Digital natives in student media reluctant to give up print even when their readers already have

By Jackie Spinner

Before most college students in 2024 were born, the Pew Research Center was already reporting that young readers had turned away from newspapers.

Older readers had not fully embraced online news yet in 2002. Only a quarter of them went to the internet for their news and then only three times a week, which now seems absurdly disconnected. But young readers were getting hooked on digital news even back then. 

Today, just 4% of U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 29 prefer to get their news in print. The vast majority get news through digital devices, according to a November 2023 Pew report.

It’s been years since I’ve seen a student with a newspaper or even a magazine. I’d probably stop and take a photo with my smartphone and post it to Instagram if I did. #blastfromthepast 

Maybe that’s why I find it so puzzling that student journalists, themselves consumers of digital news, have such a love affair with print. They fight to keep their paper editions even as it’s been harder to justify the costs and even if their readers are now mostly engaging on social media. 

At the recent College Media Association spring conference in New York, I watched students make room on a long table for the print issues they had hauled with them to share. I kept watch over the weekend to see what happened. Some advisors picked up papers. But not many students did. Most people browsed and walked away empty-handed. Meanwhile, nearly everyone at the conference was consuming news on their phones.

Jackie Alexander, CMA president, couldn’t tell me how many student news outlets still have print editions. But I bet the ones that publish even once a week are getting more rare.

A student journalist leaves copies of a paper at the spring convention of the College Media Association in New York City on March 16, 2024. (Photo by Jackie Spinner)

In Illinois, the Daily Northwestern, Daily Illini, Daily Eastern News and Daily Egyptian, where I was student editor a long time ago, are not dailies anymore. The Illinois College Press Association now ranks papers by school enrollment instead of publication frequency, although its awards competition, like many, still favors print, with multiple categories that exclude digital-only college media. That is a frustrating vestige of a different era.

The Columbia Chronicle, where I am faculty advisor, stopped publishing its weekly print paper during the COVID-19 pandemic. There was nobody on campus to read it anyway. After the pandemic, they made the decision to become a digital news operation, still publishing weekly online, with just four print issues per year. Now it’s down to three a year, and the Chronicle is a digital-first media outlet, with weekly e-newsletters.

One of those three print issues is published on Valentine’s Day. This past February, the “sex” issue didn’t move off the racks. There are still piles of papers around campus, even though it’s now mid-April.

I was commiserating recently with Martha Irvine, a longtime Associated Press journalist who is the faculty advisor at The DePaulia at DePaul University.

“It is hard for them to give up the idea of print,” she told me, speaking of her students. “But we recycle so many papers.”

The DePaulia is now considering going mostly digital next school year instead of printing weekly. “That will be the call of the new management team,” she said. 

If they are anything like my students, it will probably take some convincing on Irvine’s part to pivot them away from their beloved print.

Most of the student journalists in the Columbia Chronicle newsroom will not end up working for a media outlet that has a print product. So print isn’t even something that they can connect to their career aspirations. If student journalism is a learning lab, the print paper offers seemingly little in the way of practical instruction.

Yet in my newsroom, as in Irvine’s, discussions around reducing or eliminating print require much diplomacy. 

“Most of our readership comes from our online articles so as a publication, we’ve begun discussing the possibility of reducing our printing,” said Alyssa N. Salcedo, editor-in-chief of La DePaulia, the bilingual sister publication of the DePaulia.

“We would like to focus on publishing a few print issues each year with our strongest pieces so we can still showcase the work of our students in that format.”

For many student media outlets, production day is an in-person day, and for those student journalists who may do more reporting by email, Zoom and phone, print production offers the community I had as a student and early career journalist. Digital production makes it too easy to work remotely.

“Print is special to college journalists precisely because it’s old tech,” said Michael Koretzky, SPJ Florida president and faculty advisor to OutFAU at Florida Atlantic University.

(OutFAU was one of the best designed print publications on the table at the CMA conference, so I picked up several copies to bring to our publication designer.)

Koretzky said students adore print, in part, because online looks the same. 

That’s probably why several of the student outlets I was assigned to critique at CMA asked me to look at their papers as soon as they sat down. Why start there? I asked. Where are your readers? 

The print design is what makes them stand out, Koretzky said. “It’s harder to make online design look different than print design. Learning InDesign is easier than learning CSS.”

Salcedo, a first-year master’s student in journalism at DePaul, said she loves creating print layouts because there’s a lot of room for creativity. Students also like print because it provides a tangible showcase of their work.

“The digital or online format however allows us to incorporate multimedia reporting and reach our audience in different ways, so it’s good to have a mix of both to ensure that students are comfortable with any format,” she said.

As part of a special issue on college media, GJR talked to editors at four college papers in the Midwest to understand their attachment to print.

The Alestle, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

The Alestle publishes 33 print issues per year: 14 in the fall semester, 14 in the spring semester and five in the summer. In 2009, the Alestle published roughly double that amount, thought it cut down the number of summer issues only a few years ago.

Dylan Hembrough, editor-in-chief at The Alestle, said the print audience is more or less the on-campus community at SIUE. “That works out to be primarily students,  and we do see students reading our print issues, but there is also a disproportionately large number of staff members that read The Alestle as well, both online and in print,” he said. 

He said he shares the “pro-print sentiment for sure,” though he and his staff are aware that print journalism does have a finite lifespan. “We’re enjoying the time we have with it,” he said. “One of my personal goals as editor-in-chief was to really lean into my creative side and come up with unique cover designs. Design has quickly become one of my favorite parts of the job.”

For student journalists, print is a more “tangible accomplishment” than an online article, he said. 

“It’s something that a burgeoning journalist can hold in their hands, give to their family and friends, cut out articles from and keep as a tangible memory of when and where they started out,” he said. “An online article just doesn’t have the same appeal, even if a link is more easily shareable than a physical paper. There’s something more official about a print article in many student journalists’ minds, even for those who have grown up in a world where the majority of their news intake is purely digital.”

The Post, Ohio University

Katie Millard is editor-in-chief of the Post, the independent publication at the Ohio University in Athens. She is a journalism major who wants to write and report for a news organization after graduation. S

The Post prints weekly, with about 3,000 copies each Thursday that are distributed to 75 news stands, with a third on campus and the rest off campus. “Our print readership is pretty high, particularly among community members,” she said. Community newsstands have 100% or nearly 100% pick-up rates each week.

”Our online content is accessed more so by the student body and by readers off campus, but we also have significant pick up rates in our on-campus spaces, although not quite as high as in our off-campus stands.:

Printed content is new each Thursday, although the Post also publishes it online. Not all online content goes in print but nearly all printed content is published online. 

“I believe students would be disappointed if we did not print anymore, but the real loss would be for our community members,” she said. “Living in Appalachia and one of the poorest counties in Ohio, the digital divide is a sincere issue here. Additionally, many of our community members are older and prefer to get their news from a physical paper, not online.”

The Post generates about $65,000 annually in advertising sales, which covers print costs, technology costs and staff stipends.

“This is one of the only times many of our students will be able to see their work in print, which is an amazing opportunity for students,” Millard said. “Additionally, it continues to serve the community better than in an online format, and it teaches students valuable skills they may not learn in a classroom geared more toward digital journalism, like design aspects and keeping things concise to fit a word count, as well as toning images for print and visual hierarchy.”

Minnesota Daily, University of Minnesota

The Minnesota Daily, like most college dailies, no longer prints every day in spite of its name. 

The Daily prints about four print editions per year, typically two per semester. 

I am not sure the exact date or timeline of when we stopped publishing, but I do know that it was before my time, said Editor-in-Chief Alex Steil, who has worked at the media outlet since 2021. “We have opted for more digital newsletters, instead, including a daily letter edition as well as weekly sports and A&E editions.”

Steil, who is currently double-majoring in music and political science with a communications minor, plans to go to law school and then pursue a career in public policy. 

Columbia Chronicle, Columbia College Chicago 

Olivia Cohen started working at the Chronicle in August 2021 after the media outlet had already stopped printing weekly because of the pandemic. In fact, it didn’t print at all for 18 months. It started again the semester that Cohen joined, with a new print schedule of four issues per year. 

“We will continue our robust online presence, but we’re also excited to continue our print tradition,” the Chronicle editors announced at that time. “The Chronicle that you can hold in your hand is back.”

Cohen, a journalism major who is graduating this year, said one reason why student journalists at the Chronicle love print is because it reinforces community.

When the Chronicle published weekly, students, and their advisor, would stay late into the night every Friday. At a recent Chronicle reunion for our 50th anniversary, students talked about those Friday nights. It was a core memory of their time at the student paper.

“When the Chronicle is working to go to print, we are all together in the newsroom, working towards a common goal which I believe really bonds our little newsroom community and even helps student journalists feel like they are contributing to journalism as a whole,” said Cohen, who just accepted a coveted Report for America position at a local newspaper in Iowa. “Hitting publish for digital stories is one thing, but it doesn’t compare to holding your words in your hands.”

But it’s more than that.

“Students love print because I feel like the heyday of print is the golden age of journalism and that era this generation of incoming journalists were not a part of,” she said. “So hanging on to print is one way to feel like you are a part of the power of journalism. I also think that students/younger people are in a phase of nostalgia for things they weren’t even really a part of such as Polaroid cameras, vinyl records. I think that print newspapers fall into that same idea for student journalists.”

Jackie Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review and faculty advisor to the Columbia Chronicle at Columbia College Chicago.

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