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Stopping the Presses: student publications and new media

Consider this blog post. No, really. In the past, a forum like this one—a blog for, by, and about an academic department—simply wouldn’t have existed. But, as we’ve all heard a million times, the world is changing, thanks to the Internet. For some college newspapers, though, the Internet is more than the new frontier; rather, it’s the only place their product exists.

This phenomenon is nothing new, as professional publications have made the switch in an effort to save money for years. The most famous of this bunch is Newsweek, which published in print for 80 years before its changeover and rebranding in October 2012. But the financial crisis hit student publications later and in a different way. In fact, as late as 2009, over a third of college newspapers didn’t have a web presence at all (defined as no website or a website that hadn’t been updated in six months or more).

The University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald is not one of these publications. After 92 years of printing daily, in 2012 the newspaper transitioned to a twice-weekly magazine with most content published online. Eastern Connecticut State University took that one step further. In September 2006, students returned to newspaper racks filled not with a new edition, but instead with fliers informing them that news would now only be available online. While ECSU was the first school to literally “stop the presses” (which actually raised legal trouble), others have followed in more recent years, especially on the community college level. Here at Tufts, while many publications have an online presence, none are completely online.

In the end, though, it’s important to remember the purpose of student newspapers. Yes, a record of happenings, on-campus and off, is valuable for the campus. But, more specifically, student publications in general provide outlets for practice, training, and experience in the field of journalism. The act of writing the story may prove more important than the content of that story, even if the byline is online. In fact, in an era in which journalism is increasingly on the Internet and/or multimedia, one could argue that it’s worse for a student publication not to have a web presence at all than not to publish in print.

However, even though funding for college newspapers can be tight, I would argue that it is almost as irresponsible to abandon print journalism completely. Call me a print media junkie, but nothing compares to holding the news in my hands, without a dim, bluish glow. I want to turn the page to see the next section, instead of just scrolling down. And I’m not alone: according to research, students prefer the print version of their campus newspapers, and in 2010 over half of college students didn’t even know if their college newspaper was available online. When budget cuts and lack of profit threatened to shut down American University’s weekly Eagle, student response was so negative that they decided to make the changes necessary to allow at least a monthly publication.

But the Emerald didn’t change media because of financial difficulties—2011 was one of their most successful years ever. Instead it was because they saw a shift in professional journalism, and adjusted their mission and actions to better fit the modern world. In the end, digital news media is neither an add-on nor a replacement for its print counterpart. When the two exist simultaneously, they complement each other, and students aiming for careers in journalism should be comfortable on either end. Because, right now, that is the future. Print publications may be struggling financially, on the whole, but they need young, bright minds with experience in both realms in order to keep functioning. Maybe it will change again: perhaps print journalism will truly become a thing of the past, and we’ll all carry our student publications around on tablets, and every academic department will have a blog. But today, this semester, this year, we still exist in a blend of the two forms, and thus student journalists need experience in both.

–Gracie McKenzie, A15

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The Communications & Media Studies Program of Tufts University

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