Home Want To Save Journalism? Start At The Bottom

Want To Save Journalism? Start At The Bottom

Recovering newspaper people get a little squeamish when you talk about things like click-through rates, page views and social reach. That’s because most of us were raised on the belief that the best newspapers carried “All the news that’s fit to print,” not “All the news that’s fit to share.” We don’t like admitting the school lunch menu and the latest update on Snooki’s pregnancy gets more eyeballs than the in-depth analysis of Congress’s latest budget debate.

That conventional wisdom may explain some of the reasons for the telling data points the Pew State of the Media Report released Monday, which found the newspaper industry is still in a long, steady decline, and digital revenue gains are failing to keep pace with print advertising losses. And here at the College Media Association’s annual convention in New York, where student journalists and the advisers who are training them into the next generation of news reporters are gathered through Tuesday, there are plenty of casualties to comment on that slow decline – and plenty of reasons to worry.

Above: Students at the College Media Association’s annual conference are encouraged to tweet updates to the #nyc12 Twitter hash tag, but the conference’s program still puts a heavy emphasis on training them for print journalism careers.

Old Habits Die Hard

A college newspaper adviser was traditionally the person who could lead by example and give students the real world models for them to base their work off of. There are more than a few traditional academics on the tenure track at a gathering like this, but increasingly, ex-newspaper reporters and editors are losing jobs in their chosen profession and finding work as journalism instructors and college newspaper advisers.

I won’t use CMA’s use of a listserv as its primary means for advisers to discuss issues as Exhibit A in how the people training the next generation of journalists are out of touch with the latest content delivery methods. My own view of tech is that if something is working for you, there’s no need to abandon it until you find something that works better. Nor will I make fun of the conference app that didn’t work as advertised, the fact that most of the new media sessions were hidden in basement conference rooms, and that several people think the best way to connect with young journalists is to pepper their talks with the phrase “bad ass.”

That’s because what is most troubling about a convention like this is that their instructors and advisers often just don’t understand what is and is not working, if they understand new media at all. What happens here and across the industry is people cling to myths, including the feeling that having a print product is vital and that they can’t make money online. They focus on soon-to-be-antiquated skills like print page design when they could be focusing on understanding Web site analytics.

If those myths continue to propagate with undergrads, they’ll continue to propagate when the students go pro.

Start At The Bottom

“The half-formed question for the industry now seems to be whether organizations need to go all in for digital by installing top executives and editors who specialize in new media,” Emily Guskin, Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell of the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute wrote in the Pew report. “Another question is whether their organizations can weather another five years or more of transition if the effort takes that long?”

No one is about to ask me to install top executives at any news organization. But where I can do my part is making sure I’m on top of all the changes in the field and learning all the multimedia skills my students need to know to succeed. I’ve spent the past five years transitioning from a print journalism career to an online journalism career and I’m constantly trying to train my students to do the same. If I don’t concede that I don’t know everything, if I preach too many “when I was your age” war stories they’re doomed, and so is this profession.

When I started out as a journalist in the early 1990’s, being a good writer or a good reporter or a good photographer was usually enough to land a good entry-level job in print. That model doesn’t cut it anymore: now students need to have all those skills, plus an ability to work in a range of content management systems. Being able to edit video and audio and being fast enough on your feet to file a broadcast from your smartphone doesn’t hurt, either. Oh, and don’t forget all those crucial social media skills that colleges are not stressing enough.

At the risk of talking myself out of my teaching job, can we really expect ex-newspaper guys who are still romanticizing print to be able to teach the next generation of journalists all those skills?

What The Future Looks Like

If you want to know what the future of print journalism may look like, you may have to go all the way down to Flagler College, a private, four-year college St. Augustine, Fla. The student-run paper, the Gargoyle, tried to run a Web site and a print product with its tiny staff before deciding kill the paper and switch to online only.

“I was worried because the top editors had become great at laying out pages (for the print publication) but they were no longer producing good stories,” said Brian Thompson, the Gargoyle’s faculty adviser. “Going online-only allowed them to focus on being journalists again.”

Thompson saw the move as crucial. As an educator, he felt it was vital to be training students for the real-world jobs they’d try to land after college. Knowing how to design pages for a print newspaper wasn’t going to cut it.

There are limitations to the example, most notable being that the Gargoyle doesn’t have to rely on advertising revenue. Thompson spoke on a panel with Ed Morales, his counterpart at the much bigger University of Georgia’s Red & Black. The Red & Black is completely-independent from university funding and relies exclusively on advertising revenue.

The paper switched to an online-first model, and cut back its every weekday print publication schedule to once a week, while adding a monthly magazine. Despite the greater emphasis on online content, the Red & Black still relies on print for 90 percent of its revenue, Morales said.

Another hurdle, and perhaps surprising one for an audience that assumes all college students are constantly buried in their tablets and smartphones, is students missed the print product. That was especially true for students working for the paper, who wanted something tangible to hold onto.

“When we were still publishing a daily paper, students were slaves to the print product,” Morales said. “Now they’re slaves to the weekly paper.”

Attracting Readers Is Not Prostitution

Dead-tree journalists get squeamish when they think about chasing traffic. The notion is that they cover important, newsworthy stories and that, as a result, people will read them. The idea of chasing readers, covering topics because readers want to read about them (and using analytics to write about those topics when they want to read about them), or presenting those topics in a way that may stray from conventional journalistic storytelling is a sure-fire way to get yourself booted from the old boys club that still runs an alarming number of newsrooms.

Almost as surefire as mentioning the C-word.

“You should be a capitalist,” Travis Lusk, director of Vindico Publisher Services, told students and advisers to start a session about boosting Web site traffic on their paper’s Web site. “If you don’t care about how your content performs, you don’t care about your content.”

Lusk said newspapers and other news organizations can find and increase online readership without sacrificing integrity.

“Putting bikini pictures up is going to get a lot of traffic – we know that,” he said. “The trick is finding the right balance of what your readers expect without sinking into that Jersey Shore pandering.”

At Flagler, paying attention to traffic and analytics has meant that the Gargoyle has found new readers — and new places to cover stories. The paper can now cover St. Augustine more broadly as a community, as readers are turning to it as a news source.

“We’re reaching people we never reached before,” he said. “More readers means more chances to do more and different kinds off stories.”

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