It’s Hard Being a College Newspaper

The BU FreeP's problems show that college kids aren't always ahead of the digital curve.

For college newspapers, the route to a solvent digital future isn’t always a easy one.

Though they’re run by what should be the most digitally focused generation, college papers have been surprisingly conservative figuring out their role in a web-only future. And when they do ditch their print products, there’s no guarantee it’s going to be an instant success. See, for instance, the Boston University Daily Free Press, which this fall moved from printing four papers a week to just one, focusing on a “digital-first” ethos. This week, the FreeP launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $70,000 in order to pay off some of the debt they racked up in recent years. In a press release, the paper’s leaders write:

… [O]ur publisher, Turley Publications, has threatened to cease publishing the FreeP. If a large portion of this debt is not resolved by December 31, 2014, Boston University will no longer have a print newspaper.

We might hope that college papers would be the first ones to figure out how to appeal to an audience that prefers consuming their content on the web, and to do so in a way that makes them enough money. But for a lot of reasons, that’s not a fair assumption. As when professional outlets like Newsweek go online-only, sometimes it’s a decision made out of financial necessity, not a millennial eagerness to embrace the emoji-speckled future.

Perhaps the hardest thing to understand about college newspapers from the outside is how utterly overwhelming it can be to run one. As I pointed out in the magazine’s June issue, students are often putting out a daily print product while still learning the ropes and, by the way, going to school full time. Then, as soon as they get their legs under them, the year is over and they pass their editorship to a new, green group. We shouldn’t be shocked to see that they aren’t always ahead of the game.

That said, around the same time the FreeP announced its new publishing schedule, The Columbia Daily Spectator made a similar decision to print just once a week. The editors stressed that the decision was being made well before financial hardship forced their hands. They insisted they were making a decision so that they could smooth out their new model before they were forced. This gets at the fact that papers have business structures and levels of financial stability that are as diverse as the broader media industry’s. The FreeP’s issues don’t eliminate the possibility that other college newspapers with more bedrock will find ways to innovate in a new era.

As for B.U., in four days, the FreeP has raised $8,140 of the $70,000 it says it needs to stay in business. Clearly, their hope is that this plea gives them the wiggle room to continue experimenting with their new model before it’s too late.