The troubled business of independent college media

Over at Idea Lab, Anthony Pesce of the UCLA Daily Bruin wrote two posts on the financial challenges facing independent college newspapers. Part I is here and Part II is here. he notes that college dailies that are self-financed are finally beginning to feel the pinch from advertising migrating elsewhere. This is true for The Chronicle at Duke which is the sponsor (along with the Knight Foundation) of this project.

So it’s time for these papers to innovate. But that’s a challenge given the culture and resources of college newspapers which tend to focus on teaching new volunteers to do things in the way they’ve been done in the past. Who has time to re-invent the wheel every year when you’ve got class to go to? When I started visiting the Chronicle last year as part of this project, I saw much of the same culture and work flow that existed when I was on staff from 1989 to 1991.

Beyond that, from the perspective of everyone on staff, they looked in the newspapers bins and saw every copy snatched up every day. If everyone is still reading the paper, then there’s no problem, right? The looming financial problems that Anthony blogged about are likely to force a change in that thinking.

Here’s what I wrote in response to Anthony’s posts:

“Great series of posts, Anthony.
This cuts to the heart of one central issues we’ve been trying to address with the Next Newsroom Project: The lack of capacity at college papers to innovate.

As an aside, let me note that professional newspapers like mine (the San Jose Mercury News) are resource strapped as well. It’s not a problem that gets solved once students leave college.

But your analysis is spot on. I’ve found college papers even more culturally conservative than professional ones when it comes to innovation. In part, I think, that’s because the financial hammer has been hitting us harder and for much longer.

Your project is a great approach to one aspect of this problem. I think there a lot of opportunities for college papers to think differently how they serve their communities. But it’s hard for them in the short term to break out of that cycle you describe.

We’ll be announcing the completion of our newsroom plan for The Chronicle here next week, and I’ll summarize how we tried to give Chronicle staff more capacity and incentives to innovate.”

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