Anyone on the N.C. State University campus on Friday looking for a freshly printed copy of the student newspaper, the Technician, instead got a taste of the national turmoil in student media.
A wave of spending cuts by big national advertisers that has plagued student newspapers across the country has forced the Technician to stop publishing on Fridays and cut back to four days a week, said Patrick Neal, NCSU’s director of student media advising. Slashes in advertising by budget-strapped on-campus departments also contributed to the problem.
The newspaper had supported itself entirely through ad sales but now must rely on student fees for part of its $291,000 budget. That was inevitable, Neal said, since the newspaper fell short $100,000 in ad sales in the fiscal year that ended in June.
“It’s gone, and no knowledgeable authority we have talked with is saying that it will ever come back,” he said. “The consensus is the good old days are over, and what the daily newspapers have been struggling with for several years now is breaking on us.”
Student newspapers, with their unusually attractive reader demographics, had been at least partly insulated from the financial woes newspapers have suffered.
But in the past few years, national retailers such as Amazon.com and Apple that once placed ads in dozens of student newspaper at a time have largely opted for other means of marketing, including social media, Neal said. And on-campus advertisers, such as academic departments trying to get word out about big events or course offerings, have been hit hard by budget cuts.
NCSU’s decision mirrors that by the staff of the Duke University newspaper, The Chronicle, a year ago.
Many other college newspapers have done likewise. That reflects not just a shift in national advertising to other outlets but a complex stew of changes in the world of college newspapers, including a shift in what student journalists want out of their time in college, said Kevin Schwartz, of the consulting company Schwartz Media Solutions. Until last year, Schwartz was general manager of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Daily Tar Heel.
A couple of decades ago, Schwartz said, major student papers like The Daily Tar Heel may have been led by a core of juniors and seniors who were willing to slave nearly 12 hours a day, five days a week, putting out the paper because their lives and ambitions were built around newspaper journalism.
“You fast-forward to today, and really post 2000, and college students have changed,” Schwartz said.
“Now, I’m not saying it’s better or worse, but one of the manifestations is that they have a big checklist of things they want to do in four years, and while the college newspaper might be one of those things, it ain’t the only thing,” he said.
Pushing up against that, he said, is that the student journalists also are being asked to do more because of the additional demands posed by online news, on social media like Twitter and the paper’s Web version.
Indeed, leaders at The Chronicle said they cut back to four days not to save money – it has saved very little – but to give the staff the time and energy to improve their online products.
Neal said that also was one of the positive aspects of cutting back on print days. It was such a consuming task for student journalists to put out a daily paper while also keeping up with their studies that it had been hard to be as innovative as they should be with digital news.
“Hopefully, this will give them some flexibility and freedom to really take a fresh look at those products and think about what we can do through this platform that we can’t do through print, and how do we do it,” he said.
The business model and financial picture at college newspapers varies greatly, Schwartz said. The big hits to national ads began about five years ago. Papers that had already begun to focus on digital advertising and those that trained their advertising students to sell more local advertising were in better shape, he said.
In fact, Schwartz is coming to the Triangle on Sunday to help The Chronicle train student advertising representatives.
That paper, which is set up as a corporation independent from the university, has to support itself no matter what happens with ads. It’s not struggling, though, in part because it has concentrated on local and digital advertising, said Chrissy Beck, the paper’s general manager.
Cutting back a day, for whatever reason, didn’t hurt its attractiveness to advertisers, she said.
The student editor of the paper, junior computer science major Carleigh Stiehm, said that the extra day had worked out as planned.
“It’s important that we don’t just take what we already have in print and transition it into the online,” Stiehm said. “They really are two separate products that have the ability to reach readers in very different ways, and present stories in very different ways, and we wanted to be able to take advantage of those.”
There’s no interest in cutting production days at the region’s largest student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, said Kelly Wolff, that paper’s general manager.
“I think a lot of people have jumped to reduce print products without having a great plan in place or without having strategically built up their digital product in advance,” Wolff said. “That’s caused some problems for them.”
The Daily Tar Heel – which has the luxury of being able to draw heavily on students from UNC’s journalism school for its staff – was a national pioneer among college papers in digital news and advertising, and is pulling in $150,000 a year in non-print sales, Wolff said.
It has tried to rely more on that and local ads than national ones, she said.
At NCSU, the effects of the plunge in ad sales will ripple through other student media, Neal said. The campus African-American paper, the Nubian Message, which is supported mainly by student fees, will be cut from 20 issues a year to 17, and the university yearbook, the Agromeck, will go to an all-paid model. Previously, the school had printed 1,000 copies that it mainly gave free to seniors whose photos appeared in the book.
The literary magazine, the Windhover, will lose its share of student fees, and if a private donor or perhaps a consortium of academic departments can’t be found to pay the $15,000 printing cost, it will become an online-only publication, Neal said.