Whether to go online only

One thing I really like about Cypress College’s Robert Mercer is that, if you’ll give him the opportunity, he’ll come up with questions that can really make you think.

On JACC’s faculty-only listserve last week he did just that when he brought up a disagreement he is having with his program dean about the future of the Cypress College Chronicle newspaper, the print edition. Robert is really into online journalism and he’s got a lot of right ideas about the future of journalism. He’s at the point where he is arguing that he wants to eliminate his print edition and go strictly online or cut the print publication to a monthly magazine format and put news emphasis on the online publication. If you listen to his reasons, they make a kind of sense. I think he is wrong in his conclusions, though, and have said so on the listserve.

While out walking this morning I couldn’t help but come back to why I think he is wrong. His wrongness can stimulate some good questions for community college journalism instructors to think about in defining their programs, especially if they are undergoing or about to undergo a program review at their colleges.

  • What is the purpose of your journalism program?
    Is it to train journalists of tomorrow or serve your campus community?

The answer should be both. (My evolving philosophy/mission statement.)

I personally think there are other purposes just as important, such as developing critical thinking skills, leadership skills and media literacy, for example. But to keep the discussion simple, let’s focus on those two questions and how they relate to print vs. online (or, better yet, print and online) publications and skill sets.

The follow-up questions, then, become:

  • How best do I train the journalists of tomorrow?
    • Is the journalism student best served with a print publication? or
    • Is the student best served with an online publication?

    Assuming, of course, this is an either/or question.

  • How best do I serve my campus community?
    • Is the campus community best served with a print publication?, or
    • is the campus community best served with an online publication?

TRAINING JOURNALISTS OF TOMORROW
If one focuses on the print and online publications aspect of training tomorrow’s journalists there is a strong argument that too many of us spend too much time teaching print journalism. We put a lot of resources in teaching students how to write for print and how to design for print. And some days it appears as though that is just what our students want. If you throw magazines into the mix, as some of our JACC schools do, you really see this. Students who sign up for Cerritos College’s magazine classes overwhelmingly are more interested in design presentation than learning a magazine writing style.

I’ve long maintained that the role of a journalist is to gather information from a variety of sources, synthesize or make sense of that information, and then prepare so that it can told to others. The debate we’re having –indeed the throes of the industry these days– is over that last part: in what format will we tell the story or deliver the information?

In our community college programs we continue to overemphasize print over other media because that’s the way it has been for so long and that’s what we learned in school and know.

Despite overwhelming data that today’s younger audiences –our primary reader demographic– do not read print newspapers very often and are more likely to get news online over print we continue to emphasize the grand old print publications we understand and love. I get a lot of information online today. My computer is a close companion of mind. But I still start each day poring over a couple of newspapers in print format (though I could wean myself from that if the coffee shop I like to have breakfast at offered a wireless connection and an electrical outlet (no iPhone for me yet.)

Given the data about younger readers and all the news about the industry gutting itself of print reporters, Robert is correct in arguing that we are spending too much time training students for an industry that will look drastically different by the time they hit the job market, even if that is next week.

We need to be putting more of our efforts into teaching how to tell stories online. (And there is data to suggest that means storytelling with audio and video as much as or more than with typed words.) That’s what Robert wants to do at Cypress. More of us at the community college level are moving that way, but Robert has his machete in hand and is cutting and slashing a trail so far out there ahead of us that we barely can see him in the distance. I’m not completely comfortable with where he’s at, but somewhere down the road we’re going to look at what he’s done and perhaps be a bit jealous. (I’ve written about the idea of being a pioneer here before.)

SERVING THE CAMPUS
But where Robert is wrong in what he wants to do lies in the second question. Again, for many years I’ve said that the main reason we have journalism programs at about 70 of the 109 California community colleges is not because our schools are particularly concerns about training journalists of tomorrow. And thank goodness for that, because the constant news of journalist layoffs would cause our schools’ administrators to argue that journalism is dying off and we need to stop teaching journalism and redirect resources. No, the main reason journalism exists at our campuses is that school administrators still want a student newspaper (and magazine in some cases).

It may be true that students do not generally read newspapers and that they get their news from online, but site statistics I see about the Cerritos College Talon Marks don’t convince me that that many students read the student newspaper online either. Most the hits the Talon Marks get come from search engine searches…and most come from the east coast, not Southern California where we are located. (How many of us check into that on a regular basis; do we know who our readers are?)

Robert, in his listserve posts, reports that fewer and fewer copies of the print version get picked up these days and uses this as a justification for eliminating the print edition and concentrating online, but he offers no evidence that Cypress students get their campus information from CyChron.

Perhaps if any of us are seeing fewer copies of the paper being picked up the problem lies with us not covering news that is relevant to our readers. In such a case, simply doing what we do online will not help. At least with the print edition we have the benefit of the random pickup. I’m reminded of the old saying, “Out of site, out of mind.” Without a print edition we are out of site, or rather we’re hard to see amidst all the other online options. On our campuses we all still are pretty much the only newspaper laying around.

We still serve our campuses best with a print edition, but I think we can enhance the print edition service with online supplements. And we should. We not only enhance the print edition by doing so, we fulfill the training mission better. For now there is not only room for both, there is need for both.

As for Robert’s idea of going to a monthly news magazine, there may be some room for thought. I’m still uncomfortable with being out of site with timely news updates, so I don’t fully agree with his plan. Certainly there is precedent for what he suggests. I look first to the industry’s leading magazine: Editor and Publisher, which after 100 years of weekly publication went to a mostly online format and a monthly, expanded magazine. There is no doubt that the magazine improved, and so did news coverage of the industry.

When E&P made the switch I religiously checked in daily for new news for months, but after a while I fell into the habit of going to the web site less and less. Today, it is out of site, out of mind until the print edition shows up. E&P offers a ridiculous “Most Read” RSS feed that keeps serving up older stories and does not offer a “Most recent” feed like it should. But even if it did it still begs the question, unless the online publication has a way of reaching me daily –something I have to request as opposed to seeing a copy of a print edition conveniently placed in a newsstand around my campus– it is out of site, out of mind.

For the Cypress plan to work we have to:

  1. Make sure our readers want what we have to offer at least enough to come looking for it,
  2. Offer easier ways for them to stumble across it when they forget about us, and
  3. Develop our corner of ubiquity in their lives.

Schools could help us do that if they were interested in doing so, but they aren’t. One way that schools could do this is agree to set the default home page of every campus lab computer browser to the student publication. Another that Robert even suggested is allowing student web casts to fold into the ever-increasing video displays set up by commercial vendors; schools could negotiate that as a condition for placing plasma screens all over campus. (Imagine that, merging a commercial venture with an educational mission of the college itself!)

In the meantime, the monthly news magazine is an interesting concept, but falls short of serving the campus a timely news source likely to be utilized by students. Still, Robert gives us food for thought. It is good to challenge your way of doing things every now and then. Without those challenges, we get complacent and weak. And we get left behind.

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One response to “Whether to go online only

  1. I think frequency is a good point. But I also think schools should be doing more “reverse publishing” – putting it on the web first and then repackaging for print.

    Perhaps a weekly tab with fewer pages and tighter copy pulled from a web-first mindset would accomplish both goals.

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