With budgets tightened and not likely to recover soon, dozens of scholastic journalism programs have scrapped the printed newspaper in favor of a digital presence. Many reasons exist why developing a robust news website is a good idea, but the price should not rank high.
A post to the Journalism Education Association email discussion list in November 2013 discussed the possibility of eliminating most print editions and replacing with a news website and a few print publications. The teacher wrote that she struggled with what those issues might include — should they be oriented toward news or features? Maybe they should be a separate magazine?
It’s easy to scrap the printed edition and cook up a flashy website with a carousel of rotating stories — video and audio, too. But doing so does not maintain the best options for storytelling.
The key is finding the right balance among all platforms. The printed page is unmatched for large displays, especially of visual storytelling through photography, illustration and graphics. It also provides the serendipity of discovering stories simply by leafing through the pages.
If I were starting a scholastic news journalism program today, I would build it with three components in mind: a comprehensive news website with an online-first philosophy, a well-curated printed magazine for special coverage and a social media presence that encourages building community.
Start with news online. Focus there.
Develop and maintain an online-first mentality. Doing this means changing the paradigm from publishing that is restricted by quantity, dimension and frequency of the print edition. When news happens, be ready to cover it. When a story is ready to publish, publish it.
The website should be the source of daily news and information for the campus community. Frequent posts encourage return visits, which reinforce the position of the website as a news source. They also create opportunities for community engagement and increase traffic for revenue potential.
Though the website is a primary news delivery vehicle, it will evolve into a storehouse of information — sports scores archive, past coverage of long-term stories, and even a place to watch live coverage of events like sports games and graduation.
The website would also be a place to showcase the best multimedia work — slideshows, audio and video clips and comprehensive stories with contextual linking and related content. Take advantage of the unique aspects of the digital platform. Because of the new coverage opportunities, students will be engaged constantly — no more ebb-and-flow cycle where some reporters have no work because the editors are designing the pages.
Add companion special-interest printed publications.
With most routine news items pulled to the website for publication, the print edition’s role must be redefined. Topics with greater depth can be explored in print.
Develop a publication where each edition carries a single theme — music and other arts, sports, health and fitness, food, family, faith and spirituality, the environment. Take a broad topic and find ways to approach it that go beyond providing encyclopedic reports. Use the topic as a trunk from which individual stories sprout and branch. For example, one topic could be competition. Stories could come from sports, of course, but also from video games, sibling rivalries and the pageant world. Build in a community engagement piece with a contest before the edition, and publish the results — or post them online.
Keepsake editions are another great example of a niche print product. Repurpose older stories and photos into a new package with some additional context. Championship season? Best of the decade? School or community anniversaries? All of these provide opportunities for keepsake editions.
These print editions also allow for new advertising opportunities. A businesses or organization that might be new or an infrequent advertiser could be persuaded to participate in a special edition, especially if it relates to their mission or specialty. These themed print editions should be viewed equally as content production and revenue opportunity, though the advertising should never drive the content itself.
Build community with social media.
Social utilities — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit and others — are useful not just for promotion but also to foster a community. Each platform has its own audience, so develop a strategy. Think about why the news staff is using a specific social utility and who the target audience is. If the students use Instagram, get on there, too. If you want to reach parents and families, Facebook is a better choice. Some special topics are great posts for Reddit, a social community whose users are highly engaged.
Engagement should be the goal, not simply followers, clicks, likes, retweets or upvotes. Engagement also means a back-and-forth conversation with members of that social community. When the community is established, the promotion will be authentic and easy. Since people tend to place trust in peer recommendations, social sharing and referrals are valuable to bring a new audience to your work and to grow the community.
You don’t have to start from scratch to get a great multi-platform journalism program going. However, restructuring might be challenge. It’s a challenge that’s worth the effort. Calibrate each platform to ensure that multiple coverage opportunities are available for students to tell the story of the school, and find the right mix that works.