Location, location, location…

Earlier this month, I got a chance to give an update on our project and our progress to The Chronicle’s board via a conference call. After the call, the board (officially called the Duke Student Publishing Company or DSPC) had a discussion to try and set its priorities in terms of finding a new home for The Chronicle.

After asking everyone to list the factors that would be critical in a new home, there was broad consensus about what would be the most important factor: Location.

The Chronicle is currently located on the main campus, known as West Campus, close to the student union, upperclassmen dorms, and the main administration building. The administration has proposed building a new student media center on a brand new Central Campus, to be built halfway between the two main campuses: East and West Campuses. One day, Central could be the heart of Duke, but then again, it might not.

In an e-mail, DSPC co-chair Karen Blumenthal expanded on the board’s criteria related to location: “The most important factors in The Chronicle’s location were access to news sources, access to where students live, eat and go to class and accessibility/operations/safety 24/7.”

I gave this some thought and replied to her in an e-mail with some of my thoughts about location. I’m including them here:

1. Access to news sources: The answer to this question comes back to how one defines “news.” Traditionally, the Chronicle’s coverage tends to be quite institutional. Looking at how it operates today, how often do Chronicle reporters actually visit the Allen building or other administrative offices versus calling folks on the phone? If you’re thinking about Cameron or other sports facilities, do reporters file remotely from games or do they trek back to the offices to write stories? But again, it’s also worth thinking about how the Chronicle defines news, what its mission and goals are, and how that potentially affects where you think the news is located.

2. Access to where students live, eat and go to class: If I were to answer this now, the answer would lead me to say East Campus. This is where all the freshmen live today, and this location would provide the easiest access for recruiting. As staffers become more involved or more senior, they develop more loyalty and more attachment and become fewer in numbers. Over time, however, it’s worth understanding how Central Campus will change this equation. My understanding is that Duke originally wanted to build the new Central out of a need for more housing. Who will be living there? How will students be divided across the three campuses? I don’t know the answers to those questions, by the way. But I think it’s worth it for the board to find out.

3. Accessibility/operations/safety 24/7: I think this partially overlaps with the previous item. Except on the issue of safety. And that part, I think, refers to students working late nights and early mornings and getting back to their living spaces. It’s an important point, but also one that I think depends in large part where those students will be living in the coming decades. And whether the Chronicle lands on some part of West, Central, or East, I think it’s something that will have to be addressed because some upper classmen will also choose to live off campus. On the other hand, once The Chronicle knows the circumstances, I suspect there will be a range of practical solutions.

4. A larger space, have the Chronicle operations all together and low rent: I think this is a given in any space that The Chronicle creates. (And while I didn’t include this in the e-mail, I would add here that there is also the issue of whether any space would be shared with other Duke media groups, and the potential for collaboration or sharing resources.)

5. Tradeoffs: While this is not part of your list, I’d think about what The Chronicle gains or loses from any particular location. For instance, is it worth accepting a smaller space on West Campus over a dramatically larger facility on Central Campus? The answer could well be “yes.” Or it could be that The Chronicle can be the same size on West as Central in the end. This is just to say that I’d factor in any possible constraints or tradeoffs, given this space will likely need to adapt as The Chronicle changes over the coming decades.

Following our exchange, I recruited Chronicle editor David Graham to help drum up some data on these points. First, I asked him to put together a census of where current Chronicle staffers live (West, East, current Central, or off campus). And second, I asked him to keep a log of where reporters go to report stories. How often to they go to the administration building versus just calling administrators? How often do they go to the student union? The other campuses? Where are they filing stories. We’ll see what this tells us.

But as a random aside, I’m currently at the College Media Advisors conference in Washington, D.C. I ran into some folks from College Publisher, the company that runs The Chronicle’s content management system, along with most other college papers. They were pitching the new version of their CMS which will role out early next year. Among new features: Reporters will be able to file stories via cell phones.

I don’t know how much that will really happen now. But it’s just another one of those interesting twists that makes it hard to think about the role location will play in say 10 years, or 30 years, when mobile technologies are evolving so rapidly.

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