Student newspapers: Don't be afraid to break the rules

At the end of last year,  Emily Kostic (web editor of Rowan University's The Whit) wrote a blog post about New Years Resolutions for college newspapers. A few things struck me on that list:

  • #5 Get away from College Publisher
  • #6 …and in the process go Web First
One I'd like to add to Emily's list is: Don't be afraid to break the rules. These days, that's the only way to make it in this industry.

Getting away from College Publisher

That's right: I said it.  After a recent conference call with Adam Hemphill and Miles Skorpen of CoPress, it's official. The Mustang Daily is switching to Wordpress.

The switch away from College Publisher is something I've wanted for the Mustang Daily since before I was even a student at Cal Poly. Not that College Publisher is bad; it's a great starting point for newspapers who are trying to learn the dynamics of the Web. We used to be that paper. Now we get it. Now we're ready for new things. We're ready to generate our own revenue and move on.

Plus, Wordpress is open-source. College Publisher is far from it.  If we want to make changes, we have a world of developers to turn to. With College Publisher, change comes in the form of submitting a query to their support team.  That makes it less than easy to be innovative.

This summer I started seriously considering Wordpress as a CMS and built a mockup. But there's a huge difference between saying, "This is what I want to do," and actually doing it

Our former online editor created a Joomla mockup last year, just as I had done with the Wordpress, and after getting the "Ok!" from our general mananger, his plans went nowhere.

Why? Fear. Fear of not being able to pass down an open-source CMS to future online editors. Fear of failing. 

That was the same concern that came up when I proposed the idea of moving to Wordpress. 

To me, it's a non-issue. If my future replacement doesn't "know" the system, then he/she has to learn it.

We've all been new to it at one point. The fear of learning something new is possibly what got the journalism industry in the position it's in now.

After news that CoPress would start hosting college newspapers, I had the final push the editor-in-cheif and I needed to convince our general manager that we're done with College Publisher.

It's really a great deal: cheap hosting (off-campus, so we don't have to follow strict ADA rules and pay the school for space), a support network (so that we're not relying only on me), and a solid relationship with leaders in college journalism. 

Tentative plans set our launch date for March 14.  Cross your fingers for us. We couldn't be more excited. 

Structural changes to the Mustang Daily

With our big redesign come huge structural changes. With College Publisher, we were limited to posting stories based on the date of our print issue (although, to be fair, CP5 has improved).  With Wordpress, we're ready to move to a 24-hour news cycle where we're posting news continuously.

Even if your newspaper isn't planning a major overhaul, you should still consider ending your shovelware methods. 

It's what your readers expect from you. Most students are getting their news online from the local paper, CNN, NYTimes, etc. They're used to getting news updates all day long, and it shouldn't be any different with a college newspaper. News doesn't stop during the day just because the print issue isn't done.

Of course, the change isn't as simple as posting news updates throughout the day. The way our process is structured requires copy editors to come in around 5 p.m. to start reading over stories. With their red pens, they sit at a table and edit stories that have been printed out.

Hours are wasted between the first Word Doc printout and the flat printout. Copy editors aren't done with the final changes until 10 p.m. each night (which is when I post the stories. That's just wrong). 

 I have a few problems with this method:

  • Why are the copy editors only coming in at night? Future (meaning this spring or summer) structural changes to the Daily will require copy editors on duty all day long to edit stories as they come in.  
  • During a time when the Web dominates the news industry, why is it our last priority? The web should always be the number one priority on every editor's list. Not a place to dump stories that don't fit in print or an after-thought at the end of the night. And while most editors tend to agree, they sure have a hard time putting it into practice.  
  • Why do copy editors need to use a red pen on a printed Word Doc? What about a little thing called a computer? Editing on paper seems so primitive.  Slowly, the Mustang Daily staff has started using Google Docs for assigning article and photo assignments. And Wordpress makes editing articles online even simpler. As Greg Linch wrote on the CoPress Blog, stories can be edited on Wordpress, rather than through multiple Word Doc revisions. This means the copy editors don't have to come into the newsroom to copy edit. All they need is a computer and internet access.  
  • Also, as Greg notes, when print designers are ready to layout their pages, they simply pull the already-copy edited versions of the articles from the CMS.  It saves time and everyone wins.

Breaking an age-old tradition

Another way the Mustang Daily is breaking the rules this quarter is through implementing a "track" system for our reporters.

Because the Mustang Daily reporters are enrolled in a class (taught by student editors), they get credit for writing. So the syllabus is structured like any other class: you do a little of everything so you can be "well rounded."

Traditionally, it's always (and I mean forever) worked this way-- Each quarter (10 weeks) every Mustang Daily reporter writes:

  • Four news stories
  • Four arts stories
  • Three sports stories
  • One feature story (1,000+ words) 
  • An opinion piece
  • + four miscellaneous (from any section) 
  • Last year, we added a multimedia requirement to that list. Starting in summer 2008, it jumped to two multimedia pieces.

But now we're breaking the rules. We're switching it up. Reporters are now on a track system, which works like beats. We have sports writers, news writers, arts writers and general reporters. Each reporter will do two multimedia pieces for their respective tracks.

The system is seemingly common-sense. Reporters build up their contacts in their tracks and get story leads. They get the kind of experience they'd have in a real newsroom.

We made the switch because we had crap stories for our sports section. Reporters who knew/understood sports couldn't write for the section because they had to fulfill news/arts requirements, and news/arts writers who knew nothing about sports were trying to cover soccer games. It doesn't work that way.

Yet somehow, for uncountable years, the system continued. Not because it worked, but out of fear of change. Because the world supposedly wanted journalists who could cut out diverse clips to paste into their portfolios.

Well the industry is changing. Physical clips don't exist (or at least they shouldn't). Students need experience that reflects the real industry as close as possible. College newspapers need to mirror those industry changes, or even better -- come up with innovative changes the professional industry hasn't yet.

I challenge you to look at aspects of your newspaper that have always been the same, and ask yourself if those strategies still work. And even if you think they do work, come up with ways to make them work better.

Change is the only way to win. Are you up for it?