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College newspapers defy national trends

The circulation and readership of daily newspapers has declined for decades. As professionals ride the downward spiral, however, college newspapers continue to thrive.

Rick Wilber, an assistant professor of mass communications at USF who has extensive background in newspaper writing and editing, said the great characteristic that college newspapers share is hyper-locality – the ability to report on what matters to a narrow readership.

For a college newspaper, the campus is like a town, and for many, that paper may be the only source of news they see on a regular basis, Wilber said.

In the Wall Street Journal article “Big Media on Campus,” reporter Emily Steel said that while professional newspapers have experienced lagging circulation and low readership among younger demographics, the success of college newspapers has been fixed in the market.

“Hip, local, relevant and generated by students themselves, college newspapers have held steady readership in recent years while newspapers in general have seen theirs shrink,” Steel wrote.

Marketing research company Student Monitor biannually surveys 1,200 full-time students from four-year institutions nationwide to gather data on the college market.

Its most recent findings revealed that 72 percent of college students read at least one of the last five issues of their school’s newspaper and 51 percent had read three of the last five issues.

Conversely, only 43 percent of students reported reading at least one national newspaper a week, with the New York Times and USA Today leading the list with 18 and 17 percent, respectively.

Steel said most students still read their college’s paper and feel a connection to it because the content is relevant to their particular communities and interests.

“Campus newspapers offer news that is unique, about students, faculty, administrations, and, for the most part, free,” she said.

In its 2007 Report on the State of the News Media, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) reported that although approximately 51 million people still buy a newspaper and 124 million still read one, “print newspaper is unquestionably ailing.”

“Circulation is declining. Advertising is flat,” the report stated.

Wilber said that, although newspapers have experienced “a slow but inexorable decline,” they remain an important staple of American media.

“It’s not a universal decline,” he said, “but in general, there’s been a steady decrease in circulation.”

He said that while he thinks newspapers will always play an important role in the media, many have been forced to adjust their operations to attract more readers by appealing to more specific audiences and increasing multimedia capabilities.

“It used to be that the first thing everyone did in the morning was read the paper,” Wilber said. “Now, the audience becomes narrower, more specific, (and) newspapers are trying to become those other sources, which means online.”

Indeed, the PEJ report stated that “newspapers are focusing more on improving their journalism online, but it is not clear if the Web will ever make enough money to support journalism as we know it in print.”

It’s here that college newspapers especially trump national trends and take advantage of online media: More advertisers are drawn to them while conventional newspaper advertising flags.

With their increasingly sophisticated Web editions and steady readership, college newspapers have “advertisers unreservedly lust(ing) after” students, said Newsweek reporter Nick Summers in the article “College Papers Grow Up.”

“The college demographic is as sweet as it gets: by definition young and educated, they’re savvy, brand-conscious and wield … discretionary spending power,” wrote Summers. “While professional papers are losing readers, an estimated 95 percent of college students still read the campus paper.”

Major media companies are getting in on the action. In the summer of 2006, the Tallahassee Democrat – owned by the nation’s leading newspaper group, Gannett Co. – acquired FSView and Florida Flambeau, the newspaper of Florida State University. In the same week, MTV Networks – owned by major media conglomerate Viacom Inc. – bought Y2M: Youth Media & Marketing Networks, the largest host of college newspaper Web sites.

Steel said MTV executives hoped the deal would increase the credibility of its college television network, mtvU, and provide its advertisers easy access to college consumers.

“There is no more relevant media brand on campus than the local student newspaper,” Stephen Friedman, general manager of mtvU, told Steel.

The PEJ reported that there is a dark side “to this hot market and the influence that college publications wield on campus.” It stated that because many college papers are available for free, a growing number of schools are having their papers “literally stolen from the racks by people – probably students – who are apparently angered by controversial or inflammatory content.”

In the 2006 fall semester, there were a dozen such cases reported across the country, compared with 20 from the entire 2004-2005 year.

In one incident, the University of Kentucky had more than 4,500 copies of its newspaper stolen after featuring an article concerning the alcohol-related deaths of several students.

Regardless of such controversies, campus newspapers continue to be popular among students, much to the dismay of some professors. Wilber said that in the journalism courses he teaches, he must stress the importance of reading a professional paper every day, whereas in the past, journalism students came in as avid newspaper readers.

“I have personally seen that while it’s a struggle to get students to read the daily newspaper, they sit and read the (college paper) in class. I have to require beginning reporting students to read a professional newspaper,” he said.

Wilber said he suspects many students do not read the news unless it pops up right in front of them, as on an Internet home page.

“What kind of world view does that give you if you only read blogs that you already agree with or a home page of biased news? You may never encounter real news,” he said.

The fact that a college newspaper is often the only regular news source for many students puts pressure on college newspaper staffs to provide reliable information backed by strong reporting, he said.

Wilber said that unfortunately, there is no indication that reading the college newspaper builds a habit of newspaper reading. He said he thinks it is more of a special circumstance and “that the readership for a college newspaper sadly does not translate into a regular newspaper readership.”

It is still a point of contention among experts whether newspapers will be phased out of the media. Wilber said he does not think they will ever really die, because although there are news sources in other formats, those sources generally rely on newspapers for stories.

“Most of those news sources that people get online that show what is going on in the world come from newspapers or the Associated Press,” he said. “Everyone is crying about the demise of newspapers or just saying they’re dying, but all those sources rely on newspaper reporters for their news.”

He said if newspapers were phased out, Web companies like Google, MSN, AOL and Yahoo that feature news on their home pages would need to start hiring their own reporters.

“Right now everyone just cuts and pastes from everyone else,” Wilber said. “Someone has to be the real reporter. Someone has to be the real editor.”