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It's a Mistake for College Newspapers to Stop Printing and go Online-Only

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Recently a number of college newspapers have been following in the footsteps of some of their professional brethren by ending their print editions and opting to publish exclusively online. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Post is just the latest student paper to go this route.

"No amount of money saving or money-generating suggestions or well wishes could save us from this fate," the paper's editors wrote in a front-page editorial for the final issue Nov. 26. They said more than half their papers typically went unread.

It's not surprising that more and more college newspapers are doing this. There are plenty of digital media nerds out there telling them this is the way to go.

For instance, blogger Aaron Hockley writes that "teaching students how to produce a print newspaper is teaching them to be obsolete. Students should be learning electronic distribution through modern content management systems."

And as noted earlier, a number of professional papers, including the likes of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, are reducing or ending their print operations altogether.

But I think this is a mistake, for a variety of reasons, the most important being this: If college newspapers are a training ground for the journalists of the future, students at online-only news operations are missing out on the skills that come with producing a printed publication, such as layout and typography.

Why are those skills important? Because there are still roughly 1,300 newspapers in the United States, papers that in the years to come will need young journalists who have the kinds of skills I'm talking about.

And despite what the digital media geeks say, I'm not convinced that those 1,300 newspapers are going to disappear any time soon, since most newspaper companies still get the vast majority of their revenue from printed display advertising, not online ads.

In addition, there is evidence to suggest that while professional newspapers are struggling, college papers are still actually doing quite well. Indeed, a survey of 198 college newspaper advisers done by the University of Texas journalism school found that at most schools, students preferred the student paper to its website.

"The print edition generated the vast majority of advertising revenue," the study's authors wrote. "Print circulation and advertising revenue in most cases remain stable. And most college newspaper advisers do not believe an online-only model is realistic within the next five years."

This goes against the grain as far as what's been happening with professional newspapers. But as Kevin Schwartz, general manager of The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Poynter.org:

"My experience is that if something is free and it's convenient to get and whatever is in it is relevant to them, they have no qualms about printed versus non-printed. A college newspaper, if it's done right, is all of those things."

Now I can sympathize with student newspaper editors who say that their printed papers just aren't being picked up the way they were a few years ago. I'm the adviser to a student paper at a community college, and we've experienced this problem ourselves.

And while print continues to be a revenue-generator, I understand that printing is typically the biggest single cost associated with newspapers.

But at the paper I advise, we see this as a challenge to be overcome, not a reason to give up. In fact, we've been doubling down on print by changing from a tabloid to a broadsheet format and going from black and white to full-color printing in just the past year.

The result has been a new-found pride and excitement among the staff about the product they're producing - an excitement that our readers will hopefully experience as well. If they don't, we'll keep looking for other ways to keep them engaged.

In the meantime, our editors will be learning how to produce a newspaper, a skill set that I'm convinced will be useful for many years to come.

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