What media companies could learn from a student newspaper

It’s become obvious by now that many newspaper companies are struggling when it comes to making the transformation from print to digital. Shutting down the print version on certain days — as Advance Publications and Canada’s Postmedia have recently done with many of their titles — and putting up pay walls are seen as desperation moves, part of a forced march toward digital made as a result of financial distress. But not everyone sees it this way: The Daily Emerald, a student newspaper at the University of Oregon, is going “digital first,” not because it has to but because it sees that as the future and ultimately a better way to serve its readers.

As a recent profile of the paper at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog points out, the Daily Emerald isn’t just managing to scrape by; it is actually doing pretty well from a financial point of view. Like most student papers, it is a nonprofit organization, but publisher Ryan Frank says the paper has just had its best financial year in over a decade, is carrying no debt, and has managed to generate a substantial reserve fund. So then why did the paper decide recently to stop printing every day — something it has done for almost a century — and become primarily a digital entity, with only two printed versions per week? As Frank describes it:

This isn’t about rebranding. This isn’t about ramping up revenue for our non-profit company . . . This is about delivering on our mission to serve our community and prepare our student staff for the professional world.

Better to go digital sooner rather than later

Although the Emerald has had a pretty good year, Frank says he and the rest of the newspaper’s editorial staff have seen the writing on the wall in terms of the future of print and print-based advertising — writing that anyone can see if they look at the trends in advertising revenue and the yawning gap between where readers are spending their time and where advertisers are spending their money, a gap that is inevitably closing. Just as mainstream newspapers have found ad revenue falling rapidly as advertisers look to social networks and elsewhere, the Emerald also saw losses and circulation declines.

While the newspaper managed to cut costs and get back to being cash-flow positive after he arrived as publisher a year ago, Frank says the focus on print — both in terms of costs and the amount of time and other resources students were spending on it — wasn’t justified by the return. When it came to the future of the newspaper, he says, the Emerald had two options: “Convince more students to pick up the paper, or search for a new model.” It chose the latter, and what it came up with is a model that some mainstream newspaper companies might want to consider.

The Emerald has shut down printing except for two editions a week, Frank says. One is a Monday version and the other is a weekend edition, and both are much more like weekly magazines in look and format, based on successful alternative weeklies such as Williamette Week in Portland and the Stranger in Seattle, according to the Emerald publisher. The paper is directing most of its efforts to the Web and mobile: real-time news and community engagement through the website and through social media and new Web and mobile apps designed to offer things a printed paper can’t.

In the newsroom, daily is too slow. We will report in real-time on the web, mobile and social media. To do this, we made digital news its own team and set aside money to equip them with new iPads and video cameras to report live.

Cost-cutting isn’t enough. The future requires investment too

In addition, Franks says the newspaper (which doesn’t get a subsidy from the university) is launching an events division called Emerald Presents that will organize promotional and/or newsworthy events such as political debates, student music festivals and so on. This is similar to what some traditional media companies have done as a way of diversifying their revenue streams, and in the case of the Atlantic, such ventures have been credited with helping to turn the magazine around financially. Franks says the Emerald will also offer marketing services across all of its print, Web, mobile and social operations.

Much of the critical reaction to the cost-cutting moves at the New Orleans Times-Picayune has focused on the fact that the paper is not losing money, and still has a sizeable readership. But just as Frank has seen the writing on the wall when it comes to circulation and print-based ad revenue, Advance Publications undoubtedly realizes its position is weakening in markets like New Orleans and elsewhere and that it has to take action to make the transition to digital sooner rather than later. Virtually every mainstream newspaper in North America is (or should be) weighing the same factors.

Will Advance, or any other newspaper chain that finds itself in the same position, make the same kind of commitment to digital and mobile that the University of Oregon paper is, rather than simply cutting costs and making do with what’s left? That remains to be seen. But the direction they need to move is not in doubt, and it’s encouraging to see a paper — even a student-run organization like the Emerald — seize that future rather than wait for it to happen.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Izzard