Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
Guest Host: Paul Brown
College newspapers have long kept students, faculty and staff in the know about what’s happening on campus. Some have adapted quickly to the new media landscape, while others are still working out how to navigate shifting business models and a cultural move away from print. We get the view from one local college newsroom and find out where these changes fit into the big picture.
- Zachary Cohen editor-in-chief, The Eagle (American University)
- Andrew Beaujon Senior Online Reporter, The Poynter Institute
MR. PAUL BROWNWelcome back to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown, sitting in today for Kojo. And we're talking about college newspapers and the future of journalism education in this segment. College newspapers are facing many of the same problems that large commercial papers are facing, a change in the media landscape, changes in the financial structure of the media and reporting, changes in advertizing. Where does this leave college newspapers? And by extension, where does that leave education of our future journalists?
MR. PAUL BROWNIf you'd like to call and join our conversation, the number: 1-800-433-8850. You can also email us at email@example.com, or get in touch with us through our Facebook page or by sending a tweet to @kojoshow. With us in the studio this afternoon: Zach Cohen is the editor-in-chief of The Eagle at American University in Washington where he is studying in the School of International Service. Zach, welcome.
MR. ZACHARY COHENThank you. Thanks for having me.
BROWNAnd we should note that WAMU is licensed to American University. From Virginia, we have by phone, Andrew Beaujon, reporting on the media for Poynter Online. He was previously the arts editor at tbd.com and the managing editor of Washington City Paper. Andrew, welcome. Thanks for joining us, taking the time.
MR. ANDREW BEAUJONThanks so much for having me, Paul.
BROWNSure enough. So college newspapers have been keeping students, faculty, staff in the know for generations about what's happening on campus. And in some small town college environments, often, they will basically be the lead paper in the area, reporting on community news as well. They keep alumni and parents connected to a community they want to feel a part of. But a lot of student-run media outlets are not immune to the challenges that journalists in the wider world are facing as the overall media landscape shifts.
BROWNReader habits have been changing as well, user habits. And here to talk about the variety of ways school papers are navigating or changing demands and resources are our two guests. Zach, let's start with you. The Eagle is American University's longest-running student publication, I'm told. But changes afoot at this paper as well as with so many other papers and college papers in particular around the country. What's happening at the Eagle?
COHENSure. Well, as we've seen all across the country, really, advertizing sales have drastically plummeted. The Eagle was lucky to build up a large reserve of advertizing revenue over the years. And around 2004, 2005 that started to decline until the point that we actually accumulated some level of debt. As advertizing has become less viable of an option to revenue, we've had to look at new ways in order to make money. So we're...
BROWNWell, you know, a lot of newspapers can explain their loss of advertizing revenues through the loss of classified advertisements in addition to people migrating to other forms of media. But is the classified ad seen as big a block of college newspaper funding as it is for traditional newspapers? And where, if your advertizing has been going down, is it going? Where is -- why is it leaving? Where has it been going?
COHENSure. The biggest drop we've seen is in local advertizing. Classifieds had been really a source of revenue for us, at least, in my recent memory being what, three years, since I've been there.
COHENBut local advertizing have decided -- local advertisers, rather, have decided that social media and Craigslist are better ways to get the word out to their customers and would rather not pay the advertizing revenue either online or in prints. That's pose some challenges for us.
BROWNWhat have you been doing about it?
COHENWe've cut back on our costs significantly. The paper used to be much bigger, upwards of 20 to 32 pages and it now runs, in average, about 16 pages. There's less color in it. We changed, a couple of years back, from a broadsheet format to a tabloid, which was also cheaper and allowed us more space for photos and stuff like that, and then focusing more on online and using our website to get news up faster there or using social media, Twitter or Facebook, you name it, to create more of an audience there.
COHENAnd I think the name of the game here is connecting the print to the online audience. And that's the way that journalism is gonna survive. It's not one or the other. The two media actually complement each other.
BROWNWhat is the future of the print edition of The Eagle? What do you think?
COHENYou know, if could answer that question, I'd tell you. But it's still very much up in the air. It's all about what kind of funding comes in. It's very possible that a weekly edition ceases to exist, and we instead focus more on monthly publications or maybe special issue based on certain events. But that's still, you know, being discussed.
BROWNSo you haven't formally decided to cancel the print edition which some college papers have.
BROWNAnd some papers that publish outside the college environment are online entirely. So you're still making that decision. And how will you come to a decision about that?
COHENThe money. Money talks.
BROWNRight down at the bottom line.
BROWNOK. Well, let's move over to our other guest here. Beaujon, tell us about the broader picture, as you see it, from your perch at The Poynter for newspapers that are affiliated with educational institutions.
BEAUJONWell, sure. I mean, you know, Zach perfectly encapsulates a lot of the pressures that are facing these papers which, as you noted at the top of the segment, are very similar to pressures facing daily and weekly papers outside of institutions. They all use to benefit from scarcity. They were placed to find out what's happening on campus and the administration and students lives, and now they compete with lots of other sources of information. And they also compete with lots of other outlets for advertisers. So business models aren't always in sync with the new publishing landscape.
BROWNWhat are the options, Andrew, for college newspapers?
BEAUJONWell, there is a number. I mean, quite a few papers are -- have made decisions such as the one Zach is facing. They're going to weekly print edition rather than a daily or they're going to -- they're going online only. The problem with that is, of course, the print ads cost a lot more than digital ads. So that's not always going to be a panacea for all these problems. You're not gonna make as much money.
BROWNZach, how are you finding that to play out? Is that an issue for you, advertising rates?
COHENSure. Print is definitely our biggest source of revenue, but print's also our biggest expense. So at the end of the day, you need to look at the net revenue from the print product and see if that's a viable option. Right now, based on cost versus revenue, the website makes more money for us than the print edition does. That hasn't always been the case. We do still make money off the print edition, not a lot. It's a marginal amount. That's not really enough to cover a lot of our costs.
BROWNAnd how about your users? What do you know about how many people are reading the print edition versus how many people are now using your online service on a regular basis?
COHENWe get something like 14,000 unique visitors a week which is pretty incredible. It's really nice to see that. And we've got a very robust social media presence. And then more interestingly enough, I found out recently that our digital issue, we print all the PDFs of the print edition online, and that gets more traffic than the actual print product itself.
BROWNAnd how many print editions do you put out each week?
BROWNFive thousand. Compared to about 15,000 online?
COHENSomething along those lines. Seven thousand on the grads, which is our primary audience.
BROWNOK. Let's go back to Andrew here because this brings up another question for me. If that's the case, Andrew, what we've just heard, why should online advertising be less lucrative than print advertising in today's business environment?
BEAUJONWell, the problem is one of supply and demand. And online, there is almost infinite content. So advertisers should've been able to drive the prices down what they would pay for online ads. It's, you know, it's pretty simple in that way, like they just don't feel that they need to pay as much as they did to reach people via print.
BROWNAnd do they feel that they can successfully reach the targeted audiences they want to reach? I mean, I'm just playing sort of the devil's advocate here. I'm wondering if you were a college newspaper and you had an audience largely composed of college or university students, faculty and friends of the school wouldn't that audience -- wouldn't you be able to charge adequately for advertising online to reach that targeted audience? There may be plenty of options, but it doesn't mean that you'll reach the audience you're looking for if you don't advertise in a certain place.
BEAUJONRight. Well, without any specific knowledge of either situation, in general, the trends has been the advertisers pay less. Now, you know, the college audience is specialized and it is worth something that's probably a little bit more.
BEAUJONThat is just that, you know, advertisers can now see exactly who's reading what and that was never an option when print papers were there. You know? Nobody knew if their ad next to the sports section was getting more views than their ads next to the news section. But now they can see it and they can demand it. Yeah, I think Zach probably -- does The Eagle use exchanges for its website?
COHENWhat do you mean?
BEAUJONFor online ads. Are your ads all sold in-house, or are they sold via agencies?
COHENYeah. We have -- we use Refuel as our national ad agency. So we bring in some revenue that way. And then we also sell local contracts both in the community and also on campus.
BEAUJONRight. Right. So that's good for national advertisers, but as Zach mentioned, you know, local advertisers have really sort of shied away from that stuff. They find -- and they find students, in particular, very easy to reach via social media.
BROWNHas that been your experience, Zach? Is that one of your main competitors in terms of getting local ads?
COHENYeah. That's one thing we've heard from a lot of advertisers. They're saying why should I advertise in The Eagle when I can reach everybody that I wanna reach on social media? I don't think that's quite the viewpoint that should be taken. If you're a business, you wanna look at a number of advertising opportunities. But then I come from my own viewpoint.
BROWNIf you wanna join our conversation, we'd be happy to hear from you. Did you work for a campus newspaper when you were in college? What did you learn from that experience? Are you part of a college paper staff now? And if you are, what's the scene on the ground at your publication? How does it compare to what's happening at The Eagle at American University? And once again, our number, 1-800-433-8850. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's go to the phones, if we can. Leigh, (sp?) hi. You're on the air. No, we are not on the air.
BROWNOK. No. I seem to have someone here. Hello?
LEIGHYes. Is this "The Diane Rehm Show?"
BROWNNo. It is not. OK. Sorry, you've called the wrong show. Let's go back to Andrew and find out a little bit more about what is happening in terms of educational programs in journalism as they relate to college newspapers. What roles have college papers played with -- in journalism programs at universities? And where are the transformations in college newspaper leading journalism education programs? What do we know about that, Andrew?
BEAUJONWell, you know, college newspapers have a really rich history, and in some places, like Columbia and Missouri, for example, they are one of -- you know, The Maneater is one of the biggest newspapers in town. So, you know, people -- you know, lots of journalists who come through college newspapers. And I was excited to hear also the -- if I heard correctly, Zach was not studying journalism...
COHENCorrect. I'm a fine art, but I'm...
BEAUJON...and is the editor of the college paper, which I think is a wonderful development because I think often -- you know, far too often these things have just stayed as kind of clubhouse papers for the journalism schools. So it's, you know, it's good when people from outside that traditional discipline get into it and make -- and are able to make changes. But, you know, the basics of journalism education still haven't really changed.
BEAUJONIt's still newsgathering. It's still ethics. It's still, you know, avoiding plagiarism and First Amendment rights. And, you know, some schools have really embraced teaching some of the new business realities and trying to prepare students for -- who are going into the business side of journalism with ways that they're gonna be able. So it sounds like Zach is getting quite a business education.
COHENRight. I came into school, and I knew that journalism is a very hands-on profession. You can read all the textbooks you want about how to write a pyramid-style story, but -- upside-down pyramid, rather. But unless you know, you know, how to write that lead or how to gather those sources, it's never gonna work out. So I'm really proud of the fact that The Eagle has really become a learning lab on campus for journalism.
COHENAnd everybody I talk to -- people who are hiring interns and people who are hiring part-time jobs after these journalists graduate -- is they need to work for the school paper in order get a job because it offers that practical hands-on experience. And that doesn't change.
COHENIf anything, a lot of the skills that we're learning now in this digital age -- how to work faster, how to work more efficiently, how to be backpack journalists, so to speak, how to get our own audio and video and all of that -- that's the way that you get a job when you graduate. So, to a certain extent, this really is a benefit to students who are working on the paper.
BROWNLet's go to the phone now. We have Arlene in Springdale, Md. Arlene, it's good to hear from you. You're on the air. All right. We're gonna go to Ken in Annapolis, Md. Ken, in the late '50s, I understand you're at Ohio State. Welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
KENYes. The Columbus Dispatch went out on strike, so the Ohio State Lantern filled in for a few months.
BROWNAnd what was your experience, and what do you think about what's happening now?
KENOh, I think that -- I sympathize with the problems that the campus newspapers are having. But I read The Lantern every day, and that's how I kept up with what was going on in -- at the university. And also they had AP wire stuff, so I knew what was going on in the world.
BROWNSo you really valued the presence of the campus newspaper.
BROWNIf you were going to school today, would you read the paper, or would you go online the way so many people are doing these days? And I suppose another way of asking that question is how do you get your news today, Ken?
KENWell, I get my news from the Capitol and from the AP widget on FiOS.
BROWNOK. So you are an online user, to a great extent, one way or another.
KENYeah. Yeah. But I also depend on the Capitol for all the local news.
BROWNMm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Well, thanks very much for your call, Ken. Appreciate hearing from you. What does this tell you, Zach, about the future?
COHENI mean, it's all moving to online and digital. I think we've seen that, and no one's really arguing that. But I do think there is still a place for print in this atmosphere. I still get The Washington Post every day in print at my front door.
BROWNHow many of your friends do?
BROWNNot many. OK.
COHENBut I will tell you that the copies of The New York Times, USA Today and Washington Post that arrive in the dorms for free every day definitely get picked up. So there is a cost part of it, tells students are notoriously frugal in that regard. So any way they can save money, that's the way they're gonna go.
BROWNAnd especially in this environment, I would imagine, when so much information is available to them at no immediate cost when they go online.
COHENSure. I mean, that's part of the reason that a paywall at The Washington Post is so controversial right now. People are so used to information for free online that it's kind of going against the tide to try to charge for that content.
BROWNWe'll be back in just a moment, continuing our conversation. We have some calls coming in. The future of journalism, college newspapers and all the changes surrounding them on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown. This is 88.5, WAMU.
BROWNWe're back with "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Paul Brown, sitting in for Kojo today. With me today, Zach Cohen, the editor-in-chief of The Eagle at American University in Washington, and, by phone, Andrew Beaujon, reports on the media for Poynter Online. And he was previously the arts editor at tbd.com and the managing editor of Washington City Paper.
BROWNOur subject today, college newspapers, the future of journalism and what is happening in the media scene, how it relates to our younger generations and what it tells us about where the media landscape may be going, where things are changing. Zach Cohen, tell me about your conversations that you may have had with your colleagues at other college newspapers. What are you hearing from people at other campuses?
COHENSure. Well, I've had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with a number of editors-in-chief across the country, both in urban settings, rural settings. And what's very interesting to find is that a lot of papers that are in smaller towns tend to do better than some of their urban counterparts because they are the local paper, so they have a broader reach than just the university or just their campus.
COHENAnd I also find that there are a lot of people who are doing exactly what we're doing. I've seen at the University of Virginia them going from a daily to a weekly and focusing more online. So we're certainly not unique in that regard. And then there are other papers that are doing very well. The Hatchet over at GW just actually bought a new townhouse and is clearly receiving enough revenue in order to sustain a biweekly product.
BROWNDo you worry that as you publish fewer editions that the cost of printing and production may rise and that may throw another wrench into the financial works?
COHENSure. That's always a concern. When you have a weekly edition, it's easier to get a contract because it's a little more regular. But for more irregular publications, it certainly does raise the cost to the printer and thus to the paper.
BROWNAndrew Beaujon, what are you seeing in terms of the industry's ability to actually survive from a business standpoint as college papers print fewer and fewer editions? Does that mean they'll find themselves caught in a spiral of upward costs if they decide to stay and print it all?
BEAUJONNo, not necessarily. But I do think that, you know, with all these challenges come opportunities. You know, there is the opportunity to become more indispensible to students by doing maybe less stuff that they can get elsewhere and doing more investigative pieces or doing what, for example, UCLA's paper is doing and releasing dozens of apps that are sort of aimed narrowly at different student groups, like football sands or fraternity and sorority members, you know? So there -- it's challenging, but it's by no means fatal. There are obviously wonderful and smart people in colleges and my money is on them.
BROWNLet's go to Ron for a moment in Washington, D.C. Ron, hello. You're on the air.
RONHello. Thank you for taking my call.
RONI went to Yale in the '90s and read the Yale Daily News religiously. And American University is one of the most expensive universities in our region. It seems to me a great shame that the papers had to cut size in half. I'm wondering to what extent does the university directly supports the paper financially.
BROWNTalk to us, Zach. What do you think? What's the answer here?
COHENSure. The university has supported us financially for a while. When we saw us go from the green to the red, when we started accumulating debt, the university started to help us continue to publish. But after a number of years where they saw that this downward trend was continuing, they decided that it was not prudent to keep up that spending. So we know receive funding in another way, through something called Student Media Board at AU.
COHENA pot of funds is given to this board and is distributed among the eight or so media outlets on campus, and that's how we receive funding. But beyond that, there is not much else financial support. We don't even work very much with the school communication, mostly because we have tried to keep that distance. We don't wanna be known as the school communications newspaper or a student newspaper. So that sense of independence is important to us, and I think that's part of the reason that we don't get as much financial help from them in that regard.
BROWNNow, in this current environment, how are you working with other media organizations within this -- the student community?
COHENSure. Well, we've seen this in the larger sense as well, but it's all about glomeration to a certain extent where we can decrease cost by coming together. One thing we're talking about right now is combining all of the websites in a back-end content management system. Each website for each media outlet would be the same. But by hosting it all on the same server and hosting it all to the same system, it would decrease our cost there.
COHENSo there are lot of really innovative ways that student newspapers can work with the environment that they're in. That is built to be collaborative, which is really actually very cool to be a part of.
BROWNAndrew Beaujon, is -- from your -- taking your view of the landscape here across the country, one of our callers a couple of moments ago mentioned that he felt there was a shame that American University wouldn't keep a print edition funded somehow. But is that a legitimate way to look at the challenges of media?
BROWNIn other words, if the usership simply isn't there, if those readers aren't there, isn't it appropriate business decision? And does it reflect the needs of media consumers to keep a paper in print if people aren't gonna be reading it?
BEAUJONRight. Well, you know, look, those kind of cold-hearted decisions, I think, are important for students to be able to take and learn to make. But I think that, you know, college papers in particular, very few of them have ever been completely financially independent. However, most of them have made enough money in the past that allowed them to have more independence and be more antagonistic toward the administration than they might be able to be.
BEAUJONNow, so, you know, I think that that's actually like a real sort of editorial danger of this thing Zach, you know, Zach said that he didn't want to become part of the communications arm of the paper -- I mean, the school. And that's, you know, and that's the real concern because if you're relying on the school to fund you, then it may be hard for you to report on the school. And...
BROWNWell, let's go to Warren in Herndon, Va. because he may have a comment on that. Warren, thanks for waiting. You're on the air.
WARRENHey. Hi, guys. I'm enjoying the conversation. I'm a recent graduate from James Madison University down in Shenandoah Valley. And I was a pretty avid reader of The Breeze, but there was definitely a growing groundswell of opinion that the newspaper was basically the PR firm, like the outlet of the university, like there weren't any really much content in it that was critical to the university's decisions or policies. And I think that was a lot -- there are lot of people on campus who wanted to have that type of conversation.
WARRENAnd I was wondering if you guys thought about having multiple school-funded newspapers on campus kinda like play off each other. And I'll take my question off the air.
BROWNOK. Thanks very much, Warren. So Warren is bringing this very issue up to both of you, Zach and Andrew, have spoken off, which is independence, complete editorial independence and how do you achieve that within a university setting if you're dependent on a university administration for financing. Andrew, what do you think is the best way to go when possible for college student newspapers?
BEAUJONWell, I think...
BEAUJONI think complete independence has a number of great advantages. That's what -- the University of Georgia does, for example, is a paper completely independent with the university. That doesn't mean that it's not gonna problems. In fact, their paper, The Red and Black, had huge problems, a big power struggle between the editorial staff and the board last year. So it's never any, you know, there is no guarantees in anything in publishing.
BEAUJONBut I think Warren's idea is not too bad. You know, multiple sources of information are always really good. There are always administrative clashes with student papers. Just last week, administrators at the University of Central Oklahoma forced a student to apologize for a blog post for -- and the university removed the editor of its newspaper after making him re-apply for his post. You know, there is -- if you keep current with the Student Press Law Center, you'll be able to read about those kind of outrages all the time.
BEAUJONAnd so I think, like, again, it's really beholden on those -- on the papers to keep them demonstrating their independence and keep looking for where the university has buried the bodies.
BROWNBut briefly you see a future for our college publications of these sorts, student newspapers, whether they are in print or online.
BEAUJONAbsolutely. I mean, it's an important need. There are community that needs reporting on and will not be touched otherwise.
BROWNWell, thank you very much. And, Zach Cohen, just a couple of words to close out. What do you look forward to? I know you're stepping away from the editorship at the end of this year. But just in a few seconds, do you see the -- a reasonable future for student newspapers?
COHENI will say right now that at AU we're lucky to have an administration that's very committed to a free press on campus but one that's also profitable. So there is that clash there. And if there's any pushback from administrators saying, hey, we help you out with your funding, you should give us, you know, a little benefit of the doubt, we're not gonna do that.
COHENYou know, free press on campus is really vital, like Andrew said. Without it, no one else is really covering the campus like a campus newspaper can. So it's a really vital institution.
BROWNWell, thanks very much. Zach Cohen and Andrew Beaujon, thanks to both of you. Zach Cohen, editor-in-chief of The Eagle at American University. Andrew Beaujon, reports on the media for Poynter Online. I'm Paul Brown, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi today. And we'll be back. Stay tuned. This is 88.5 WAMU.
Most Recent Shows
Kojo explores what's next for Chinatown residents fighting against a developer who wants to demolish their building.
Is a meal for a special occasion worth hundreds of dollars?
Fairfax County residents will vote on whether to adopt a four percent meal tax ballot measure on November's ballot. We explore why the ballot question has become such a hot-button issue in the county.