Category Archives: Financial sustainability

Lessons from Tow Center study for college media: Events, engagement, selling media services, community building

I read the new report out from the Tow Center on small-market newspapers (less than 50,000 circulation). These are a few quotes that stood out to me as relevant to college media.

Events and physical contact

[Local newspapers have] “experienced notable resilience thanks in part to exclusive content not offered elsewhere, the dynamics of ultra-local advertising markets, and an ability to leverage a physical closeness to their audience.”

“…Of the new, emerging sources of revenue that newspapers are engaging in, the events space may be one of the most promising. Aside from their potential as a means for story gathering and community engagement, events also offer opportunities for sponsorship, ticket sales, and other income streams.”

Media services

“One clear way that a number of publishers are expanding revenue sources is by creating, or buying, spin-off businesses which capitalize on their editorial and design expertise. Income from these services, which includes building apps and websites for small and medium-sized businesses, can then be poured back into resourcing the core product.”


“On a smaller scale, the humble newsletter is back and in vogue with sales teams and audiences alike.”

Engagement teams

“Lauren Gustus, the former executive editor at the Coloradoan in Fort Collins, Colorado, explained how her small newsroom (thirty to forty people) had been reconfigured to include a dedicated ten-person engagement team. Part of their charge, she explained, was ‘talking with readers across any of the platforms that we operate on and that our readers operate on.’”

“… As Lauren Gustus admitted, titles like the Coloradoan need to ‘demonstrate the value of a local news organization and that it goes beyond the printed product.’ To help achieve this goal, she reconfigured her thirty-person newsroom to create a ten-person engagement team charged with finding opportunities to ‘further our relationship with our readers in a meaningful way.’

“…Events, putting community members on the editorial board, and engaging with readers on and off site across different digital platforms, are just some of the mechanisms the Coloradoan and others have deployed with this goal in mind.”

Building community

“J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer talked about the importance of small-market newspapers needing ‘to figure out how not just to cover community, but to build it as well.’ That, Shaffer suggested, means papers listening to the community and looking to do more than just find a great quote or angle for a story. ‘The engagement that counts,’ Schaffer said, is, ‘wow, we helped our community fix a problem, do something better. And I think that’s still a skill to be learned.’”

“…As a former editor at a major metro and also a small-market newspaper reflected:

“‘I think there is an opportunity for small newspapers more than the larger ones . . . to actually form a relationship with the community still . . . Because you might know your neighbor, who was in the paper yesterday. And the smaller newspapers do a better job of getting more people in the paper than the larger ones as well.

“‘There are those kinds of opportunities in smaller newspapers that aren’t there at larger ones. So, I think that forming that type of relationship with the community is still there in smaller papers. And I think it’s more difficult in the metro markets.’”

Planning for the future

“How can you best focus on original reporting? … By focusing on creating content not provided elsewhere, local newspapers will be best placed to offer a proposition that audiences may be willing to pay for.”

“…We therefore encourage local newspapers to consider which beats they want to own, and which they want to approach differently, if at all.”

“…Newsrooms have access to more data than ever, but sometimes the conclusions from this can make for uncomfortable reading. Understanding which metrics matter, and what they are telling you, is a question that every newsroom needs to be asking more frequently.”

A Q-and-A with yours truly

The folks at the Flytedesk college advertising agency were nice enough to ask then-intern Megan Graft to interview me to build up some comment for their “flyteboard” discussion board. They’ve rolled out the content to their members now and agreed to allow me to post it here.

Megan did a good job provoking me to carry on about some of my favorite topics, so I wanted to save it to remind myself every now and then what I get worked up about. Enjoy.

David Simpson is the director of student media at Georgia Southern University. His 31-year journalism career also includes a position as coordinator of student media at Georgia Perimeter College, 17 years with The Associated Press and ten years at the Atlanta Journal Constitution. He can be found on Twitter (@adviserdavid), on his blog (, and at the College Media Association conferences he helps organize. The next CMA conference will be held in New York City from March 11-14. We sat down with David to ask about his experience advising student papers, his opinion on current trends in journalism and his advice for student journalists.

Q: Why are you involved in student journalism? How did you get into it?

A: I really got into it my first semester at the University of Alabama many, many years ago. I just thought the newspaper looked kind of cool, and a few weeks into that semester I walked into the newsroom and said, “What do you do to work here?” And they gave me a story to write. And I always have to add, I did a really terrible job, which is what all of us do at our first story. But I really enjoyed it, and wound up spending most of my collegiate career in that newsroom, and was just completely hooked on journalism.

Q: What are some of the career moments that you’re most proud of?

A: It’s hard to say… At the AP, I was involved in some big things: I was assistant PR Chief in Atlanta when the Olympics were there in ’96, I helped cover the Democratic National Convention in ’88. So you have things that really make a big impression…

I think probably, when I think about my favorite experiences, it’s more about being satisfied – just feeling that this was a good thing – than being super proud… To really work with people on difficult subjects and feel like, at the end of the day, you’ve done a good thing, you’ve done good journalism, those stand out to me.

Q: If you had two minutes to give general advice to a college newspaper staff, what would you tell them? Do you have any characteristic one-liners?

A: I’ve got one-liners that my students are so tired of hearing.

I would say, first and foremost, ‘The mission of journalism is to build community’… A corollary to that is, ‘It’s not about you.’ College journalism is not about college journalism. Yes, they’re pretty cool people, and they’re fun to hang out with, and you make friends who you’re going to keep your whole life, I guarantee. But, you’re there to do a very important thing: you’re there to serve an audience, and if you’re not serving an audience, why again are you there?

We’ve gotten awfully complacent in this business until very recent years about, ‘we think we know what journalism is, and so we just produce it, and if nobody on our campus reads it, well, they must be dumb.’ Well, you know, [they’re] not, if you’re doing something that nobody wants to read nor look at. So, what I spend the great majority of my discretionary time on is thinking about, how do we engage more students on our campus… and really understand their part in our community?

Q: What are some of the ways that newspaper staff can engage students in campus news? I read that you passed out 700 papers, personally, to students.

A: I did! At Georgia Perimeter College, which has no dorms, no students living on campus, five different campuses, 25,000 students. There wasn’t a lot of identity there that students felt, that they would go pick up a newspaper. And I think, frankly, today’s college students have never picked up a newspaper anyway… so yes, you’ve got to hand them a paper… because people will not walk out of their way, put down their phone, set down their coffee, to find a newspaper rack.

The other thing, I mean, social media now makes it so easy to find people in your community and engage with them. You can follow other people, you don’t just have to tell them to follow you. You can find out what they’re interested in. All across America today, people are going nuts for Pokemon GO… And while people like me cannot for the life of me understand why everyone wants to do Pokemon GO, it’s an activity that is bringing people together, so let’s capitalize on that. And yes, let’s do write a story about it and not feel guilty about it…

There’s a lot of ways to engage, and on a college campus there’s just no excuse not to. Your whole community is within close proximity… Just go see what’s [happening] on your campus and what people are doing.

Q: How do you get a newspaper staff to work as a successful team? How do you make sure they’re hitting deadlines and being involved consistently?

A: Nobody knows. I’m very, very fortunate in that we have a twice-a-week newspaper here that’s been coming out like clockwork for many years, and it’s just the inherited culture that those deadline tasks get done.

When you want to improve… look at what your mission is again: why are we here? And then do your best to bring everybody on board and talk about that mission, and talk about what we want to do that would help us fulfill that mission better.

The more training you can do, the better… We have semester-long training for everybody who’s going to join our staff, and they don’t officially join until the end of that semester. I joined in the old throw-you-in-the-deep-end-and-see-how-you-do method of training, so training can help a lot; but so much of it is culture. Do your peers in your newsroom, or your ad department, or your marketing office, have a culture where they keep their commitments and make their deadlines?

Q: Many of the editors that I’ve talked to are cutting back on their print copies in favor of expanding their paper’s online presence. What’s your opinion on that trend?

A: This is, of course, a $64,000 question for a lot of colleges right now, and we in the adviser community talk about it a lot. I think every market is different, and every institution is different. There are some institutions where revenue is not terribly important, and they may decide for professional development reasons that they don’t want to do print, because they see digital as the future. A lot of us are like me, and revenue is important. If revenue is important, those advertising dollars in print are still far, far superior to what you can make in the digital world.

In addition – and I think this is more important – while every college student is looking at their phone every day, they are not necessarily looking for campus news all day… But…if you hand out a newspaper, they are willing to sit down with it when they get to class, when they get to lunch, and flip through it, and there’s news in there that they would not get any other way…

So, I do think it’s still… an important part of reaching our audience. I think there are people we reach with print who we would not reach otherwise. As long as that’s true, I’m very happy to have print.

That said, I’ve changed our staffing structure this year so that many more people have only digital responsibilities. More of a model like The New York Times has now, where there’s a print desk, and that desk is putting together the paper. […]

Q: Talking about print copies, a lot of editors have asked me: what are some of the pros and cons of broadsheet and tabloid format?

A: I cannot think of an advantage to a broadsheet. Maybe here or there it’s just a tradition. Maybe here or there it might endanger their ad rates; maybe they’re selling a lot of full-page broadsheet ads and they don’t really want to have to go down on the price to sell a smaller tabloid ad. But in terms of readers, I just don’t think you’re going to find a lot of people who really want to hold up a broadsheet newspaper.

…If somebody’s doing something that works with their audience, don’t change. But all things being equal, with a college audience, and I think pretty much any audience, you want a magazine-style cover… that communicates very quickly that this is an interesting product, and it’s easy to hold, easy to accept between two fingers while the rest of your hand is wrapped around your Starbucks cup. There’s just a lot of reasons why that tabloid format, I think, is going to be friendlier for readers.

Q: Earlier you talked about training and the importance of training. What are some of the best ways to train good writers and ensure good writing?

A: Writing is such a difficult task… If you’re a writer, you’re learning your whole life. That’s probably the first thing we have to say, is that it really doesn’t matter how much talent you have, and how many great words you know. It’s a process. And it’s as much about observing human experience as it is about putting words together…

I think, as has always been the case, you just have to write a lot if you’re going to learn to be a writer… Once upon a time… your student basically wouldn’t go wrong writing in inverted pyramid. That’s no longer true – you’re not going to hold your audience writing in inverted pyramid now… In a way, it’s more complicated, but maybe it’s more liberating. I think what we need to be talking about is, communicate with your audience… Communicate with your peers. And yes, let’s please try to get our grammar and spelling right while we’re doing it.

Q: How would you encourage a college paper to cover national or statewide news when it happens?

A: I have two answers. One is: don’t. But here’s what I mean by that: don’t rewrite stories that everybody already knows. Nobody cares. Next week, if I write in my college newspaper that there’s a lot of upset going on right now in American cities about police and race, and I just recap all the terrible things that have happened, nobody needs that. They already know it. There’s nothing special about it appearing in college newspapers…

Now, definitely a lot of national, international stories have impacts on our campuses. So, what are they? Let’s talk to students who really feel strongly. And I don’t mean let’s offer them 400-word op-eds so they can repeat what they heard on cable news. I mean, let’s talk to them. How does it directly affect them? How do they feel? Do they have a connection? As far as international stories go, [are there people] on our campus from those countries – and maybe they do have connections, or maybe they at least have some insight. A lot of times we have faculty members who are experts. In a year like this, there are activists on our campus. Let’s go talk to activists…

[It] was really true when I was in college that maybe a student really didn’t pick up another paper or magazine or watch the evening news during the week, and those were the only sources of news, so a college newspaper recapped the news for them. That’s just out of the question now. The people who are not seeing major national and international news do not want to. And if we’re going to reach them, we should reach them through, ‘hey, this really might matter to people you know.’

Q: So, either don’t, or cover it in a way that’s applicable to campus?

A: Right. Don’t waste your time… there are a hundred college newspapers this fall who are going to have a story about, ‘well, the presidential election is coming up, and here’s who’s running.’ And there is no need, whatsoever, for that to appear in a college newspaper.

Q: What are some of the trends in journalism that you want student news organizations to follow, and why?

A: I always say, if you’re going to be a journalist you’ve got to be on Twitter following journalists, and when you do that, you will see a lot of very cool things going on. You’ll see Carrie Brown-Smith at the City University of New York (@brizzyc), where they’re in their second year now of having a graduate program in social journalism… The New York Times, The Washington Post are doing very interesting things. There’s no shortage. If you just pay attention to journalists on Twitter, you’ll find the things that interest you and the areas you’re really interested in. It may be design, it may be video, or it may just be how to serve a community.

…I would have to say overall we at college media have been too stuck in the mud and have not said, “Gee, we’re college students, let’s go try that!” We don’t have to worry so much that if it doesn’t work, we’ll lose a hundred subscribers next week. We can try things… What can we do that will engage this audience, solve a problem for the audience and, bottom line, make that audience want to spend time with us?

Q: Are there any trends you don’t want student journalists to follow?

A: Yeah, probably…There are a lot of cranky old journalists out there who are still complaining that the internet will ruin journalism, and there’s a lot of anxiety about saving print. Surely I don’t have to say this to the college students, but who knows: don’t waste your time thinking about how we’re going to save print, because we’re not going to save print. I strongly believe that future technology will give us platforms that allow us to do everything we can now do with print, but it’s not going to be print. We already see people reading long stories on their phones. There’s already a lot that we can accomplish digitally that we could never do in print.

Maybe the number one trend is ‘don’t listen to Chicken Little.’ There’s a lot of, ‘Oh, journalism has gone down the toilet.’ I don’t think that’s true at all. It is true we don’t have as many people covering local communities as we used to, which is a very bad trend, but I think we’re going to train today’s college students to help figure out business models so that we can return to those communities and do a good job. I’m optimistic about journalism, so I would say don’t listen to pessimists.

Q: Why is the field of journalism important? What role does it play in society?

A: Well, without cueing The Star-Spangled Banner, I would say there is a reason for the First Amendment. There is a reason that the one private enterprise mentioned in the constitution is a free press. The founders – and it has certainly proved to be true – believed that if you’re going to have self-governance to the extent that we do in this country, whether you think it’s too much or not enough, you have to have a citizenry that’s engaged with the rest of society. And we all may lament the state of civics knowledge in our society, but more or less, citizens feel like they’re part of the country. And we go out, and we have elections, and the loser… concedes eventually, and we go on and have a new government. That also takes place at a local level: the ability to have good schools, the ability to have police work that serves our communities and is not considered a hostile force. All these things depend on citizens being able to engage, ultimately make decisions. And I think that’s why we’re here. We can find a million other reasons to be here, and we have to in order to support ourselves, but I just think it’s critically important. And I think that’s also why it’s critically important that we not be the high priests of journalism who think we know exactly what needs to be written and shown at all times, because if we don’t engage that audience, we are weakening that civic structure that’s supposed to hold up our country.

Also, it’s tons of fun.

(Q&A conducted by Megan Graft at 2pm MST on Monday, July 11, 2016 via Google Hangout. Full transcription stored in Google Drive.)

We can moan about news rack pickups, or we can do something about it

How would you like to add 700 students to your next issue’s readership?

How big a story would you have to splash on your cover with bold, exciting art and type?  How long would it take to build an editorial operation that could pull that off every issue?

News flash: I handed out 700 papers last Thursday.


As an experiment, I spent about three hours repeating “Have a paper” to students walking between classes, waiting to get on a shuttle bus or on the way to lunch. Our administrative assistant found a good spot at lunchtime and handed out 350 in less than an hour. Our combined 1,050 papers would boost even our best rack pickup numbers by 25 percent.

So I know what I’m going to do about the ever-declining number of students who will look at a newspaper rack.  I’m hiring (at modest stipends) student “street teams” who will cheerfully hand out papers, engage students and post observations to social media.

Can’t afford the hiring? Maybe your staff will pitch in. My staff has, but not the hours at a time I think it will take to do this right.  They are too busy with classes and their demanding student media jobs to be street team members. If volunteers aren’t the answer and you can’t afford hiring, ask yourself: Can you afford to watch your readership continue to drop?

Of course this isn’t the whole answer. The paper still needs to interest the student who allows me to slip it between two fingers she extends from her coffee cup. Erica Perel’s great advice about your above the fold rating still applies. But if the paper interests that reader, I think she’ll be happy to accept it from a street team member whenever it’s offered.

A year from now, I think I’ll be spending considerably less money stocking racks. Racks that don’t post big numbers will be phased out. Time and money will be diverted to student-to-student distribution.

And if some business wants to buy a sponsorship on the street team T-shirts … OK, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Native advertising: A new road to revenue or a slippery slope? This week’s debate in tweets and links

This week’s day-long Federal Trade Commission discussion of native advertising set off another round of debate, so it’s a good time of another installment of tweets (many with links!) about the direction of advertising and the precious dollars it brings to news media, including college media. (Earlier installments: worries about mobile and some hopeful signs. )

Why does this matter for college media? As I reported in the earlier post on increasing digital revenue, Ryan Frank of the Emerald Media Group at the University of Oregon sums up the feeling about native advertising:  ”Most people hate it. But banner ads aren’t working … we’ve got to do something.”

On to the tweets (only half a dozen) …

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NOLA Notes: Figuring out how to make digital dollars in college media

We’re in the home stretch of my posts drawn from my (obviously) voluminous notes from the National College Media Convention in New Orleans.  After’s today’s post, I plan one more on new revenue streams outside of print and digital advertising.

When newspapers started confronting the new realities of advertising, their chiefs lamented they were trading “print dollars for digital dimes.” Then commodity ad rates online plummeted, and people started talking about “digital pennies.”

But we know we’ve got to turn those pennies into dollars (exactly when is a question for another day).

I hope my headline doesn’t over-promise. No one has figured this out. But some smart college media people are “figuring,” and I’m passing along some of their thoughts in notes form.  Some of these points appeared in earlier “NOLA Notes” posts but bear repeating in this context.

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NOLA Notes: The audience loves entertainment; is that scary or exciting?

Another in a series of posts drawn from notes taken at the National College Media Convention in New Orleans.

When the talk at the “Reinventing College Media” workshop in New Orleans turned to how much college students love entertainment news, The Daily Utah Chronicle General Manager Jake Sorensen said what I was thinking: “This is scary.”

Scary because most advisers and student editors live and breathe “hard” news. Hand over our front page to concert previews? Never!

But I was much less frightened after the day-long workshop. So here’s a brief summary and some thoughts of my own:

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NOLA Notes: Winning the local digital audience when news isn’t breaking

Another in a series of posts drawn from my notes at the National College Media Convention in New Orleans.

We’ve established that breaking local news is critical to your success as a digital news outlet on campus. But news isn’t “breaking” all the time (unless you’re an annoying click-baiter). So you need to do a lot more to be part of the daily digital diet of your prospective audience. This post is full of suggestions from several leaders in digital-first campus media.

First, two quotes to encourage any journalist worried about whether “social” is taking over “news.”

“Quality matters.” — Erica Perel, newsroom adviser, Daily Tar Heel (serving the University of North Carolina).

“So do what the college press always has done. We were hyperlocal before the term was invented.” — Omar Sofradzija, editorial adviser, The State News (serving Michigan State University).

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#collegemedia Thanksgiving turnabout: Do we deserve our audience’s thanks?

This Thanksgiving, why should our college media audience be thankful for us?

Permit me to offer three reasons — and to encourage you to think about how well you’re earning each category of appreciation from the members of your audience.

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NOLA Notes: Focus on ‘true’ digital audience

Another in a series of posts from notes taken at the National College Media Convention in New Orleans.

You could be discouraged when Omar Sofradzija says the “true audience” for, the student news site serving Michigan State, really is only 22 percent of the site’s visitors.

Or you could recognize that the “true audience” is a local, engaged audience that wants your local journalism and is valuable to advertisers. That leads you to then focus on building that audience without wasting time producing “clickbait” that really doesn’t serve your true audience or the advertisers who want to reach them.

That takeaway in two tweets from Judy Gibbs Robinson of the University of Oklahoma:

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NOLA Notes: Applying ‘resource velocity’ to our most important resource: student journalists

Another in a series of posts drawn from my notes at the National College Media Convention in New Orleans.

Arvli Ward, the student media director at UCLA, is far from the first speaker at a college media convention to talk about the importance of recruiting, training and retaining student journalists. But he’s the first I’ve heard who talked about maximizing the “resource velocity” of those students.

In fact, Ward recruits his student resources by treating them as customers. I thought that was fascinating and so pounded a lot of notes into my laptop. Here are some lightly edited highlights, along with related points I heard later from Candace Baltz of Washington State University:

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