Student newspapers deviate from print with eye toward journalism’s digital present, future

By Jeremy L. Shermak

CarrieLynn Reinhard is a communication arts and sciences professor at Dominican University and an adviser to the school’s student newspaper, The Dominican Star. Following the release of The Star’s most recent print edition, Reinhard observed a student on the school’s River Forest, Illinois, campus gleefully showing her friend the front page, pointing out that it was her laptop and her hand in the cover photo for the whole campus to see. 

“The student got to have this thrill of being recorded in a newspaper,” Reinhard said. “I think that there’s almost kind of like a fetish aspect. The print newspaper still has this prestige that I don’t think is going to go away completely.”

This moment of joy aside, print newspapers have been largely ignored by an increasing majority of the public since the dawn of the digital age. Pew Research Center found that just 5% of Americans preferred to receive their news in print in 2023. This number sinks to 4% among those of college age, 18 to 29 years. 

Student journalists work in The DePaulia newsroom at DePaul University in Chicago on April 19, 2024. The DePaulia publishes a weekly newspaper but is considering publishing in print less frequently. next academic year. (Photo by Quentin Blais)

A common bellwether for the health of the news industry continues to be the print status of newspapers. Even in this dynamic, digital-first media age, people cite the disappearance of print newspapers as an indicator of a dying news industry devastated by losses in advertising revenue, lingering impacts from COVID-19 and changing consumer habits. Long-standing publications have slashed publication days and reduced page counts

However, for student news organizations throughout the country, dramatic changes in print production have long been old news. A 2023 study found that 46% of student newspapers surveyed were printing less than they did before the pandemic. College journalists are reimagining the printed news product all while innovating in preparation for the digital present and future. 

“People think that newspapers are dead because there’s no print newspaper in a box downtown,” said Jim Kelly, associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in The Media School at Indiana University. “But students definitely see their student publication as something that appears on their mobile phone, social media or maybe even a dedicated app. That’s probably the direction that student publications need to move – making sure that they’re employing a distribution technology that is most relevant and accessible by their prime audience, which are their fellow students.” 

Student newspapers were not immune to the same pitfalls that contributed to the decline of print newspapers. Newspaper advertising revenue in the U.S. fell by nearly 60% between 2013 and 2023, according to an analysis from Pew Research Center. Many college news outlets are supported solely by advertising revenue as more institutions cut funding and student government organizations divert student fees away from media. 

At Western Kentucky University, the student newspaper College Heights Herald struggled as advertising revenue ran dry. “The Herald is all revenue dependent. It depends on the advertising that’s sold by our students,” said Sam Oldenburg, assistant director of student publications at WKU. “Print advertising is just not what it once was decades ago. We were seeing drops in that and it was not going to be sustainable to keep printing.” 

While college newspapers face similar revenue challenges, they have additional charges beyond the scope of professional newspapers. They must serve a very specific audience of college students while at the same time developing future journalists. This means printing decisions hinge on more than just dollars. 

“We have to start structuring our college newsrooms around how the newsrooms of today look,” said Jake Williams, executive director of the Illini Media Company at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “The pace in the world outside of [student newsrooms] is incredibly fast and incredibly difficult and, honestly, kind of puts us at a bit of a perilous moment in media where we moving faster than the story sometimes. So, in addition to giving our students the tools that they need to navigate, we need to make sure they’ve got their reps in and that they’ve got the structure and the skills that they need to do that…they need to start to carve out the future of media because they’ll be the ones doing it.”

Student media managers and advisors say that it is not just shrinking budgets that are leading to shrinking printed news, but also changes in audience habits and student training needs. 

“I think our budget has been able to stay relatively the same,” Reinhard said. “We haven’t really faced any budgetary cuts. I think one of the reasons why we might not be publishing more with each run and we don’t maybe put out that many issues is because the students in particular aren’t picking them up. They’re getting their news from the website or the various social media accounts that we’re running at this time.”

The DePaulia student journalists at DePaul University collaborate during their weekly print production on April 19, 2024.. (Photo by Quentin Blais)

For student newspapers, print distribution is measured somewhat anecdotally by observing the number of copies that linger on newsstands around campus. For advisers and students alike, watching their hard work collect dust is as torturous as it is discouraging. 

“You just end up with so many extra print copies left over and there’s only so many places you can put those in a small university like ours,” Reinhard said. 

Reinhard said that the Dominican Star has adjusted its printing run, decreasing from 800 to 500 before arriving at 700 issues for its most recent edition. 

At Eastern Illinois University, Joe Gisondi, a journalism professor and director of Student Publications, questions the motivation to continue costly printing when it seems that the audience is not engaging. 

“No one wants to pick it up – least of all students,” Gisondi said. “So why are we doing it?”

The question of whether to print or not to print is complex for student media outlets. 

Some student media advisors and managers continue to push a traditional printed product because they say it is a valuable experience for budding journalists and students still enjoy seeing their bylines on a printed page. 

“It’s still good experience in terms of understanding layout, understanding how much space you have for a story that’s impacting how you have to organize the story and handle the content, especially for the students who want to have the graphic design experience,” Reinhard said. “Even with the presence of newspapers online, understanding aspects of layout in terms of the home page is very similar to aspects of layout when it comes to the front page, so those types of skills I think are translatable between print and online.”

At WKU, one reason print remains in play for students is to build newsroom relationships.  

“I think one of the big things is the teamwork, collaborative environment and organization that exists around print that has been harder to replicate around digital,” Oldenburg said. “You have an environment where the team is going to be together in the office working on a print deadline and kind of have that camaraderie.”

That said, questions remain as to whether the time and effort to assemble a print news product is worth it as students look ahead to a digital-yfirst media industry. Producing a print product is perhaps the most labor-intensive activity in media. The modern-day college student, who is more likely to work multiple jobs and take more classes, may struggle to have the time to give for print production. “With our students and the workloads that they have, it was hard to be able to get enough copy for all of those issues,” Reinhard said.

“My best students are spending too much time designing and not enough time reporting,” Gisondi said. “My editing chiefs and everybody else are the ones spending way too much time on [designing print] instead of more in-depth projects and reporting, which I think, frankly, they might want to do more.”

Meanwhile, several schools are keeping print in the mix as they innovate news products for the modern audience. At the University of Illinois, The Daily Illini’s most recent print issue looked nothing like the daily newspaper that has been the anchor of its more-than-150-year history. The March edition featuring “The Best of Champaign-Urbana” was published in a glossy magazine style. Williams said it was the highest-grossing advertising revenue issue of the academic year thus far. 

“We’re changing how we are operating in business. We’re getting out in our community. We’re telling our story in a better and different way,” Williams said. “This is progress. This is growth. This is energy.”

Williams has approximately 200 students on staff at the Daily Illini with 27 in paid management positions. The newspaper – which has been operating since 1871 – has implemented a workflow and leadership structure where online content is the top priority, but that does not mean print is an afterthought. 

“We have no choice but to be very heavily online and very fast and responsive online,” Williams said. “When you think about a print product, what can you provide your community that is not just updates about what’s going on, but is a product that brings a community closer together or gives people something to talk about or bond over or debate over? I think then you have something that lasts more than the day that it comes out. You have a better sell to advertisers, saying ‘hey, this thing is going to be around for a month.’ It’s content that you can constantly engage with and you don’t necessarily need to just consume it all at once.”

Across the state, at Eastern Illinois University, its student newspaper The Daily Eastern News, like many across the country, sends a weekly email newsletter that features stories from the previous week in a simple format delivered right to subscribers’ inboxes. 

“We’re saying, ‘hey, here’s the best news over the last seven days. That’s aggregating. That’s what we used to do in print publications,” Gisondi said. “I certainly miss the serendipity of opening up a newspaper and finding stories I wouldn’t otherwise find, but I’m finding more and more that I’m getting that by newsletters. For me, the future is newsletters, not print.”

Western Kentucky’s student media offerings have expanded while print remains an integral part of a successful business model. The College Heights Herald, WKU’s student newspaper since 1927, has moved from printing twice weekly on newsprint to a glossy newsmagazine format printed three times a semester. In 2016, following funding cuts, WKU’s then-yearbook, The Talisman, could no longer be offered to students for free. Facing cold reception from students now forced to pay for their yearbooks, The Talisman became a life and culture magazine print product that is published at the end of each semester. Rounding out WKU’s deep student media offerings, brand content studio Cherry Creative was established in 2018 to produce advertisements and sponsored content for clients, not to mention specialty-themed magazines targeted to particular advertising verticals such as housing and dining. While The Talisman still receives university funding, the three arms of WKU’s diverse student media operation primarily support each other through advertising revenue. 

“I sentimentally miss having the yearbook and that record of the year, but I think it also makes a lot more sense for students who want to go into media to tell a potential employer that they work on a magazine,” Oldenburg said. “I think when you say a ‘yearbook,’ people see some cheesy kind of old-school high school publication and not the awesome stuff that our students are doing.”

Moving forward, student media advisers and faculty are continually exploring new avenues for the “awesome stuff” their students are producing.

“I don’t care what the platform is for journalism – it’s journalism,” Gisondi said. “We’re trying to convey information that’s important for a community. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s print, audio video, multimedia – so long as it’s good and people are connecting to it.”

Despite the highly publicized tribulation of printed news, student media leaders share optimism for the future. 

“Right now, we kind of have a media operations dream ahead of us,” Williams said. “We have a very focused, clear audience. We know where they are, we know how to get to them and all we need to do is serve them.”

Student newsrooms enjoy the advantage of doubling not only as local news sources but also learning labs where experimentation is not only encouraged, but necessary.

“The people who are running student media are usually up on what’s going on in the industry because we’re labs,” Gisondi said. “We’re trying something all the time…if you’re going to fail, fail big. Try something big.”

Another unique element of college media that is helping students and faculty weather industry storms is a supportive, collaborative environment. National bodies, such as College Media Association and Associated Collegiate Press, as well as state organizations, run email listservs, conferences and workshops throughout the year where innovations are shared and discussed.

“One of the things I love about student media is that we are all very collaborative across the country with going through these challenges and innovations and trying new things at all of our different universities,” Oldenburg said. “That’s different than a lot of other industries where they would see each other as competitors. That collaboration is a big part of the innovation across the board in student media.”

Jeremy L. Shermak is the general manager of student media at Columbia College Chicago.

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