Student-run newspapers adapting to changing financial landscape; Daily Collegian to scale back print edition

  • A scene inside the newsroom of The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Justin Surgent

Published: 12/8/2017 11:09:08 PM

AMHERST — The Massachusetts Daily Collegian, the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s independent student newspaper, has announced it is scaling back its print edition as it moves toward a greater focus on digital news gathering.

The announcement comes as many newspapers continue to face falling print revenues, and student newspapers have not been immune from the trend. The Collegian, founded in 1890, is one of several local student-led papers grappling with financial pressures. Others, like The Amherst Student at Amherst College and The Sophian at Smith College, have had to retool their operations in recent years to survive in an increasingly digital age.

“Advertising revenue has decreased exponentially in the past few years, as advertisers become aware that Collegian pick-up rates have dramatically declined,” read a Collegian editorial published on Thursday. “With the fixed cost of payroll and printing, our current advertising revenue is no longer enough to sustain the finances needed to continue production and sustain payroll.”

Beginning in January, the newspaper will shift from printing four days a week to a semiweekly edition on Mondays and Thursdays. Then, in the fall of 2018, the paper expects to move to weekly publication. That change will improve the paper’s finances and will allow for more in-depth reporting, investigations and time for staff and editors to collaborate, according to the editorial. The Collegian, as well as The Sophian, are printed on a press owned by the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

“Just because we are cutting two days of print doesn’t mean we are not going to be in production those days,” current editor in chief Devyn Giannetti said. She said the staff see the move as a positive one that will bring the publication into the digital age. “The amount of content that we’re producing is the same, if not more with the time we will be gaining.”

Giannetti said that the decision to transition to a digital-first model was made after long discussions among the staff beginning in September. The Collegian is an entirely student-run publication that receives no funding from the university, and operates independently from the journalism department, Giannetti said.

The Collegian is not alone in having to make tough decisions under financial pressures. The student newspapers at Amherst and Smith colleges have recently had to respond to falling revenues.

In September, editors at The Amherst Student, founded in 1868, wrote an editorial titled “Our Dependent Student Newspaper.” In it, they described their decision to begin taking regular discretionary funding from the college for the first time amid declining ad revenue and print subscriptions.

“We, too, recognize financial independence as an ideal,” the editorial reads. “In order for The Student to continue as a newspaper, however, we’ve realized that this is a step we must take.”

“Recently, in the last couple years, we’ve been failing to break even,” editor in chief Jingwen Zhang said in an interview. “We just decided it would be better to have some more stable plan going forward, instead of just passing this money issue from one set of people down to the next.”

The decision to accept money from the college was a calculation to make the paper’s financial model sustainable, and with the change will also come an expanded online presence, Zhang said. In addition to money from the college, the paper earns revenue from subscriptions and ads, including many purchased by families in their commencement issue.

At Smith College, journalists at the student-run The Sophian, founded in 1910, also had to make changes based on revenue shortfalls.

“The Sophian was in debt for quite a long time,” editor in chief Katie Hazen said. “Legend has it that 10 years ago it was about a year’s worth of tuition.” The paper, however, was able to climb out of debt at the end of last semester after several major cost-saving decisions, including a change in printing format and a move to black-and-white.

“We also started reaching out to alumni for subscriptions, as well as just having a more aggressive ad campaign,” Hazen said.

Those adjustments have left Hazen optimistic about The Sophian’s financial future as new students cycle through to run the publication. The paper, Hazen said, receives much of its funding from the college’s student government through student activity fees. The rest of their revenue comes from advertising and subscriptions.

Like others interviewed, Hazen said the challenges of the digital age, for better or for worse, have been a learning experience for students working in an increasingly digital news landscape.

“I think this has been a really eye-opening experience to not only the fiscal problems but also the day-to-day hiccups that happen with journalism,” Hazen said.


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