Thinking Brand Over Publication

When I was hired as the new journalism instructor at Cerritos College 13 years ago a big part of my responsibilities was to advise the student newspaper and annual student magazine, both print products. I did this by teaching the major skill sets of reporting/writing, photography and design.  (Yeah, there are other principles, such as ethics, news sense, leadership, etc., but the basic skill sets dominate.)

At my previous job we had worked a bit on an online version of our newspaper, so I knew that technological change was coming, but first we had to focus on the still new technological change of pagination….for the print product.

My how things have changed.

Today I increasingly talk to my students in the language of “brand” rather than publication. I try not, for instance, to refer to that pulp product as “the newspaper” –as though it was THE publication. Instead, I try to use language like “the print edition.” We don’t produce a single product any more, we manage a brand. We have multiple products and services. When I critique student work I still tend to focus on the print edition, but I am trying more and more to talk about the online edition and other products as well.

When I conceptualize my job as adviser I see a three-dimensional model:

  • From one axis point I see the print edition, as it continues to be the product that seems to consume the most time and financial resources, and beyond it to the online edition and other editions; I can just as easily look at the online edition and through it to the print edition from the polar opposite axis.
  • From a slightly different axis point all the various editions stand out: the print edition the online edition, the digital edition, etc.
  • From still another axis point I see the skill sets we teach: reporting/writing, photography, design and, now, multimedia storytelling.
  • But the axis point that is the most interesting is the one that shows the ever-expanding list of brand points; it can be visualized with the following branch mind map.

The main branch points are print, online, digital, new media, social media and co-curricular activities.

Talon Marks brands branch map

The different brand points of the Talon Marks brand

PRINT

Yes, we still produce a print edition. We currently do not print our annual magazine, but the newspaper is produced weekly, or nearly so, throughout the regular school year. Creating the print edition still dominates in the minds of students and for many on campus, it is the only edition they know of that we produce. We keep trying to market the other editions.

Even though the Talon Marks print edition newspaper looks a lot like the product from years ago, it has evolved. Along with pagination being standard, there is other innovation. This last school year the students produced a 3-D issue where a dozen or so color 2-D photographs were converted to 3-D and a pair of 3-D glasses was attached to each copy of the paper.

And it is now becoming routine to include QR codes in each issue. These codes can be scanned by smartphones and link up directly to online multimedia.

ONLINE

Web Edition

The flagship of online is the award-winning talonmarks.com website, which is run on the College Publisher platform. While students still produce content with the print edition in mind first and the online edition second, we are progressing slowly to a reverse mindset, as we must.

We need to do more with blogging and podcasts, but more and more students are producing video and slideshows as unique online content.

Mobile

And we are giving increasing thought to mobile. The College Publisher platform automatically converts our Web edition to mobile presentation, but we are moving beyond that, looking for the best possible mobile app presentation, one that incorporates more than our content. We want an app that integrates other portals that students –our main readers—will want to use.

In the meantime, we became the first community college –and still one of the few—with a tablet app. Thanks to the PaperBoy mobile app, Talon Marks can now be read on the iPad tablet. We’ll outgrow this app in time, but a major philosophy of mine is to be like the guy who builds a lemonade stand in the middle of the desert: not a lot of business now, but when the road comes through in a few years we’ll hang a sign that declares we’ve been in business since 2011.

Student Portfolios

We are in the education business and one of the best things we do is provide students the opportunity to develop skills and portfolios. An earlier version of the College Publisher platform introduced a nice automatic portfolio option, but unfortunately, that tool was eliminated in the latest version and has not been satisfactorily re-instated after two years. We have cobbled together an imperfect replacement through Delicious.com, but it is labor intensive to maintain and we continue looking for other solutions. An automatic aggregation of student work through our online site, even if it means uploading PDF copies of print edition pages and special elements would be the ideal.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Despite students still thinking in a weekly print edition mode when it comes to deadlines –as opposed the multiple times a day mode that the online edition affords and rightfully demands—the introduction of the social media tools of Facebook and Twitter have helped crack the mindset. We can interact with readers more quickly and in different ways than the one-way communication of the print edition. While we’ve got a long way to go in perfecting how we integrate our social media, we’re at least on the right path.  We see digital newsletters as a growth area for the brand: Get snippets of news quickly from Twitter and Facebook, see more complete versions online, and see full versions in print. But aggregate sports, news, arts, opinion, etc., snippets and deliver them via e-mail to those who would like to get their news in that format.

DIGITAL

For several years we have been producing a digital version of the print edition, but haven’t done much with it. Years ago pagination evolved into PDF delivery of the print product to our printer. What a difference that made when we found a printer ready to accept the product through electronic delivery! We would paginate a page, then print it out in tiles and paste together the tiles into complete pages. Once all pages were done –with the last invariably being completed hours after the first and one page always seeming to hold up the entire process—we called the printer to send someone to pick up the paste-ups.

With electronic delivery of PDF files each page could be shipped individually. The last page is in the hands of the print just minutes after it is completed and exported.  The old way seems almost inconceivable these days. Just try explaining what a wax pot is to today’s students. (For that matter, try explaining pica poles, paste-up grids, sizing wheels, counting headlines, and so much more!)

But what about those PDF pages after the printing has been completed? They were relegated to the status of old paste-up boards: Interesting, but “collecting dust” until tossed out/deleted. Then along came issuu.com, that allowed us to store digital editions and attach a cute animated widget on our website. There is so much more we could do with these digital editions, though. All we have to do is market them. While the dynamic presentation of news on our website is more interesting to more people, SOME readers prefer seeing the newspaper in the same format as the print product. They’ll read the paper that way. We can even deliver tomorrow’s newspaper this evening as it can be e-mailed to subscribers while the print edition is being placed on the printing presses and delivered back to campus. All we have to is market it and build a subscriber database.

And, as mentioned above, we see digital newsletters as another growth area for expanding our audience.

NEW MEDIA

There is so much that can and should be done with new media storytelling techniques. It is easy to focus on slideshows and video, and learning to do them well is enough to fill your plate. We’ve found that a good storage channel for our video is YouTube and so we use it. And by using Soundslides as a slideshow tool gives us a means to embed them in our online edition.

But we found a new direction to try as well. Our college has a radio station that focuses more on the entertainment side of broadcast rather than the broadcast journalism side. Ever since I got here we’ve been looking for the right method to port some of what we produce on the news side to the radio station, mostly an Internet feed these days. While our efforts have been welcomed by the Radio-TV program, they do not include changing the focus of any of our broadcast courses to the journalism angle: We’re still trying to squeeze in between cracks. Our latest attempt, one that seems to be progressing well, is to provide a weekly hour-long radio show that utilizes sound clips collected by our print reporters while working on their print edition stories. To do so, we’re recruiting broadcast majors who want to broaden their skills beyond hosting music or talk programs.

While we still have a long way to go there is a reason why one trusts the businessman who hangs up that sign declaring years of business experience. Over time you make progressive improvements to your process –a key word, by the way, a lot of this is process based on developing defined values with available personnel. Over time you learn to get better at what you do. Our first semester featured a host summarizing stories in the print edition or the online edition and then chatting about them with a co-host; there was a lot of rah-rah editorializing reminiscent of banter between playing songs. Since then we are evolving into more of an NPR approach to a news show, one that has cohesiveness in its entirety, but one that can then be deconstructed into individual stories/podcasts that can be linked to online stories as supplementary information for our audience

We’ve had to rely on our broadcast students to edit the audio and are now starting to train the print/online reporters to edit their own stand-alone stories. There is resistance, though, as each semester easily half of our one publications class are new students who still have to learn the basic writing/reporting, photographic and design skills. We simply keep asking students to learn and do more each semester. But it is a process –there’s that word again—that includes returning students showing how it is really a matter of comfort, control and efficiency in the process.

CO-CURRICULAR ACTIVITIES

And then there are the extra things we do for our students to enhance their education. We’re a small program: There is just one full-time instructor, one adjunct instructor and a full-time instructional aide in the journalism program (the broadcast program has just one full-time instructor and two part-time instructional aides) doing all this. How much easier it would be if we were a larger program.

Some of the supplemental activities not related to “publications,” but still considered a part of the brand are:

  • Journalism Association of Community Colleges – We can’t teach it all, at least not effectively, and we feel blessed to have California’s JACC as an adjunct to our program. Several times a year JACC sponsors regional or statewide conferences/conventions where our students can learn from industry experts through workshops on an array of topics. JACC also provides a plethora of contests that allow our students to hone and measure their skills against students from other schools. We participate in other organizations that provide contest opportunities, but none like JACC, which provides a more complete package.
  • What’s Next? – A dirty little secret about community colleges is that they no longer seem to be a two-year college experience. The average student is here for more like four years, and even then only about a quarter of those who entered with the goal of transferring to a four-year school do so. There are a lot of reasons for this –to many to list and discuss here—but the immersion and engagement provided students who work for our publications is partially to blame. Students are just having so much fun learning from us they drop other classes and put off taking the general education courses they need to graduate. So the Journalism and Radio-TV programs have started an annual day-long workshop called “What’s Next?” that gives students more information on career opportunities, transfer options and self-marketing tools (“Step One: Stop posting all those photos of yourself drinking at parties on your Facebook page.”)
  • Media Awards Night – At the end of each semester we team up with our Radio-TV program to host a semester-ending awards night for our students. It has many goals, including honoring student work, bonding of journalism and broadcast students, trumpeting of program strengths to college administrators (serve food and they will come), and smoothing out problems with students’ parents and significant others who wonder why our students seem to be devoting so much time each week to our programs. My Radio-TV colleague and I like to boast that we are one of the few programs on campus where we have to kick students out at the end of the day.
  • High School Awards – Each year we host a high school awards competition for area high school journalism programs. The payoff for us is that we invite them to our spring Media Awards Night to get their awards. I often think of myself as a spider talking to as many flies as I can; if I can just get them to enter my parlor for a few minutes I’ve got them hooked. But recruitment of high school students is only one of the goals –good thing, because too few schools participate and even fewer students seem to get recruited. Another just-as-important goal is that when the high school students enter our mail-in competitions it is my journalism students who do the judging. They learn how much they have learned when they are asked to evaluate the high schoolers’ work. It’s a win-win.
  • Journalism Club – Our campus has an active extra-curricular student activity program and a cornerstone of it is the clubs on campus. We maintain a journalism club mostly so we have a portal to their activities. My first reaction is that we keep our students busy enough doing what they are doing I don’t want them to be burdened with various club activities, which might include an information booth in the campus quad on twice-annual club information days to building homecoming floats each fall. But the students are members of their campus communities and as quaint and outdated as some of the campus student activities might seem at times, they do add to a college experience in what is an otherwise commuter campus experience.
  • Alumni activities – Community colleges in general and community college programs in particular are not good at alumni connections. Too bad. Working on the school newspaper –sorry, print edition of the newspaper—is a memorable experience and we often have alumni drop by or contact us to reminisce. Cerritos College celebrated its 50th anniversary a few years ago and we were one of the few programs on campus that made an effort to bring back alumni for a special occasion. We haven’t done much since then, though we keep talking about a follow-up event or really developing a database of former students and keeping them connected.  The online edition is a good tool for keeping them in touch, but we really hope to build on digital newsletters to aid in communication in the future. In particular, too, is a blog I regularly follow, even though I’m not an alumnus of the college or program, out of Missouri University’s well-known journalism program. Students there last year started a regular J-School Buzz blog for and about the program itself. I am coaxing my students to start a TM-Buzz blog so that they can chronicle their own activities as a brand. They can write about activities, blog about experiences, rail on the inadequacies of the program, and post all kinds of videos about themselves. And former students will relate.
  • Advisory board meetings – Twice each year we meet with our vocational advisory board to share what is going on in the program and being in an outside look at the program to make sure it is doing all that it can, and that all that it is doing is worthwhile. The board consists of journalism educators from other community colleges and nearby universities and industry professionals familiar with or interested in our program. And each meeting we invite a handful of current student editors to participate. Not only do they provide a down-to-earth perspective of the program, but they develop leadership skills by networking with these interested professionals.
  • Editor exchanges – Some semesters we conduct what we call editor exchanges. I will round up the editors of our publications and take them to visit with editors of publications at nearby universities or community colleges. Later those editors will visit our campus in a similar fashion. There are only loose agendas for these get-togethers, which typically last two to three hours each. The students bond with each other and learn that the issues they run across –problems of getting reporters to turn in stories on time, the problems of getting reporters to accept (and then complete) less popular assignments, etc.—are not unique to them. They can share common solutions. Most often, I think, other schools learn how much more my students work on the brand as much as on the publication.
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