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The Daily Tar Heel

College newspapers forge a future for journalism


Print products are being phased out, advertising revenue is declining and journalists' graduation from college isn't alleviating the ongoing challenges of reaching full readership.

But as local newspapers are bought out or closed entirely, collegiate papers might have the opportunity to step in and fill the void.

Because of college newspapers' not-for-profit mentality, university papers are in the right circumstances to reinvent and take risks, said Chrissy Beck, the general manager for the Duke Chronicle. 

“I think, most of us that care about journalism are doubling down,” Beck said. “We know we will weather this, and the need for transparent, good journalism is going to be even stronger when we get out of it.”

Staying afloat 

At the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, The Daily Tar Heel cut one day of print. An academic year later, the print product runs three days a week, and the professional staff has been reduced to just one member, the general manager Erica Perel

Matt Queen, the president of The Daily Tar Heel’s Board of Directors, said the DTH had been living outside of its means for the past few years, and the newspaper has recently begun to face these implications. 

“Students graduate, and they pass the problem onto the next students who don't have all the knowledge that was built up over those years," Queen said. 

Penny Abernathy, a professor at UNC’s School of Media and Journalism, said college media must structure a business model focused on the future.

“(Newspapers) need to identify their most critical customer franchises — and when I say customer, I'm talking about reader — and they need to make some tough choices about what resources they have available to them and how they best utilize those resources to serve their community," Abernathy said. 

Unlike professional newspapers, Beck said college media does not have to pay dividends, report back to shareholders or worry about making a profit.

“We're all nonprofits, so we just fit a different financial mindset — just enough to make it work," she said. 

A void to be filled

In 2004, the total newspaper circulation in North Carolina was approximately 1.3 million for daily papers and 1.2 million for weeklies, according to the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. 

Thirteen years later, the numbers looked much different. In 2017, newspaper circulation had fallen to 770,000 for daily papers and 730,000 for weeklies.

Abernathy began looking at newspaper changes nationwide and found local publications were closing entirely or being bought up by large investment firms.

If these papers began to underperform financially, Abernathy explains in her research that the investment firms either sold or closed the paper in its entirety, leaving communities with a local news gap — a gap waiting to be filled by university papers.

“When you have the distress and disarray occurring that has resulted in the loss of almost 2000 newspapers — local newspapers, small and mid-sized newspapers — since 2004, then the role of the college newspaper can potentially become that, of not just informing the college community, but of informing the local community around the college," Abernathy said. 

A laboratory for training

After Sarah Brown’s first year of college, she was the summer State and National Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. At the time, the N.C. General Assembly was in session, sorting through budget negotiations — and she vividly remembers asking herself, ‘How do I even begin to write about the budget?’

“No one was giving me any direction,” Brown said. “I just had to figure it out, and that was an incredible opportunity the DTH gave me to just be sort of thrown into the thick of things.”

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Throughout Brown’s tenure, she contributed to coverage on the aftermath of UNC’s athletic-academic scandal and the resignation of the UNC-system president.

Her time at the DTH also fostered her love for covering higher education — an issue she now pursues at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Queen said the DTH fills an important role in training. 

“I think college media is kind of this laboratory where journalists can learn about what it means to be an independent voice and to serve their local town or their local university,” he said.

Finding the right product with the right attitude 

Beck said many students don’t come into college with the habit of reading a daily print newspaper, and it is important for college newspapers to understand the consumption habits of their readers and utilize online platforms.

“I think it's very obvious to the college students that come to campus that they consume news differently than people did 10-15 years ago, and so you've got to meet them where they are,” Beck said. “If you want them to read the news that we're putting out, you need to put it in a platform where they're going to be.”  

Still, Queen said print editions of the newspaper can be prized after big events.

“When we beat Duke the other day, I had people texting me, ‘Where can I find a Daily Tar Heel?’ because all the boxes they found were empty,” Queen said. “So, I think in that sense, there's this real emotional connection to The Daily Tar Heel.”

Despite changes and cuts, for those in the college newspaper industry, the future is bright.

“(College newspapers) can make decisions that are sort of more in the purest form because we’re doing it for fairness, honesty and telling the truth, and we're doing it for training student journalists,” Beck said. “And these things don't require a lot of money — they just require the right attitude.”

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