State of the student press: How college newspapers are adapting to change

  • Tom Haines, seated at the center of the table, who is the sports editor for the Daily Collegian, leads the newspaper’s weekly sports meeting, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 in the newsroom at the UMass Campus Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nina Walat, front, and Parker Peters, who are the assistant photo editor and photo editor, respectively, for the Daily Collegian, decide on photos for the newspaper’s special UMass hockey edition, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 in the newsroom at the UMass Campus Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nina Walat, left, and Parker Peters, assistant photo editor and photo editor, respectively, for the Daily Collegian, decide on photos for the newspaper’s special UMass hockey edition. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Lauren LaMagna, left, arts editor for the Daily Collegian, works with assistant editors Ashley Tsang and Tyler Clardy in the newsroom at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Morgan Reppert, the managing editor of the Daily Collegian, works in the newsroom, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 at the UMass Campus Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An unhinged door at the Daily Collegian bears signatures and messages from former staffers. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Morgan Reppert, the Daily Collegian’s managing editor works on a story with Assistant Op-ed Editor Matt Berg. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A detail of an unhinged door at the Daily Collegian bears signatures and messages from former staffers in the newspaper’s newsroom, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 at the UMass Campus Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amin Touri, right, editor in chief of the Daily Collegian, shows Javier Melo, an assistant sports editor, how to post a podcast on their website, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019 in the newsroom at the UMass Campus Center. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jackie Richardson, editor in chief of The Sophian, holds a copy of the newspaper at Smith College’s Hillyer Art Library, Friday, Oct. 11, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Left: Jackie Richardson, editor in chief of The Sophian, holds a copy of the newspaper at Smith College’s Hillyer Art Library. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2019 10:31:13 PM

AMHERST — As newsrooms around the country are challenged by falling ad revenue and the changing ways in which people consume news, student newspapers are no exception. For many student publications, this shift means scaling back on print editions and investing in a regular online and multimedia presence.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, the Massachusetts Daily Collegian, which is financially independent from the university, has cut back its print schedule over the past few years to adjust to declining advertising revenue. The staff sometimes holds fundraising events, but ads are the publication’s main source of funding. Staff writers are not paid, but editorial positions are.

The spring 2018 semester saw the newspaper shift from publishing four print editions per week to two, and then it became once a week. The Collegian, which dates back to 1890, now publishes a physical print edition once a month.

“At some point, the writing’s on the wall,” Amin Touri, a senior at UMass editor in chief of the Collegian, said of the reduced print schedule, “and if the money isn’t there, the money isn’t there.”

But scaling back the print edition has also had its benefits: The monthly publication schedule has made the staff more selective about what they publish in print, Touri said, and the shift toward online has pushed the newspaper to improve its digital and multimedia presence. The Collegian has seen increased attention on its social media channels this year, Touri said, and also has bolstered its podcast and video content.

Recent work featured on the Collegian’s website includes translation work, a sports podcast, and an opinion article on why “dining alone might pleasantly surprise you.” The newspaper has an adviser with the Student Engagement Office, and an advisory board composed of seven to eight Collegian alumni.

The shift toward online content is part of a process of becoming “a website that makes a newspaper, rather than a newspaper that has a website,” Touri said. “Because when you’re printing once a month, you can’t really do that.”

The Climax

For some newspapers, finances aren’t the issue. Hampshire College’s now-defunct newspaper, The Climax, ceased publication after 44 years at the end of the fall 2014 semester, leaving the campus without a student-run news source then and now — even as the college reinvents itself due to financial crisis.

The money was there, said Michelle Lifson, who was the paper’s last managing editor. Participation and interest were not.

“It was impossible to get people to want to write,” Lifson said. Students “weren’t particularly interested in the news, per se, and that was pretty tough,” she added. “People read the paper, but it didn’t feel like they were picking it up hot off the press or anything.” The newspaper had made the switch to digital-only toward the end, Lifson said, but without adequate staffing, this change wasn’t enough to save The Climax.

A biweekly zine called The Omen caught more interest, she said, and continues to publish at Hampshire College. But its focus is very different: The zine is “very satirical, and more freeform, and that’s sort of what the students responded to,” Lifson said. The Climax was open to publishing creative pieces, but Lifson said she thinks students saw it as more of a “quote-unquote, mainstream” publication.

The Omen website states that it will publish “all signed submissions from members of the Hampshire community that are not libelous.” The most recent issue available online shows content ranging from literary speculation to memes and screenshots of YouTube comment sections, but no traditional news articles.

To see the campus lose its only regular news source was devastating, Lifson said. But only four editors remained on staff at the end, and they had to balance their unpaid newspaper position with academic commitments. Despite efforts to increase student interest, there was no one to continue the newspaper’s run when it came time for the editors to pass the baton to their replacements.

The Climax was a record of life at Hampshire, Lifson said. “Our newspaper was the only form of history we had documented. So for me to watch that die, it was really hard.”

Lifson sees the troubles faced by The Climax as “very reflective of today’s newspaper culture,” in both student and professional settings.

“I think the general trend of writing news is down, and it’s more like blurbs, videos,” Lifson said.

The Sophian

Like Hampshire, Smith College’s student newspaper, The Sophian, receives funding from the college but has also had some trouble maintaining a staff in the past. Last March, this led to The Sophian shifting from a weekly to a monthly publication, while publishing more frequently online.

“When we decided to start printing monthly, our staff was a lot smaller,” said Jackie Richardson, a junior at Smith and editor-in-chief of The Sophian, which was established in 1910. “It was getting increasingly more difficult to print weekly.”

But The Sophian has seen a brighter turn of events recently. The staff has grown, Richardson said, and students seem more interested in their student-run newspaper. Last April, The Sophian was the only newspaper to report on the college’s Inclusion in Action event, and Richardson believes that the coverage sparked a new interest in The Sophian among students.

The college had said that the day would be dedicated to gathering student feedback on social issues at Smith to “directly inform our long-range inclusion and equity planning,” but had not directly linked the event to a July 2018 incident in which a Smith staff member called the police on Oumou Kanoute, a black student at the college who was on her lunch break in a residence hall.

An editor with The Sophian wrote an article revealing the organizers of Inclusion in Action had not discussed the July incident until someone brought it up, Richardson said, and “that initial article really got people interested in what we were going to find out about Inclusion in Action.”

With this increase in interest, the staff could probably handle a weekly schedule again, Richardson said, but isn’t sure if it will choose this option — with the current schedule, the staff is able to provide students with flexible deadlines and focus on The Sophian’s web presence.

The Sophian’s monthly schedule allows staff to “be more environmentally and financially sustainable,” an editorial states, and “also allows our journalism to be the best it can be, as it gives our writers more time to shape their articles.”

Recent articles include coverage of the college police force’s upcoming break from the Mount Holyoke Police Department; a column on “The Dangers of the Smith Confessional”; a style article about the “Smith chop” — a longstanding tendency for students to “dramatically change their hair sometime after enrolling”; and a tab dedicated to articles in translation.

But before this renewed involvement, “forces that made it so hard to print a weekly paper” elsewhere in the country also made an impact on The Sophian, Richardson said, although “it wasn’t for a lack of talent or a lack of effort” by the staff.

At liberal arts schools, Richardson feels that newspapers are still seen as a trade, posing further challenges.

“Just compared to state schools and schools with journalism programs, it feels like we’re lacking institutional support,” she said.

The Sophian currently has an adviser through the Office of Student Engagement, Richardson said, but this adviser provides guidance on issues such as financial matters or leadership issues, rather than editorial matters.

But Professor Susan Faludi and Jacobson Visiting Writer Russ Rymer, who are both also journalists, have volunteered to help The Sophian in matters of editorial guidance, Richardson said.

“I can’t remember having any editorial advice from a professional journalist ever,” Richardson said, “so people at The Sophian are really excited about it.”

Holyoke Community College

Holyoke Community College began publishing a student newspaper in the 1960s, said Fred Cooksey, an English professor at HCC and former student newspaper adviser, and the publication was renamed the Phoenix Press after it “rose from the ashes” following a fire that destroyed the college’s main campus building in 1968. But this vigor died out in later years, and in May 2015, the Phoenix published its last issue.

“The last couple of years, I just found it increasingly frustrating,” Cooksey said, “because nobody wanted to write legitimate news.”

HCC’s status as a two-year college also meant high turnover, and many staffers graduated just as they gained experience.

Cooksey found himself without time to coach students on writing news, and he was uncomfortable with his degree of involvement in the newspaper. He felt like he needed to use a hands-on approach, but ethical guidelines stipulate that college newspaper advisers take a hands-off approach, allowing students to make editorial decisions while the adviser is there for support and advice.

Cooksey stepped down from the position, and, as he feared, the newspaper shuttered after publishing its May 2015 edition.

But student media may be rising again at Holyoke Community College. In fall 2018, a group of students and English professor Benjamin Hersey launched a new online outlet, Apex, which publishes “news stories in a proper sense,” Hersey said, in addition to arts and culture and multimedia content.

The website currently updates based on when submissions come in, but Hersey, who serves as the outlet’s adviser, eventually hopes to have a steadier content stream. The web publication has a consistent staff of around seven students, with four holding editorial roles: Two students edit text copy, one oversees photography and another edits audio and podcasts.

Apex currently hosts a selection of written articles, a connected Instagram page, a selection of podcast-style recordings and a submission form. It also features a currently vacant video library page, but Hersey said that he wants multimedia opportunities to be available for students as well.

Podcasting, in particular, is “a huge movement,” Hersey said, “so the idea is to at least let the students have the option to work in that field if they want to … then video as well.”

While the publication has no physical edition, Hersey doesn’t believe that it needs one.

“At least in this particular setting, I don’t think the print makes any sense,” Hersey said. “I’m a deep lover of newspapers — I’m a reader of newspapers for my entire life, the physical thing. But our students here and faculty here, they’re not really sitting down to read the newspapers anymore. Everything’s on the phone, everything’s online.”

Mount Holyoke News staff could not be reached for comment, and editors from The Amherst Student declined to comment before publication, citing midterms.

Serving the community

Regardless of what form a student newspaper takes, editors and advisers agreed that the publications still hold an important place on college campuses.

Lifson acknowledged that publishing a newspaper article requires more effort than posting on social media, but encouraged students to see student publications as a place where their voices can be amplified.

“Write it down,” she said. “Make it known … We can actually raise our voices; you just have to step it up a little bit.”

“You are serving the community,” Touri said on the role of student newspapers. “Like any paper … for me, it was bringing information to the public, our students, faculty and staff, about what’s going on on campus. To be informed about events, but also to be taking that critical eye to what’s going on on campus.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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