The New Quad: college newspapers’ quest for a sustainable business model

The move from push media to pull media will mean college newspapers will struggle to maintain relevance, authority and sustainability

A new business model and revenue approach is going to be essential for college newspapers if they hope to stay relevant and sustainable moving into the second half of this decade.

While this may seem self-evident to observers of the general media environment, it is a tough pill to swallow on campus.

For years, universities seemed to have been immune from the downturn in newspaper circulation. Even while city newspapers dropped circulation days and laid off staff, college papers appeared to be cruising through the trend unscathed.

Sure, national ads dried up, but readers continued to flock to the printed page, and thus the local advertisers also hung tight, keeping inky dead trees a profitable venture.

The good old days

Before I talk about the turn in this trend, let’s look at why college papers continued to thrive, even while city papers limped.

It came down to this: environment.

The college campus’s physical environment gave the printed page an advantage. First, because of student fee subsidies at most schools, the paper could be distributed free and ubiquitously across campus.

Second, the content was relevant and local. The best college papers focused on what they did better than anyone else in the world, and that was to focus on the campus community – a hyper-niche environment that nobody else stood a chance at covering the way the campus natives could. College newspapers had authority on college campuses.

So what happened?

None of that has changed.

Why then are daily college newspapers now seeing slumping circulation and dropping print days?

Again, it comes down to something from the physical environment that used to be its strongest advantage.

College papers have what I call “creepy repellant.”

That is, if you are some guy sitting by yourself in the middle of the quad, everyone looks at you and says, “what is that creepy guy up to?”

But if you are a guy sitting by yourself in the middle of the quad reading a newspaper, nobody gives you a second thought. They may even believe that you are an intellectual.

Enter the smartphone

Unfortunately for college papers, the smartphone has now replaced the newspaper as the de facto creepy repellant.

Much like the newspaper, smart phones also give you the appearance of looking occupied, and thus not creepy. They also feel free because you have already paid for them up front, and everyone has them in their pockets.

And what’s worse, social media has made them hyper relevant, taking the thing that the college papers could do better than anyone else in the world and owning it.

All of a sudden, picking up the paper is not convenient. It is an extra step.

In the quad environment, the newspaper used to be a “push” technology. That is, a publisher could push its content in front of an audience simply because of the nature of the space that audience occupied. The audience was there. The paper was there. That was the one convenient choice.

Sadly, now that phones are the more convenient creepy repellant, people have to have a reason to go pick up the paper, making it a “pull” technology. That is, the publisher has to lure, or pull the audience toward the content.

College newspapers’ competitive advantage is disappearing – quickly.

Now what?

OK, so now what? Obviously, college papers, like the city papers before them, must innovate to stay relevant and sustainable.

The first thing that the newspaper must do is to ensure it is taking advantage of all the ways available to push the content into the audience’s hands. Good PR, street teams handing issues directly to readers, attractive covers: Those are all great ways to keep the printed page alive.

But the bigger-picture question is whether that is the best move for the long-term viability of the media company. Sure, this will keep that legacy product alive a bit longer, but a truly innovative manager will see that this life support should only be used as a way of biding time while new products and revenue streams are being actively pursued.

In the parlance of the Boston Consulting Group, newspapers are the Cows, and we need to be pursuing the Question Marks. (Cows generate cash but don’t have much growth potential. Question marks have growth potential but aren’t yet generating much cash.)

To stay relevant, newspapers need to meet the audience where they are.

Paper is still relevant, but it is now the niche product. While it is still earning flagship dollars, we need to build the infrastructures for what comes next.

A Road Map

Rather than fight against social media, college papers need to step up their game and their presence on those social outlets.

Facebook is the new meeting place. It is the new quad. Where before, college newspapers were the authorities on the campus quad, they now need to be the authorities on the social media quad.

They need to be producing high-quality content on their websites, and then using their Facebook accounts to pull readers. They need to look at what they do well — better than anyone else in the world, actually — and actively push that content through social media in order to maintain that audience.

That content needs to meet the audience needs:

  • Information
  • Entertainment
  • Community

College newspapers can’t just produce the same 12-inch story and call it a day. The newsrooms need to explore all the ways their audiences are looking to engage in that social space and meet them there with options.

Content has to be more than just news. That is because, according to research by Flurry, consumers use their mobile devices to consume news only 2 percent of the time.

That is compared with the 17 percent spent on Facebook alone.

The other content in addition to news that the college media companies should be producing needs to include:

  • Video – 4 percent of mobile usage
  • Entertainment – 4 percent of mobile usage
  • and Utilities – 8 percent of mobile usage (I see these as things like food truck trackers, transit apps, and other niche utilities that students need, but haven’t yet found in other areas. College media companies can develop these and again become the authority.)

If we can localize those aspects and provide community-level content, then we can conceivably capture as big a percentage of the mobile usage as Facebook. And once we are sure we can maintain our audience, then we need to apply a revenue model to monetize that audience.

Then we’re back in business.

About mdgiusti

Michael Giusti is a journalist and educator. He is the Adviser and Chief Administrative Officer for the Loyola Student Media, which publishes the nationally award-winning Maroon newspaper. He has 20 years experience as a professional journalist and has worked in daily newsrooms, weekly business journals and as a freelancer for national and international publications. He holds an MBA and is passionate about media business models.
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