I no longer ask my classes “When was the last time you read a newspaper?” It’s roughly equivalent to asking “How many of you came to class today in a stagecoach?”
Generation Z gets its news online. That’s one big reason that a growing number of college campus news outlets have reduced the frequency of their print editions, or have abandoned them.
The Auburn Plainsman announced Thursday that its weekly print publications are done. Editor Jack West correctly noted the irony: Most of his readers will read the announcement online.
What’s happening among campus newspapers reflects what’s happening among professional newspapers. Except college publications can’t try to save themselves with paid subscriptions because they place their editions around campus for free reading. The pandemic has severely limited the number of students walking on campus, not to mention the ability to sell advertising, but the larger forces working against print products have been conspiring since before COVID-19.
Meanwhile, UA’s Crimson White publishes a newspaper on Mondays and Thursdays, but suspended those editions during the pandemic. It published four days a week as recently as 2015.
The number of print copies picked up from racks has been steadily declining, according to my colleague Dr. Chris Roberts, who is also chairman of UA’s Media Planning Board. He recalls filling in for another teacher a few years ago in a classroom with a CW rack right outside the door. It was a publication day, yet not one student took a copy. Even more alarming: It was a journalism class.
CW editor-in-chief Rebecca Griesbach, whose staff is planning a special print edition in April focusing on the pandemic and the 10-year tornado anniversary, hopes regular print editions will resume. She believes it’s a morale boost when college journalists see their names in print. “There’s just something special about making something tangible like that.”
But because more people read the CW online, she wouldn’t oppose a complete shift to digital delivery. The CW already has a website, pages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, an email newsletter, podcasts on Apple Music and Spotify, and it publishes on the digital platform Yumpu.
UA Director of Student Media Jessie Patterson Jones said future print frequency will be up for discussion this summer, but “I’m not sure we’ll be able to continue regular print editions.” She hopes advertising will rebound after the pandemic, but printing is “a very costly endeavor.”
Ceasing all print operations would be a “very hard day” for her if it happens. She’s a former CW editor who helped produce four newspapers a week.
In 2016, Poynter Institute interviewed editors and advisers at a half-dozen campus papers that had reduced print frequency to focus on digital delivery. They reported multiple benefits. Student journalists found larger and more interactive audiences, learned to report news with more immediacy, and produced better quality work because they weren’t sweating having to fill pages.
Further, college journalists skilled in digital platforms and tools are more ready to nail jobs in the real world.
None of which is to say losing print on campus has no unfortunate consequences. Roberts notes that print “requires a diligence that we don’t always see with digital content. The permanence of it matters as it is being produced, and it matters for our history. The design requires students to make decisions about what they think is important, and it helps readers understand what is important.”
I see an additional reason to hope school newspapers survive, though honestly, I believe they eventually won’t. The best campus newspapers, including the CW and The Plainsman, have always used their reporting and commentary to hold their universities accountable and to challenge the entrenched ways of administrations. And they can get admirably irritating as they do it. No, you don’t need a print product to accomplish that. But I’ve always appreciated the stacks of newspapers around a campus. Amid the prim image and the hallowed status quo of the typical institution of higher education, they represent some welcomed visible subversiveness.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.
About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.