With news increasingly moving online and an economy that is still squeezing advertisers, the decline of print newspapers is nearly an accepted fact.
But at smaller, local newspapers across the country, editors and publishers are finding ways to stay competitive so they can continue to bring specialized reporting to their communities, with some community papers like the Burlington Times-News in the process of adding a paywall and editors of college newspapers now heading their campus media as the new year begins.
College newspapers are in a unique position to improve readership. According to a 2010 study by Student Monitor, 63 percent of students surveyed nationally say they are at least light readers of their college newspaper.
Lex Menz, editor-in-chief of Western Carolina University’s newspaper the Western Carolinian, says she is trying to boost the paper’s circulation. Menz said she has been particularly successful with emailing professors when a new edition of the paper comes out.
“Many of the professors would walk by it, not knowing that there’s a new issue,” Menz said. “They didn’t look at the cover.”
News and the Internet
The availability of free content online is often pointed to as the Achilles heel of print newspapers, an obstacle that smaller papers are looking at in different angles.
Menz believes the Internet, and social media in particular, offers a wealth of opportunities for the Western Carolinian.
“With today’s obsession with technology, it’s easier for someone to post something quickly online as a Facebook comment or retweet one of our stories, because that’s what they do every single day,” Menz said.
At the Burlington Times-News, the community newspaper for the Burlington area, they are in the process of putting in a paywall to require some form of payment if readers are recognized as frequent viewers.
Madison Taylor, the Times-News executive editor, said the local paper industry has changed to make paywalls a more effective model.
“Five years ago, I think this change would’ve created tons of angry users,” Taylor said. “And while I expect a few, the fact that the two largest newspapers in our area also charge for content will limit the complaints.”
Taylor said that a paywall has to accompany excellent reporting, or else the system totally collapses.
“Our service in every area has to be top-notch in order for it to have a chance of working. That means excellent content that isn’t readily available anywhere else,” Taylor said.
Innovation from students
One newspaper that is taking a different approach to student readership is The Odyssey, a national, Greek-life-oriented publication created by students at Indiana University in 2009.
Despite starting at the head of the recession, the Odyssey co-founder Adrian France says The Odyssey has grown to the size it has because it became more flexible. For one, the paper publishes for 39 different campuses, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and uses writers on campus to write about the Greek Life issues in their area.
“When I say that we’re publishing at 39 locations this year, I mean that we’re publishing 39 completely separate, completely unique publications to each individual university,” France says.
France said when The Odyssey starts on a new campus, she and her co-workers reach out to the fraternity and sorority community to find on-campus editors and let them make the further decisions as far as writers and other staff members.
“We give a lot of our students freedom because they have different ideas that they want to pursue,” France said.
France said this plan also generally increases readership.
“Having a writer in the house really drives the readership in that house,” France said.
While France estimated the paper reaches about 250,000 students, she said the Odyssey is even moving away from circulation numbers because their marketing methods are so different from the traditional.
“We don’t judge our growth on circulation numbers because we deliver to group housing where there’s about 100-plus members that live in a house, so we don’t deliver one-to-one,” France said.
At WCU, Menz said she is looking to expand the readership of the Western Carolinian beyond the campus into the surrounding towns.
“In our news, we’re trying to cover more and more what’s happening in the town of Sylva because it is such an integral part of the university,” Menz said.
So far, this strategy appears to be successful, as members of the community are reaching out to Menz and the Western Carolinian.
“They have been emailing me, asking me if they can have some copies dropped off at their office or their business so they can distribute it as well,” Menz said.