How College Media Is Evolving in the Digital Era

In some ways the college media space is a microcosm of the broader media industry, with print versions of college newspapers and yearbooks cutting back or even going away. The main association for college media outlets is tracking and interpreting the trends, seeing value in both print and digital formats.

In any other part of the journalism world, news that Cornell University’s student newspaper will trim its print distribution to just three days a week likely would have been met with shock and disappointment.

But a recent New York Times piece on the cutback featured an interesting quote from College Media Association (CMA) President Kelley Lash,  noting the bright side of what she expects to be a growing trend.

“Most of the time, even if [the change] was driven by finances, it forces innovation, and that’s not a bad thing,” Lash told the Times.

CMA, which assists student media programs and professionals, has seen more schools cutting back on print products, with some universities dropping the print edition of their newspaper entirely, in favor of a digital version. Cost is a factor, but so is the reality that students are entering a media world that is less print-oriented than ever.

Yearbooks Face Challenges

And it’s not only student newspapers. This year, for example, Johns Hopkins University opted not to publish its yearbook, the Hullabaloo, for the first time in 126 years. It was just the latest of many schools in the Baltimore area to drop their printed yearbook.

“I don’t know how people will replace this resource,” James Stimpert, senior reference archivist at Johns Hopkins’ Sheridan Libraries, told the Associated Press. “Even though (the Hullabaloo) was a shell of its former self in recent years, it still was something. It had some photographs, it had some documentation of student clubs and other activities. So going forward, I don’t know how that is going to be documented.”

CMA’s Lash, who serves as Rice University’s yearbook adviser, told the AP that yearbooks have become so slim in recent years that they often don’t include every student’s photo, focusing instead on campus life.

“There’s a lot of prestige to having an old yearbook and having something that is cherished in a way that newspapers and magazines won’t be,” Lash said. “You’re just losing that end-of-the-road piece, especially for seniors.”

Embracing Digital, Respecting Print

In the case of student newspapers, at least, the situation isn’t black and white. In a Columbus Dispatch interview in January, Lash noted that many newspaper shifts have been part of a larger publishing strategy—say, a newspaper drops a daily print edition to bring back a glossy magazine.

“We need to go and put our money where our readers are,” Lash told the Dispatch.

Last month, the issue of print versus digital media was a key discussion point at Ohio University’s Future of Student Media Summit, which featured top student journalists and instructors.

Research from CMA and Borrell Associates, highlighted at the event, showed that students like reading content in print nearly as much as online and that advertisers still find print a far stronger way to reach college students than digital outlets.

One summit attendee, Campus News Publisher Darren Johnson, found the data encouraging.

“So, I left the conference heartened that, yes, print newspapers can have an audience, and it’s a younger audience than what the naysayers would have us think,” Johnson noted in a blog post last week.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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