful to college students. We have also published stories comparing different phones, social media privacy and helpful online services for students. The lesson: Don’t limit yourself to just news, sports and entertainment sections.
“We [also] began our own version of Humans of New York through our social media. Every Wednesday, our Facebook page features a photo and caption of a student, faculty or staff member. Our campus isn’t large, so you see some of these people every day — and now readers have the stories behind their faces. The weekly feature usually receives the highest engagement rates of any content featured on our Facebook page. The lesson: Create regular series via social media that your audience will come to expect, follow, interact with, share and maybe even eventually contribute to.”
“This past semester, Hullabaloo staffer Andrew Lemoine pitched the idea of a Hullabaloo Snapchat to me. At first I was skeptical, but he soon convinced me that the popularity of the app on our campus makes it perfect for getting our news and name out there. No, I’m not proposing that we ditch everything else for Snapchat, but it can give us content and –maybe more importantly — also provide us with an additional voice.
“So far, we have used Snapchat to cover events going on at Tulane and in New Orleans such as commencement and the many festivals the city hosts. We have framed it as a way for our readers to keep up with the city even if they are not here for the summer. Tulane’s unified commencement is a big show every year. Through Snapchat, we were able to give our followers updates on the speeches, fireworks and music that happened throughout the ceremony in real-time, quick-hit and conveniently right on their phones.
“I also envision Snapchat as a tool for the paper to preview pieces and essentially tease what we have coming up. For example, if we interview a band or university official for a story, we can put parts of it out there on Snapchat beforehand. Bottom line, we’re still coming up with new ways to use it every day.”
“[O]ne thing the Otterbein360.com team put in place this past year was a guest blog program. The program has been invaluable in increasing awareness for our publication as well as furthering our ongoing goal of bringing student voices center stage. It invites the student body to editorialize on our platform and on our dime. More specifically, we approach prominent students whom we know are well-informed and invite them to write about topics of interest or importance.
“An example: A guest blog written this past October in response to an Otterbein program which womens’ groups on campus were describing as victim-blaming. The writer is a prominent women’s, gender and sexuality studies major involved in Greek life and various womens’ issues groups. She also more recently became the first Otterbein student government president. Given her prominence, the power of her insights and the hot-button focus area, this post performed amazingly well.”
“Several of the changes Ka Leo has made over the last year have attracted more attention to our print and digital editions. Among the most successful strategies have been videos on social media and a redesign of the print paper. Our web editor and his team have been particularly insistent that we upload videos, even short ones, with story teases, especially on Facebook. Not only does that give us an edge in the algorithms these platforms use, but I think it does a better job of grabbing the reader’s attention as they scroll through their news feeds.
“On the print front, we revamped our layout in an attempt to create a cleaner look — compare an issue from last year to one from this year. We believe this redesign is one of the reasons our print pick-up rates have increased from the mid-50 percent range to the high-60s.”
“There is no denying that the majority of millennials are not reading newspapers, but they do care about what is happening at their schools. From my experience, the news stories about issues and problems on campus, profiles of students doing something extraordinary and commentary on pop culture or politics receive the most attention. Still, most of that attention is definitely online.
“The most popular print editions are our special issues. Having annual editions that students know about is one of the best ways to remind them about the newspaper in general. The best example of this is the WSN’s annual Most Influential Students edition. This edition is well-known across campus, in part for involving the community in the process. Specifically, the students featured in the issue each year are selected based on nominations from other students, faculty and university staff. This interaction between the students working on the newspaper and their peers, as well as the rest of the university community, is a great way to increase readership and make students care more about what is published.”
“[W]hen it comes to college media, my theory has been to provide a mix of content our audience will find entertaining, interesting and informative. One way The [email protected] is accomplishing all those things, and better reaching our student audience, is through longform journalism with a multimedia kick.
“An example is our West Texas Water microsite, where we broke down problems connected to a recent drought and how it was putting the area around us in debt. As the About page reads, “The site showcases several stories and photos related to drought, has links to daily-updated water data and numerous visuals that explain statistics.” I am a big fan of visualizations, which is something we are striving to get a grip on. Interactive graphics, as well as infographics, can be nifty tools to help student readers really grasp what you are talking about.
“We are lucky to be online-only, so we don’t have the extra struggle of print deadlines. We can exhaust more efforts in promoting our stories via social media and building a loyal audience. We spend time focusing on quality rather than quantity, pursuing stories we think are imperative for us to cover, as well as ones we think would be of interest to our audience.”
“I recently met with the University Daily Kansan’s fall business manager, managing editor and advisers. One point of our conversation was the Kansan’s readership — what it actually is vs. what we want it to be…
“The consensus we have come to so far is this: The Kansan has been the student voice of the University of Kansas since 1904, so let’s own it. Let’s fill the gaps local and national news can’t fill. Let’s cover Kansas basketball better than the pros. Let’s drive the conversation about sexual assault. Let’s hold our administration accountable for the money we pay with our student fees. Let’s be the voice for students and the KU community.
“Yes, we understand our peers don’t love the Kansan like we do. … And, yes, we understand they can go literally anywhere other than Kansan.com for updates. But we have decided exactly who our audience is, and we will tell its stories better than anyone else can because we are the audience. I think that’s the key — understanding who your audience is and understanding exactly what it wants. Then you can own the stories that no one else can.”
To sign up for my next DigitalEd training for student media, go here.
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.