On Forward Thinking in College News

As with the news industry at large, I get the sense that there are really two camps in the world of college news: the one that has existed for decades, and a newly emerging one which is pushing the definition of college journalism in the online realm. This post was inspired by a session I attended last weekend at BCNI Philly and a recent post by College Publisher in response to the activities of CoPress and others helping move college news orgs to open source solutions like WordPress.

As someone involved in an open source project to help college news orgs define their online presence, I’ve been keeping a close watch on discussions around ways in which such organization can innovate online. There are a ton of ideas out there, but unless people start acting on them they will ultimately be worth nothing. If an idea falls in the woods and no one acts on it, does it really matter?

A guest speaker (who will remain anonymous out of respect for his wish for the discussion to be off-the-record) at a conference the YDN hosted in February talked about his organization’s approach to finding new ways to make money online. His organization is probably one of the most solvent of all news orgs in the world right now, still aiming to at least break even this year. As he described, trying out new ideas on the internet is incredibly cheap, and so they try out just about every new option and medium that becomes available. Website, pay-site, Facebook, Kindle, Twitter, the list goes on and on. They are willing to trial almost anything, and if it doesn’t work, then they lost only a minor investment in the time of the developer or two that it took to build. If it succeeds, they make money and continue to grow that idea. Low risk, high reward scenarios that the web and digital technologies afford.

In the college news realm, you have some orgs that are starting to push the boundaries. Some are trying to do comprehensive multimedia work, a number are trying to do web-first on a regular basis. But, by and large, the vast number of college news organizations are content to float along in the sea of the status quo.

At the BCNI Philly session, a number of current and former j-school students talked with j-school faculty members about ways to improve the experience for all involved and make the experience more valuable for a future in the news industry. The consensus seemed to be that teachers need to inspire the students to be more curious and to learn new technologies and tools on their own.

As a software guy, this sounds to me much like the problem computer science departments have faced for awhile too: alot of CS students take CS to get a job in industry, where they work 9-5 jobs as code monkeys and do uninspiring work. However, a set of students will be inspired and curious enough to learn things on our own and really help push the boundaries in the software world. Read Jeff Atwood’s post on “The Two Types of Programmers” to get the full picture. Maybe the news world has the same situation, and so I ask whether that’s something that’s a) changeable, and b) worth changing.

So now back to the College Publisher post mentioned in the intro. It is in response to a post by Lauren Rabaino, a post which represents the arguments of many of the 20% group (see Jeff’s article above). By contrast, I would argue that CP and most of the papers on it probably represent the 80% group. CP has been in the college news game for a long time now, and have found a status quo that suits their business priorities. Can you really blame them for not wanting to shake things up?

One thing that working in communities like Django’s has shown me is that the news world desperately needs coders. I almost want to put <blink> tags on that last statement. See this session from DjangoCon, projects like EveryBlock,  the Journalists/Coders Ning group, countless code projects (mine included), and special teams at the NY Times, Washington Post, LA Times, Washington Times, and others. I’ll explicate more on this in a future post, but I think that’s a trending topic in the news industry, and perhaps what drew me to news in the first place.

Thus, statements like this make me cringe:

However, rather than building a CMS, we often wonder why innovators do not focus their energies on building up traffic with content and multi-media packages to raise the profile of college journalism.  In the end, college newspapers are in the news business, not the web business.

They go on to advocate against wanting control of advertising because it necessitates having staff members dedicated to selling ads, which is admittedly a difficult proposition for some papers. I’d actually tend to agree for some smaller news orgs: if your news site doesn’t get much traffic, it will be difficult to impossible to make much money online, and sticking with an ad network/service like CP’s is probably your best option. That’s just the reality for online ads right now. Maybe CoPress or others will organize a competitive network at some point, but probably not in the forseeable future. However, if you get any decent amount of traffic, go for it. Browse around the CoPress forums to find discussions on the details, but don’t let CP or anyone else hold your ad revenue hostage. We have one person at the YDN doing online ads almost exclusively, and he has direct sold our entire inventory almost the entire school year.

CP ends their post talking about the challenges of “hosting, maintenance and support.” They have a very valid point here, and it is real challenge in the high turnover world of college news. There is alot to be said for the resources that CP provides in that regard, and I do thank them for helping the vast majority of news orgs. But for those with forward-looking staff, and especially those with tech talent, it’s worth branching out. Working at a news org is about learning, and doing it on your own (or with support from a group like CoPress) is about the best learning experience you can get. Anyone who has run their own system for a year can easily go to a newsroom using Atex/Polopoly and pick it up quickly.

One of my biggest gripes though, is the FUD approach taken at the conclusion of the article.

There are parties (SPAMers, PHISHers, etc) that attempt to infiltrate sites all the time – and the applications deployed are more and more sophisticated each semester.  Fighting this battle is an unsung service CMN provides.

There are so many things wrong with these two sentences that I’m not even sure where to begin. The number of sites running WordPress which are exposed to these threats far outweighs the number of CP sites, so to claim that CP has beat WP in that domain seems a bit silly. Last I checked, SPAM and PHISH aren’t acronyms, so the only logical use of upper-case lettering there would be as a scare tactic, which is just sad. So sad. Moving on.

In conclusion, I think the tensions between College Publisher and CoPress are symptomatic of the status quo vs forward-thinking group debates. As described in Jeff’s post, most of the 80% will never be convinced of the merits of curiosity and forward-thinking-ness, and it’s a losing battle to try to combat those people. I hope that CoPress is successful in finding most of those in the college news world who are in the 20% group and helping them work together to create a better future. But they should also realize that many still don’t “get it”, and perhaps never will. Let them go on to traditional vocational jobs. We won’t miss them while we work for a better future.

5 Responses to On Forward Thinking in College News
  1. Andrew

    Interesting post Max and I definitely agree. I think the most appealing thing to me about working with the CoPress guys and gals is the fact that they don’t take the status quo and say “It works so why tamper with it.” Instead, the outlook is “The community can make this better. How?”

  2. Daniel

    A well-reasoned response, Max. You cut me to it. I’m not sure that I’ll be responding directly on my blog now, but you certainly address some of my complaints with the post (although you missed the “GUI” drop re: FUD). I’m not sure that I agree entirely with you on the 20% vs. 80% argument. Whereas I understand that such a dynamic does exist to some degree, I don’t believe that it should stay that way. To be honest, it would be highly unlikely that a student newspaper could publish exclusively online and survive off the small cut-back they get from College Publisher. Most student newspapers have a lot of experimenting to do online and the “status quo” won’t cut it.

  3. Max

    Daniel, I actually agree with you. If you read through Jeff’s two posts, you’ll see that he is addressing the fact that the 20% should be trying to reach out to the 80% and help them see “the way.”

    The point of the analogy is to acknowledge that there is some (large) percentage of the software/news population which will never really buy into the 20%’s agenda, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t still try.

  4. [...] On Forward Thinking in College News CP and CoPress discussion from Max Cutler. (tags: collegemedia) [...... collegemediainnovation.org/blog/2009/05/04/links-for-2009-05-04
  5. [...] a developer, breaks down why the news industry needs developers, and why College Publisher represents 80... copress.org/2009/05/02/on-forward-thinking-in-college-news

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