I spent the better part of the week digesting this item: One of the student newspapers at my alma mater is dropping its Friday edition for a “digital-first” approach. I obviously have some bias toward the dead-tree edition of publications but I also obviously have a bias toward the Internet. Both have been good to me for different reasons: I love advising the kids in our newsroom as they gather on deadline to pump out the paper. Conversely, without the Web, I’d just be a crank writing missives in a “Avengers” notebook.
The Badger Herald isn’t the first to do this and it won’t be the last. The Minnesota Daily dropped its Friday edition a few years back and hasn’t looked back since. The Shorthorn at Texas-Arlington has moved to a digital platform and TCU has launched TCU360 in place of a daily pile of pulp.
Perhaps the biggest gambler was the Daily Emerald in Oregon, which took a profitable print publication and blew it up. The Emerald now publishes as a primarily Web-based medium, despite making money in the print world (a rare feat these days to say the least). In that case, the publishers saw changing shifts in their readership and despite remaining relatively healthy, they took a chance that if they wanted to survive long term, they would need to get while the getting was good. At the time, it seemed akin to a healthy woman in her early 30s getting a double mastectomy because she had the breast cancer gene: a radical choice but one that was theirs to make. As is the case with most of these things, the jury is still out.
However, in the case of the Herald, deconstructing their approach and their argumentation gave me the sense that this was more about triage than it was about trailblazing. Consider the following:
- In an interview with College Media Matters, Herald
EIC Ryan Rainey noted that the paper was going to create a “voluntary sandbox” where
digital first ideas would come about and potentially be implemented as a
substitute for the print edition. When considering how to move to a
digital-first model, whether you’re doing it one day or every day, you need to
have some semblance of a structure. If this move were for the purpose of doing
SOMETHING, Rainey would have likely been more specific as to what that
something would be. Instead, it felt very free-form. Don’t get me wrong: Good
things can come of that free-form approach, but more often than not, it’s like
having a task to do that lacks a concrete deadline. It rarely gets done.
- Rainey noted a lack of revenue and concerns with
the drop in advertising over the past few years at multiple points in his
interview with CMM’s Dan Reimold. He explained that the move isn’t indicative
of any major problems at the paper from a financial standpoint. That said, the
Herald’s most recent 990 form shows the paper lost about $33,000 over the
previous year (Download it here). For the past several years, the paper has shown a downward trend
in its financial health. That said, the “voluntary sandbox” wasn’t in any way
linked to a revenue-making process, which is a concern. In other words, it’s
not enough to cut spending. You have to increase revenue. It’s unclear how this
move does both.
- When the other papers moved to a digital model,
the proposals had been in the works for months. This included heavy revamping
of the workflow to better accommodate the 24/7 aspect of digital-first, the
reconfiguring (or redesign) of the website to show new and exciting things and
an overall set of financial and editorial projections to outline some good
markers to assess the success or failure of the venture. Although I am in no
way privy to the inner workings of the Herald, the nebulous nature of this
project would concern me. The interview was one thing: Reimold appeared to
catch Rainey before he was ready to do a full roll out of this idea. However,
Rainey’s own words, published three days later in the Herald, do nothing to
disabuse me of this concern. He relies on some serious buzzword bingo and
that’s about it.
- When you say you value something and you want
others to believe you value it, you actually have to value it. In most cases,
what you are willing to pay for will demonstrate that value. I’m not say it’s
always that way (I love FD the most and I do it for free), but when you set up
a paid/unpaid tier system, you run the risk of telling people, “Put more time
here and less time there.”
He said salary levels for the paper’s roughly 55 paid staffers are being adjusted, simply due to the fact that “there’s going to be one less print edition, which means one less day of revenue.”
Essentially, the staffers are taking a pay cut, the new enterprise is going to be revenue-free and no one is being forced/paid to work in the “voluntary sandbox.” What that indicates at a basic level is a) the paper remains the most important enterprise, b) we value the “sandbox” less both in terms of resources we are putting into it and the revenue we expect to receive from it and c) we have no cudgel to hold over you in order to get work out of you to help make this enterprise a success.
- Why now? Today is the first “Herald-free Friday,” which means that with Thanksgiving break and upcoming finals, the Herald is essentially killing (at most) five issues. The financial savings isn’t enough to make that a rational choice. In addition, this is the most stressful part of any college semester. The Thanksgiving break usually means a boatload of stress, travel and catching up on the homework students have been blowing off all term. Then, it’s upcoming final projects, final exams and packing up for the holiday break. It’s not exactly a time period most conducive to thoughtful discourse, innovation and radical change. Students are lucky if they can get laundry done. One of the best advantages student news outlets have over their professional counterparts is the presence of extended school-year breaks. Summer, Christmas, Spring Break and more give student media operations a chance to stop the daily grind and regroup. Why not push this off to the middle of December and use that dedicated group of staffers that will be responsible for launching this thing to figure out what exactly will be happening.
Other problems are always around the corner, but these appear to be the biggest question marks in an industry filled with them. The one thing that remains the elephant in the room is that for the most part student newspapers (the dead-tree editions) are still popular with students. Reimold did some earlier analysis on this topic and found that, yes, people still pick these up, they still read them and they still like them as a free, quick way to catch up on the news of the campus. By being ever-present on the campus, the papers lack competition in many ways (although the Herald does have a competing daily on its campus, it is the only paper in the country with this concern). However, when you flip the switch to digital, you find yourself fighting for air against millions of other sites, ranging from daily newspapers to Facebook and Twitter. If I’m online, I’m not going to look for my student paper, unless I have REALLY developed an online reading habit associated with that site. The days of “If you build it, they will come” are over and have been for many years.
What will happen next to the Herald and their Friday experiment? That’s just one more question in a long line of them.