While the current trend among newspapers in this country is to throw brains and money at the online side of the business, student newspapers are just getting strategies in place to put more thought into websites and social media.
At first glance, it appears counterintuitive. Today’s students are technologically savvy, quick adopters of new devices such as smart phones and programs like Facebook and Twitter. Product planners are also fast to note how infatuated twentysomethings are with their phones and tablets. But in Boston at least, student newspapers aren’t planning to abandon the print product anytime soon.
While students are generally connected through social media, it’s going to take more time to get them to go to the Internet before going to the newspaper. So much time, in fact, that editors are in no rush to abandon the print product and view the two technologies as generally separate entities.
“This is as social media savvy of a school as you can find,” said Alexander Kaufman, editor in chief of Emerson College’s Berkeley Beacon. “People at Emerson are eager to tweet about things that irk them or what they’re thinking about.”
The Berkeley Beacon, printed once a week, is arguably the most invested in the future of online journalism. Kaufman is quick to point out that the website, BerkeleyBeacon.com, is the first among college newspapers in the country to adopt HTML5, hand-coded by their design editor Ryan Catalani, he said.
“We thought about changing the WordPress theme on the old site,” Catalani said. “But then it made more sense to start from scratch.”
It’s a responsive website design, similar to what the recently revamped and highly praised BostonGlobe.com runs on. Notably, it adapts to different screen sizes and browsers, which Kaufman said negates the need for a mobile app.
The new website, launched in November, has made Kaufman and the section editors think differently about how to package the newspaper.
“We have a more engaged and younger audience online, an audience that will tweet or like our stories,” Kaufman said. “Our print is still king with faculty and administrators that read, and it’s still something that has a further reach with prospective students and their parents who might come to campus and pick up a copy.”
Kaufman said the challenge on the part of section editors is to find stories that go in print that can be written in a way that makes them seem fresh until the next paper comes out.
But when a story like last month’s Back Bay fire blows up on a Tuesday evening, that goes through a quick process of writing, editing and posting on the website.
“We run feature stories on page one and cover things like the Back Bay fire online,” Kaufman said.
Boston University’s Daily Free Press is in a different place from the Beacon. Not only is BU a much larger school, but the paper also publishes four days a week. What’s more, the paper doesn’t have an online editor yet, meaning managing editor Tim Healey must post stories online after the paper goes to bed and schedule some tweets to go up as students get up and go to classes.
“Next semester, the online editor position will do bulk of online work,” Healey, a sophomore, said. “But we encourage all of the editors to do their own.”
Healey still does a lot of the tweeting and posting on Facebook on his own, though, partly because other editors are busy with their own classes and assignments. Still, the Daily Free Press has established some social media outlets that are popular at BU.
Healey’s challenge, however, is keeping the Daily Free Press relevant to not only BU students, but also Bostonians looking for news about the BU community. He helped the news staff get a story about a fraternity accused of hazing five students on April 9.
“Other outlets are going to want to cover it, so we want to get it tweeted immediately,” Healey said.
But Healey said the paper still rules, which neglects the online presence too often.
“A lot of times we realize too late that a slide show would have been good or we should have gathered some tweets about student reaction,” he said. “Nowadays, people would usually like to watch a video rather than read a story online.”
Healey said he sees more students picking up the paper than reading it online, and advertisers want to see their ads in print.
“The future of journalism, though is online,” Healey said. “The more people we can direct there, the better.”
That’s promising, he said, because the website right now is pretty much a copy of what goes in the paper.
“We basically put our print edition together and then put up or stories online the next day,” Fish, a senior, said. “We want to have more content on the website.”
Still, it’s a far cry, Fish said, from the site the Journal abandoned in 2010, hosted by the College Publisher service that handles many college newspapers nationally. Now on WordPress, which the Daily Free Press also uses, the Journal has a modern-looking site that can attract its mostly commuter student body. Without a strong Web emphasis though, Fish said it’s difficult to produce Web-specific content.
“When we had a Web editor, he put everything up on the website,” Fish said. “When he left, there were few of us who knew what we were doing. It became the policy to get section editors to post it, but some would forget. We’re kind of spread thin between getting stories in print and updating our website.”
Fish said next year, when there’s a dedicated online team in place, things should be better for the website, and the Facebook and Twitter channels that are starting to gain momentum. And right now, there’s not a lot of worry people will stop picking up the Journal in print.
“Your average college student isn’t going to check their school newspaper site every morning,” Fish said. “They’re more likely to read the paper if it’s handed to them. The way we’re hoping (the website) will affect our print edition is that if we’re slow on stories, we can pull online-only stories into the paper.”
But if the Journal is going to continue to grow and be relevant to Suffolk’s student body, Fish, like Kaufman and Healey, said he believes a strong online presence is a must.
“We want to be a go-to site for information on campus,” Fish said, “and that’s what we’re working towards now.”
Map of other final projects in Dan Kennedy’s Spring 2012 Reinventing the News class