The New College Try

With the recent announcement that Boston University’s student newspaper is ditching dead trees for digital, the city’s college publications have reached a turning point. The big question is, why has Boston’s student media been stuck in the past?

Boston University's The Daily Free Press Boston

On February 9, 2004, the Harvard Crimson published an article documenting the sudden popularity of a new social network on campus. “Hundreds Register for New Facebook Website,” read the headline. Crimson reporter Alan Tabak quoted a cocky-sounding sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg. “Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard,” Zuckerberg told the paper. “I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.”

Thefacebook.com, as it was then called, quickly spread to new campuses, garnering instant attention. “As if students needed another outlet for procrastination,” joked Boston University’s generally enthusiastic Daily Free Press. (And they didn’t even know FarmVille was coming yet.) Years later, these original stories in the college press have become fascinating primary sources into the origins of a major, world-changing company.

Beyond identifying cultural trends—especially those, like Facebook, that might elude the professional media—college papers also do the important work of holding administrations accountable. That’s especially crucial in a city like Boston, where the actions of immensely powerful colleges and universities touch all our lives. (Just ask Allston residents about Harvard.) As the resources of traditional media shrink, Boston needs its college papers to pick up the slack more than ever.

So is it good news or bad news that, next fall, BU’s Daily Free Press will go “digital first,” shifting from four papers a week to one, and running the bulk of its stories exclusively on a redesigned website? In announcing the decision last month, the FreeP’s board of directors cited a desire to let their editors focus on longer projects and multimedia endeavors. But the “digital first” decision was also a financial one. Alex Nawar, a Daily Free Press editor in the fall of 2011 and this past year’s chairman of the board of directors, said the organization could no longer count on ad revenue to cover the cost of printing the physical paper.

BU isn’t alone. In the past year, several college newspapers have announced reductions in their print publishing schedules and a new focus on digital efforts. On his blog, College Media Matters, Dan Reimold, a journalism professor at Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia, has called it the “biggest shift in college media” since modern school newspapers began appearing in the 1800s.

Worryingly, though, college newspapers may be particularly ill suited to deal with this shift. That’s because, despite being produced and read by young, smart students living at the cutting edge of technological trends, they have long been surprisingly conservative institutions. Far from leading journalism’s charge (or forced march) into the digital age, they’ve brought up the rear. If the college press is going to survive, that is going to have to change.

 

Back when I edited the campus news section of my own college paper, the Yale Daily News, we were hardly at the “digital first” vanguard. It was the regular frustration of one of the paper’s first online editors, Martine Powers—now a reporter at the Globe—that practically no one would volunteer to write for our blog. In board meetings, as editors went around the table offering updates on our sections, we usually turned to Martine last, if we remembered to turn to her at all. “You’ll all see one day!” she would yell half-jokingly as we rolled our eyes.

This was, by the way, the year 2009. Facebook had almost 200 million users. Bloggers had owned the previous year’s presidential election. We should have known better. But from our perspective, just getting the print edition out each day while still attending (some of) our classes was burden enough. Who has time for an extra blog post when you’ve got homework and exams, and, on top of that, you’re awake until 3 a.m. every night trying to get this thing that will be read by thousands of your peers to the printer? Making a college newspaper is terrifying!

In many cases, young editors are too busy learning the basics of newspaper journalism to overthrow the status quo. Handed the reins to an entire publication, they tend to closely follow the advice of those who came just before them. This creates institutions steeped in quirky, inherited traditions—“Pizza?! But we always order Thai food on Tuesday nights!”—and filled with harried editors who find comfort in following them.

This conservatism has repercussions. College papers are more than just news providers, after all. For the country’s future journalists, they’re also training camps. Joshua Benton, of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, says that he’s heard from professional editors, who, knowing the limitations of their own age, want to hire young graduates with fresh digital ideas. “But,” he says, “they’re disappointed with the media traditionalists that they find.”

For a long time, mimicking professional newspapers worked well. But like death, taxes, and final exams, the decline in print advertising revenue inevitably comes for all of us. And that’s a problem for which the professional press doesn’t yet have a great answer.

“Student media has very much lagged behind the professional press in terms of innovation. Now, with their backs against the wall, we’re finally seeing an all-in innovative approach,” Reimold, of College Media Matters, says. “I think it’s exciting. I also think it’s changing so fast, we’re going to see some roadkill and regrets along the way.”

At those papers that have decided to abandon a daily print product, there’s an optimism among student leaders. The editors I talked to at BU and at the Columbia Daily Spectator, which will also move to a once-a-week print schedule next fall, sounded relieved to be free from the pressure of laying out a paper late into the night. Instead of worrying about, say, finding a last-minute story to fill a sudden hole in the print product, Nawar, the chairman of the FreeP’s board, says they can now focus on the digital projects they’ve been too sleep-deprived and distracted to take on before—initiatives like setting up a live stream of press conferences after BU games.

Live streams are nice, but hopefully there will be even bigger innovations to come. It’s time for college newspapers to stop looking to the professional media for ideas because, frankly, we haven’t had enough good ones. They need to strike out, do their own thing, and become a new kind of media property, fueled by their youth, creativity, and unique understanding of how the news consumers of the future work and think.

For all its conservatism, there have been occasional innovations in college journalism through the years that hint at a potential for greatness. The first newspaper to publish on the World Wide Web was, fittingly, the MIT Tech. One of the first “blogs” as we know them today was started in a Swarthmore dorm room. And then there’s Facebook, a far less journalistic but still revolutionary piece of digital media launched in Harvard Square. What we need now is an awful lot more of that. If we’re lucky, the generation that’s always been at the forefront of the technology age just might figure out how to navigate the rest of us through it.

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