‘Stop Dropping Print!’ says student newspaper expert
- Kevin Schawrtz, known as the ‘dean of college media business,’ says dropping print does not save money – it costs you the ability to make money.PHOTO: The UMSL Millennium Student Center. Photo by Cate Marquis for The Current ©
By Dan Reimold for College Media Matters. Reprinted with permission.
Kevin Schwartz has a message for advisers, educators and undergraduates connected with college media: Double down on your print product. Don’t abandon it — at least not yet. And mess around with digital and mobile, but only if you can make a buck and not at the expense of your most reliable revenue stream.
The significance of the advice is two-fold: It comes from an award-winning journalist sporting a nearly unrivaled record of student press service and leadership. And it flies in the face of the print bloodletting occurring at the moment among college newspapers nationwide.
‘Dean of the College Media Business’
Let’s start with the service and leadership.
Schwartz (left) spent roughly 20 years as general manager of The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During two separate stints as GM of the DTH – beginning in 1988 and concluding this past December — he helped the paper remain editorially vibrant, financially robust and digitally relevant.
He still believes heavily in the power of print for a multitude of reasons. Along with it existing as a platform for good journalism, he sees it as the main means for college media to continue making money.
Schwartz, who currently runs Schwartz Media Solutions in St. Petersburg, Fla., is not a Luddite or a print-idealist. During his time at the DTH, the newspaper’s digital advertising revenue rose to among the highest levels in college media. In 2007, the paper also launched a financially successful student housing website seen as a model by many in college media. A separate online “Kvetching Board” featuring quick-hit student complaints is now trademarked and nabs close to 10,000 readers monthly.
For those accomplishments and many intangibles, Ryan Frank — recently departed president of Emerald Media at the University of Oregon — calls Schwartz “the dean of the college media business.”
Kelly Wolff, who succeeded Schwartz as Daily Tar Heel GM, similarly said, “Kevin is the master of student media leadership and vision.”
According to Frank, “With Kevin running the show for so long, the DTH has been a college media leader for 20 years. They are the dynasty of the industry. Just like the 49ers in the 1990s and the Yankees of the late 1990s. And they’ve done it on the news side, but also on the business side.”
‘100-Percent Digital Transition’
Schwartz certainly remembers college media’s Yankees and 49ers heyday, the pre-Internet era when national advertising, local commercial advertising and campus ads were all exploding. He has also been an eyewitness to the turn — the national and local ad slowdown; the tightened school budgets; the growing restlessness over student press bottom lines; and the seemingly inevitable shift toward digital-first publishing.
Cue the bloodletting.
A rising number of student newspapers are cutting or considering cutting the amount of print editions they publish each week or month. Others are reducing the number of copies or pages produced for each issue or trimming their page sizes from broadsheet to tabloid. A few papers have dropped print entirely, opting to reboot as online-only outlets.
For example, The College Reporter at Franklin & Marshall College announced last month its only print edition going forward will be emailed and uploaded online as a PDF, the culmination of a three-year “100-percent digital transition.”
Publicly, these transitions are linked to a trifecta of rationales: 1) Digital – and mobile – are what student-age readers increasingly desire. 2) New media skills are what employers crave. 3) In the face of an advertising free-fall and depleted reserves, print reduction is the lone remaining revenue driver – enabling student outlets to reprioritize for the 21st-century.
As The Daily Nebraskan paraphrased one of its own board members at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln explaining about the paper’s recent print cutback, “[I]t’s important for the DN to spend more time on quality online content and to consider print material as more of an afterthought.”
It is that exact line of thinking Schwartz wants to squash.
‘Why Trash the Thing?’
The Schwartz doctrine: Dropping print does not save money. It costs you the ability to make money. And reducing the number of issues and pages is death by a thousand cuts, not a righting of the ship.
As he puts it, “To give up on print is to kiss your newspaper an eventual goodbye, unless a school is willing to provide 100 percent adequate funding to a digital-only model, and even then much would be lost.”
What’s especially lost on him is the failure of many student editors, advisers and publication boards to recognize what seems obvious: Print is still by far college media’s main source for advertising revenue.
He offers the Daily Tar Heel as one example. The UNC student newspaper’s digital ad revenue hovers around $165,000 annually. By comparison, its print ads brought in approximately $1.18 million last year, an amount confirmed by Wolff.
“What does that tell you?” he asked. “We better sustain our print edition. It’s what advertisers want. It’s paying nearly 100 percent of the bills. The digital product and digital ad development can offset at least for now the losses we take in print. But why trash the thing until advertisers are actually telling us they want digital alternatives?”
A related misconception Schwartz has witnessed in the collegiate ranks is the belief that a digital-first push will attract an alternative set of advertisers. He said this thinking relies on two faulty assumptions: 1) There are lots of untapped marketers quietly waiting for exclusively digital ad opportunities. 2) Student news sites reach the amount and types of readers those marketers desire.
As Schwartz pointed out, a fundamental paradox of college newspaper websites is how unattractive they are to local businesses – in large part because the sites’ main audiences tend to be alumni or random Googlers far from campus.
“Most advertisers still want a nice ad in your print edition that people read,” Schwartz contended. “They don’t care about how many Twitter or Facebook followers you have. Your largest digital spenders are likely your largest print spenders. Businesses either spend on marketing or they don’t. They trust you on print, but are unlikely to trust you on digital stuff they barely understand themselves.”
‘A Habit of Print Readership’
By comparison, editors and advisers need to understand declining newspaper circulation on their campus is not necessarily symptomatic of a generational shift. It just might mean they’re not working hard enough at distribution.
From a pick-up perspective, Schwartz sees many similarities between the college market and the tourism market. It is an epiphany he first had during his four-year tenure as publisher of the Outer Banks Sentinel, a weekly based in Nags Head, N.C.
“In each case, you have a highly transient population who’s there in bulk for a certain number of months of the year,” he said, “and you’re not going to home deliver them.”
But you can still reach them, regularly. Instead of the longstanding student press delivery shtick — stacking newspapers, walking away and hoping for the best — staffers must give readers what Schwartz calls “a gentle metaphorical shove.”
Editors should hand out copies to passersby and jumpstart dorm delivery programs. Copies should be available on campus as early as possible to reach students with morning classes and college staff arriving at work. Newsstands must be monitored for effectiveness, placed in spots people actually pass and moved to account for construction and changing pedestrian patterns. And the stands themselves need to be in good condition, inviting readers to check what’s inside.
Wolff praised Schwartz’s meticulousness in distribution as one of his legacies especially worth emulating and learning from. As she shared in an email message, “He pursued multiple strategies to keep the DTH’s print edition vibrant and healthy: training on the use of front-page, above-the-fold space as the most important marketing tool the paper has; methodical assessment of everything about racks, from the design of the handles and top surface to the effect of location changes measured in just a few inches or feet; and on-the-ground marketing programs that develop a habit of print readership in new UNC students.”
It is a habit, Schwartz argued, that must literally be thrust at readers, day after day or week after week. “Especially if you’re a weekly newspaper, there’s no excuse for you not to be able to distribute your newspapers,” he said. “You have enough time over the course of a week to practically put one in the hands of every student. You must be willing to hawk it and hand it out, one by one.”
‘Wrapped Up Forever in Content’
From Schwartz’s perspective, one last campaign student newspaper leaders should consider mounting is in the area of non-content revenue. Ironically, the pubs’ hard copy status and old age can be huge boons in this mostly new media realm.
College media, he contended, must detach themselves from thinking of revenue merely as something derived from advertising adjacent to content. Instead, the editorial and business teams should brainstorm local niches in need of guides or client-consumer matchmaking – from mobile apps for businesses to micro-websites for categories such as campus dining.
As he confirmed, the biggest non-print revenue producer for the Daily Tar Heel is not dailytarheel.com. It is the paper’s local housing website HeelsHousing – matching students seeking shelter with landlords looking to lease them available space. Schwartz said HeelsHousing brings in $50,000 to $70,000 per year.
“The newspaper industry has been wrapped up forever in content,” he said. “Our content is our product. But really what you have is a relationship with a client. So because you’ve been around so long, you know these businesses, these clients, and they know you. They’ve held your product in their hands. They see it in the stands. There is name recognition there. … Find something to sell them that makes sense and doesn’t require you to be a slave to the regular deadline.”
Beyond the deadline, also be sure it makes money – or be prepared to move on to something else.
“Everybody needs to be developing a digital component that generates revenue,” he said. “Because it’s going to take focus. It’s going to take people power. So if it’s not going to generate revenue, I don’t see why anyone is wasting their time.”
© College Media Matters 2014
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