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How To Digitally Reinvent The College Paper

Column by Ryan Frank, flame photo illustration by Tiffany Garner and Sarah Chaput de Saintonge

With the newspaper business facing a continuous crisis, one of the best laboratories for the future should be college media.

College newspapers live in the coveted world of digital natives who learn on campus from world-class industry thinkers. We expect college researchers in medicine, software, and manufacturing to solve the biggest challenges in the world. Why not news?

There isn’t one right way to revamp a college newsroom to help figure out the future of news. The best model depends on the newsroom’s culture, budget, and audience. But there is a standard process college editors can use.

STEP 1: DO YOUR HOMEWORK
Learn the business of news: As Mark Briggs wrote in his book “Entrepreneurial Journalism,” “The willful ignorance of the business of news is precisely what made us journalists such awful and irresponsible stewards of journalism.”
Read: Become an expert on digital journalism and the business of news. Start with Ken Doctor, Emily Bell, and Jay Rosen. Check out “Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present” from Columbia Journalism School, “The Goat Must be Fed” by the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, and the annual “Internet Trends” report by venture capitalist Mary Meeker.

Study your campus and the industry: Survey readers, advertisers, alumni, faculty and staff. Where do they get campus information? What would make them pick up your paper or visit your website? Call editors and business managers at the leading college papers. Ask them what new stuff they’re working on. What worked? What failed and what did they learn?

STEP 2: DOCUMENT WHAT YOU LEARN
Write a report: Open a new file. Name it “Change the Future.” Start chapters for news and business. Within news, create sections for print, digital, mobile, and social newsroom structure. Within business, create sections for revenue, expenses, marketing, sales, and distribution. Write out everything you learn along the way. This will become the background document supporting your plan.

Start a team: Find your smartest, most committed students in news and business and assign them a chapter to research and write.

Set a schedule: Pick a date that’s three months off. This is when your report is due.

STEP 3: PLAN, THEN ACT
Strategy: Now, the fun part. Set up a work session with your team on a Saturday. Order pizza. Grab all the Post-It notes in the office. Set up in front of a white board. Start with big, broad topics. What’s your mission and core purpose? And what kind of structure and culture do you need to deliver on those? Give your team 48 hours to finish the first draft strategy for news and business.

Get advice: Share your draft around the newsroom and with your faculty and alumni. Write out what you hear.

Revise, revise, then go: Give yourself another three-month deadline to collect feedback and tweak your strategy.

Launch day: When you’re done, pick a launch date to put your strategy into action. Plan a party for your staff and readers. You’ve earned it.

Ryan Frank is the former president of Emerald Media Group, the nonprofit student media company at the University of Oregon. He blogs at http://ryanfrank.io/