Future of College Media: How can student newspapers avoid going under?

This post is the first in a series of 10 about the future of collegiate journalism, focusing on specific projects undertaken by members of college journalists around the country. This post focuses on how collegiate newspapers can stay financially solvent in a depressed market for advertisements.

Financially, the Nevada Sagebrush is in a very different position then it was when I was initially hired. My first semester at the paper saw a paid staff of about 20 people, which was actually less than it’s heyday in the late 2000’s when the paper employed about 30 people. Now, it employees 11 paid staff members. These cuts to staff, pages in the print product and amount of content are all related to one issue: funding. The future of independent collegiate journalism is dependent on finding a reliable source of funding in order to continue operations.

By far, the Sagebrush isn’t the only college newspaper facing financial difficulties. Advertising, which most college publications rely on almost entirely, is following in the footsteps of professional news organizations and falling by the wayside. From North Dakota to UCONN to student papers in the United Kingdom, revenue shortfalls and budget cuts are the new norm in on-campus publications.

Some student organizations are taking the route that the Daily Illini did earlier this month, and pushing for increases or creation of student fee subsidies. After announcing a several hundred thousand dollar debt, the DI turned to “fundraising and other alternative sources,” including a fundraising letter by alumnus Roger Ebert, who got his start at the DI. According to this article, the fees will contribute about $120,000 a semester, or about 11-12 percent of their budget.

The positives of this move are clear: staff members get paid, the paper doesn’t lose anymore content and the organization can focus on better ways to report, rather than fundraising and riding out economic downturns. The negatives, however, might be less obvious. For one, student governments are notoriously fickle and very willing to cut funding or pressure reporters to not report on negative or unproductive activity. Earlier this month, the Student Government Association at Fort Hays State cut the funding for the student newspaper (The Union Leader) by more than half, citing decreased readership as proof. Just today, I spoke to an ASUN senator-elect who told me that many of his peers were interested in pulling any type of funding from the Sagebrush. Although it’s a steady source of funding, student fees in some cases lead to more trouble than they’re worth.

That being said, it’s better to survive and deal with spiteful student governments than it is to die out completely. Grants for college papers are next to nonexistent, and alumni donations aren’t regular or high enough to rely on. A question worth asking is how to interpret college media; namely, is it a business (and thus should be treated as such), or is it a learning opportunity for beginning college students? Even though staff members and Ebert advertised fundraising for the Daily Illini as helping to continue an institution which has produced a large number of quality journalists, the money raised still goes to Illini Media, the student media company which owns the DI.

I’ll be honest: college newspapers vary too much in size and quality to recommend a ‘one size fits all’ approach to righting their financial ships. The only advice I can confidently offer is to diversify. Larger organizations like the Daily Illini use a combination of donations, advertising revenue and student fees to stay in the black. But smaller newspapers such as the Sagebrush or the Union Leader in Fort Hays, relying on one source, as they’ve done in the past, is potentially fatal.

PR conference not only for PR students

The University of Nevada, Reno chapter of PRSSA (Public Relations Student Society of America) is hosting a large, 3-day regional conference in about two weeks, called “Bringing New Energy to PR.” Although the focus of the event is public relations, the planned workshops are useful for anyone in journalism, communications or interested in building their own personal brand. The planned conference activities include networking tips, working with journalists, internship workshops and a keynote speech by Alice Heiman, a local management consultant and sales coach. Tickets to the event are discounted to $50 for Nevada students, and sign ups are available on their website.

Even though I’ve jokingly called PR the “dark side” of journalism, in some ways I’ve begun to see the advantages of advertising one’s own work, and reaching out to potential audiences. In the past, newspaper writers would focus solely on producing content and not worry about how content was delivered or received. That’s the past. Online, writers have to be able to reach out, form connections, and take an active role in building an audience. From what I’ve seen from PRSSA, it appears that they’ve got the issue, and know which lessons to teach and which strategies to promote in order to help understand and be successful in a new journalism world.

Below is the letter sent out to students by PRSSA VP, Lindsay Panko:

Hello everyone,
My name is Lindsay Panko, I am the Vice President of PRSSA in the Journalism School. We are planning a BIG conference in 2 weeks, April 12-15, that we think you and your clubs would really enjoy. It’s called Bringing New Energy to PR, but don’t let the name fool you. This conference is NOT just about Public Relations. It’s about how to market yourselves in a job world that isn’t ideal. We have incredible speakers on topics like social media, networking, resume building, crisis communications and so much more.
We’re offering a special Nevada student price of $50. This registration price gets you dinner at our big Welcome Reception, breakfast, tours of local agencies and marketing departments, several sessions and workshops, keynote speaker Alice Heiman, possibly a second keynote speaker from New York, and invaluable networking experience with local professionals, Nevada students and students from across the west coast. 

We are also offering an internship with the 2022 Winter Games Coalition this summer. Details about the internship can be found on our website, but resumes need to be sent to newenergy2pr@gmail.com by this Friday, March 30th. If you or your club members are interested, make sure you apply before the deadline. Interviews will happen during the conference- but this opportunity is only available to conference attendees.

We hope that you’ll register and come learn more about how to make yourself the best possible professional you can be. I am sending you each this email because I believe that you and your clubs would greatly benefit from some of these workshops. As a Club Commissioner for Arts, Business and Education, I’ve talked to many of you about expanding your clubs and reaching out to a different audience. This conference can help. 

Please pass on this information to your members and let me know if you have any questions. I’d be happy to answer them. You can register at www.PRSSANevada.com; make sure you get the Nevada Student price! You can find the conference on Facebook atfacebook.com/newenergytopr or follow us on twitter at @NewEnergy2PR, #iheartPR.

Thanks for your interest! I really hope you will all be joining us. 

Lindsay Panko
University of Nevada, Reno
PRSSA Vice President
Twitter: @LindsayPanko
Cell: 775.741.1679

Top 3 reasons why joining a fraternity/sorority makes you a better journalist

Although I began college extremely wary of fraternity life last semester, I decided to jump into Greek Life at the University of Nevada, Reno. I decided to pledge Phi Delta Theta fraternity, and I can honestly say that it’s one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made (next to coming to college and never, ever attempting to watch Glee.) But while being in a fraternity has it’s obvious social benefits, I’ve come to notice a number of advantages for journalists that I’ve either seen or been able to take advantage of. I’ve listed the top three below:

1. Connections: One thing I’ve noticed about journalism majors, especially those in the print track, is that they tend to stick together with people in their major. While it can be helpful for j-school students to work together, it does narrow the kinds of viewpoints and story ideas you can get from other people. Joining a Greek Life organization puts you in close contact with anywhere between 50-100 members coming across a wide range of majors, political and social beliefs and different clubs and organizations. In the few months that my fraternity life intersected my time at the Sagebrush, I found out about a former member running for the Nevada State Assembly as well as an active member who fit perfectly into a story about students re-enrolling after dropping out of school. Although being in an organization with members who are highly involved in student government and on-campus clubs has the potential to limit the amount of reporting a student can do, the wide variety and number of story ideas available are well worth the cost.

2. Social Skills: As funny as it sounds, many of the journalism majors in college can have a difficult time transitioning into a more professional role, especially when it comes to an effective demeanor and interviewing skills. While you’ll spend a lot of time in Greek Life acting casually, there are plenty occasions where professional attire and manners are utterly necessary, from formal dances to meet-and-greets with well-connected alumni. For the most part, holding a position in a Greek organization is very similar to the role of a community organizer, with different philanthropy events and community service to plan and organize. These skills are easily transferable to the more PR-y aspect of journalism, especially in regards to advertising your work and finding a reader base. Participating in a social with a sorority or working at a community service event gives you an opportunity to work on later interviewing skills and ease with people, before actually having to use those skills to cover a story.

3. Entering a huge network: A few months ago, I was speaking to UNR President Marc Johnson about the Main Station Farm controversy after an ASUN Senate meeting, and after the interview he commented on the fraternity jacket I was wearing. As it turns out, Johnson is a member of Phi Delta Theta as well, and actually helped establish a chapter at Emporia State University in Kansas. Although this conversation lasted briefly, it undoubtedly made an impression on me and most likely Johnson, and in the future he’ll be more likely to remember me. Although I joined a 164-year-old fraternity, just about any Greek Letter organization has plenty of influential members working in a wide variety of industries; this is advantageous in opening doors or creating an instant connection with not only members of a certain society, but just about any. I’ve recently been getting into LinkenIn, which contains professional groups for both local chapters and national organizations, all with different job postings and people ranging from aviation to Indian gambling.

Did the ASUN Elections Commission possibly nullify the elections?

The Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Reno elections opened today, and just like last year, the main thrust of the Elections Commission has been to get students to vote online through Webcampus. I’ll have interviews with 3 of the 4 executive candidates up sometime today, but before I do that, I’d like to point out something potentially devastating for the student government.

Students who go to vote on Webcampus today and tomorrow will see 3 options for ASUN President: Huili Weinstock, Richard Corn and None of the Above. It’s the same for Vice-President as well. While it seems like a non-issue, this same situation happened during the 2008 elections, which quickly turned ugly.

Quick history lesson: In 2008, incumbent President Eli Reilly ran against former Sen. Carmen Gilbert in a heated race. A Nevada Sagebrush endorsement article received more than 100 comments in about three days, and the election process was rife with mistakes and legal violations. Reilly defeated Gilbert by 11 votes, but the Elections Commission put a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot, which 23 voters chose, which Gilbert argued placed neither candidate at a majority and nullified the election.

The ASUN Election Code states in Chapter 502, Section 15, letter E that:

NONE OF THE ABOVE: An option of “None of the Above” shall be placed at the bottom of the
ballot for each Senate college. In the event of this option receiving more votes than a candidate,
the candidate with the next highest amount of votes shall be elected.

Notice that the SAS doesn’t say anything about non-Senate ballots. Barring several hundred students voting for “None of the Above” in the executive races (which the Sagebrush apparently wants, according to their endorsement), their votes won’t mean anything. And if a situation like the one 2008 happens again with a close race, ASUN will go through the same circus that it did four years ago and once again possibly nullify the election.

Even though I doubt this election will be as close as the 2008 process, the fact remains that both situations are set up similarly, leading to a possibility of potential election violations. Any student who votes for “None of the Above” immediately is in a tricky legal spot.

Although it’s appalling that the ASUN Senate hasn’t really clarified this issue in the SAS, the blame lies on the shoulders of the extremely high turnover rate in all ASUN offices. Any organization with such short institutional knowledge is bound to repeat the mistakes of the past, barring proactive efforts by members. Evidently, they haven’t.


The Sagebrush is reporting the same thing, as well as issues with an incorrect number of senators to vote for. The article says:

The mistake could mean a run-off election for the colleges if the error alters the results, according to a statement from ASUN. More than 35 students from each college voted during the three-hour window. The margin of victory over the only losing College of Liberal Arts senator last year was 28 votes.

Why accuracy in graphs is paramount

Last night, the Associated Students of the University of Nevada, Reno student senate passed a bill that would about double their yearly pay, much to the chagrin of commenters on the Nevada Sagebrush website and Facebook page. ASUN officials have defended the bill as a necessary way to decrease senate inactivity and apathy, with students countering with failures to stop tuition hikes and other senate failures isn’t a reason to give themselves a raise.

I’ll leave my personal opinion out of this for the time being, because there’s another issue that I want to address with the Sagebrush’s coverage of the event. In last Tuesday’s issue, a graph appeared along with a story on the proposed hike, which I’ve posted below:

There’s one rather large issue with this graph: it doesn’t equally increment the scale on the left, which leads the proposed increase to look smaller than it actually is. After a comment deriding the poor judgment was made by cartoonist and illustrator Paul Horn, the Sagebrush changed the graph to be more accurate, which was put together by Horn:

It’s immediately obvious how much of a change that this pay increase makes when presented this way. Professional designer Charles Apple goes over this problem of misrepresenting information in graphs within his own blog on a seemingly weekly basis, and it is definitely a problem. Journalists have a responsibility to accurately present information not only in stories, but also in a visual manner. There was no reason for the other graph’s y-axis to be structured in the way that is was, as it cuts out about a $1000 worth of graph points; nearly the exact change proposed by the Senate. In the future, I’d like to see the Sagebrush put more of an emphasis on making sure that their graphs and information are accurate, rather than stories about erectile dysfunction or a Humans vs. Zombies game.

The right (and wrong) way to present Raggio’s funeral

Last month, the highly influential and well known former state senator Bill Raggio passed away. University of Nevada, Reno students know Raggio through the building named after him, and a memorial inside the Reno-Tahoe International Airport. Raggio’s funeral was held yesterday, and attendees included Governor Brian Sandoval, a U.S. Senator, members of the state’s Supreme Court and dozens of important legislative leaders.

Both the Reno Gazette-Journal and Daily Sparks Tribune decided to play the funeral coverage huge on their respective front pages, to varying degrees of success. Both pages are below:

Although both papers used similar shots of the Honor Guard carrying Raggio’s casket, it’s immediately apparent that the layout of RGJ is more eye-catching simply because it gives the art and stories attached more room to breath. The RGJ’s cover is very centered, and the banner below the nameplate is a nice, subtle touch.

The DST cover, however, is a bit more muddled. There’s two small photos of Raggio and Sandoval which add nearly nothing, and the huge cutout of a softball player along with the cartoon of Rush Limbaugh distract from the main package. Even though there’s only 2 stories on the DST cover, compared to the three on the RGJ, the later’s cover seems to present the funeral in a more serious manner.

Will Gannett’s new paywall hurt the RGJ?

Although the news is mildly old now, Gannett Company announced that all of their websites would shift to a delayed paywall for all of it’s websites by the end of the year, similar to the one adopted by the New York Times a few years ago. Although USA Today will be exempt from the change, the paywall will affect all 80 plus community newspaper owned by the company, including the Detroit Free Press, The Indianapolis Star and the Reno Gazette-Journal.

Putting aside the business side, this is huge news for media consumers in Washoe County, because the RGJ is really the only publication doing real investigative and quality news journalism in the area. The Daily Sparks Tribune has a minuscule online presence and little original content, Reno News and Review is focused more on entertainment and other ‘light’ news, and the Nevada Appeal already has a paywall in place.

So in a way, the RGJ has a kind of monopoly on local news in Reno, which means theoretically that the paywall should work out for both the paper and Gannett, which expects an estimated $100 million in new revenue from the system. Gannett is also allowing changes to be made on a local level.  But when I emailed journalism professor David Ryfe about the upcoming paywall, he expressed some doubts about how the system would work.

… I don’t know if it will work.  But I’m deeply skeptical that it will, mainly because I don’t think it will generate enough revenue to offset the declines in advertising that will accompany the paywall.

So the real question here for the RGJ is whether the organization can convince it’s readers, who are mainly older professionals, that paying for their news is worth it. Experiments in other Gannett-owned newspapers have worked relatively well, as a casually optimistic post from the Neiman Journalism Lab points out. When I spoke to members of the RGJ staff last week during a summer internship interview, they seemed positive that their online presence could turn a paywall into a profitable endeavor.

While it’s extremely difficult to make a prediction, I think the RGJ will work it out in the end if only because they are the main source for news in Northern Nevada, and without quality free alternatives, they should succeed.