College student newspapers are going “digital first”: New philosophy and workflow

If you are involved in college or high school student newspapers, you may want to know how some schools are pioneering a “digital first” strategy, as well as the new philosophy and workflow that come with the new strategy. The three prongs of “going digital” are print, web and mobile – you’ll need all three formats to make for a successful “digital first” strategy.

Why student newspapers need to go “digital first”

Traditionally, student newspapers serve two purposes: inform the campus population and train future journalists – they both are being disrupted by the changing technology and consumer tastes.

First of all, newspaper industry as a whole has been losing audiences and students are getting their news on mobile devices. In a recent article about the aging newspaper readership, the author observed that:

The population of people reading newspapers has aged dramatically in the last three years to the point that nearly three-quarters of the audience is aged 45 or older. …… only 6% of the newspaper audience is 18-24, even though this age group constitutes 10% of the population.

As to the second purpose, training future journalists, the “print first” or “print only” workflow at many student newspapers is no longer what people are doing in real newsrooms. Today’s media and marketing jobs require more than writing articles and taking photos.

College newspapers are starting to go “digital first”

In the past year alone, several college newspapers switched to “digital first.” A common practice is to expand web and mobile content offerings, reduce print schedule, and refocus the print contents.

In a press release, Cavalier Daily, the University of Virginia’s student newspaper, announced that starting August 2013, the paper will replace its daily newspaper with a revamped biweekly newsmagazine and expand online and mobile content offerings.

Starting fall 2012, University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald initiated a digital first strategy where they stopped the paper’s 92-year run as a daily publication, and opted for a twice-a-week print schedule; the new focus is now on web and mobile.

Also in fall 2012, Texas Christian University implemented a digital first strategy to bring together several student media: newspaper, magazine, broadcast and a website. TCU didn’t reduce print schedule to begin with, because “there simply wasn’t enough time to make such a drastic change on such relative short notice.”

In addition to reduction in print schedule, there is also a shift in the focus of print contents. For instance, Oregon Daily Emerald outlined changes to its print edition as follows:

In place of the daily newspaper, we will produce two distinct weekly publications. “Emerald Monday” will focus on campus news and the weekend sports wrap-up. (Think Newsweek + ESPN Magazine). “Emerald Weekend” on Thursday will focus on features, entertainment and sports. (Think Rolling Stone + Wired + Vanity Fair).

In a similar vein, University of Virginia’s daily newspaper, Cavalier, will change to a biweekly news magazine:

The newsmagazines will hit stands twice a week – Monday and Thursday – and offer extensive analysis, informative graphics and an increased focus on features, local entertainment and weekend previews.

Digital first: A new philosophy and a new workflow

Let’s be clear: “going digital” doesn’t mean copying and pasting print contents to an accompanying website, and it doesn’t mean “web first” or “web only.” With a “digital first” strategy, multimedia (digital) contents are created then distributed via appropriate platforms, i.e., print, web and/or mobile. You’ll need all three platforms to make for a successful digital strategy.

That said, with “digital first,” print is not to be ditched completely – college newspapers serve a niche market and students still like reading the print copy. A recent Washington Times article said that “for students raised on iPads, Kindles and Twitter, college newspapers are proving surprisingly durable.”

Digital first strategy is still new and open to experiments, as TCU’s student media news director put it, (going digital) “was a lot like the Wild West – there are not quite rules, best practices and standards enacted.”

Whatever the “best practices and standards” are, a digital strategy first and foremost requires a different mindset. With “print first,” you won’t bother taking video/audio and other multimedia contents, you won’t think much about “live” reporting, you won’t look for contents for use in interactive features. With “digital first,” you will need to collect all these materials and then decide how to distribute them via print, web and mobile.

The new philosophy and workflow also call for a new structure in news operations. I recommend an article by a TCU faculty adviser of student media, which reflects on their experience going digital in fall 2012. Among all the drastic changes, here’s what they did to streamline operations of several student media:

…… all of the content is produced through what has been dubbed “one big news team” with about 70 student journalists and is focused on content and delivering news digitally – and not based on legacy media needs.

Each content area was organized into a team with a team leader who worked as both an editor and senior reporter.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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