Campus Newspapers: Withstanding the Journalism Digital Crisis

By Maggie Eastland

Eastland cover image

Photo by Maggie Eastland

When I arrived on the Notre Dame campus this August, I noticed something that I had not seen a single time all summer—a printed newspaper. The Observer student newspaper was littered throughout the campus. In an era when journalism is shifting production to online media and websites, the prevalence of the printed newspaper on Notre Dame’s campus seemed like a step back in time. A bit of a technophobe myself, I relished reading the printed newspaper; however, I couldn't help but wonder why this campus newspaper had not been swallowed by online media like its mainstream paper counterparts. Is there some advantage campus papers have over mainstream papers that allows them to thrive, or are these printed copies simply prolonging their inevitable extinction? The answer to this question is important for college students involved in the campus newspaper, future journalists, and even current journalists who can learn from the unique situation of the campus newspaper. Despite the ever-changing journalism industry, the campus newspaper, both online and in-print, finds more success than the traditional newspaper because it caters to a specific audience, reaps the benefits of an advertising advantage, serves an educational purpose that encourages donations, and maintains readership by offering papers for free and highlighting local, personal news stories. For these reasons, campus newspapers will continue to thrive, though with some integration of new technology mediums.

In the past few decades, mainstream news has taken a huge hit to profit. Pew Research Center shows that advertising and circulation revenues have dropped steeply since 2006 with very little revenue coming from printed papers (Barthel) and employment in U.S. newsrooms has dropped by half between 2008 and 2019 (Grieco). Despite these industry trends, campus newspapers don’t seem to be laying off staff or reducing circulation at the same drastic rate. In fact, according to Rutgers journalism professor Steve Miller, Alloy Media+Marketing New York “found that 82% of students read their campus newspaper, a rate that more than doubles most major metro dailies” (Miller 10). Despite a need for additional, more recent studies, Miller’s work on campus newspapers sharply contrasts the trends shown by Pew Research Center’s data for mainstream papers, leading to the conclusion that campus newspapers have some inherent advantage over mainstream newspapers.

Several factors set campus newspapers apart and allow them to continue successful circulation. First, college campuses are composed of a very particular audience. Every student on a college campus is pursuing higher education, meaning they have already displayed a thirst for knowledge and an interest in the world. Naturally, this population will be more inclined to read the news, and thus, advertisers are more likely to pay for ads in the campus paper. Data from the Pew Research Center demonstrates how newspaper readership increases as individuals reach higher levels of education. The study compared the readership of high school graduates, those who completed some college, college graduates, those who completed some post graduate, and post graduates from 1999 to 2006. Although readership as a whole sloped downward, findings showed that a higher level of education correlated to higher levels of readership (“Daily Newspaper Readership by Education”). This conclusion suggests one possible reason that college newspapers have survived longer than mainstream papers -- campus newspapers have a concentrated audience of active, engaged individuals who have already chosen the path to higher education. Miller’s study corroborates this evidence for the college newspaper, finding that “more than half (55%) of students reported reading the newspaper in the last week, and close to 30% reported reading every issue” (Miller 10). Journalism scholars Jeremy Lipschultz and Michael Hilt confirm Miller’s findings in their work Predicting Newspaper Readership on the Campus Community. After conducting a phone survey of 402 respondents, some students, some teachers, and some employees, Lipschultz and Hilt concluded that a large majority, “92.0% of students, 97.9% of faculty, and 94.1% of staff reported reading the community daily newspaper” (Lipschultz & Hilt 1052). Based on these numbers, the researchers also noticed that individuals with more education were more likely to read the paper (Lipschultz & Hilt 1053), further proving data from the Pew Research Center. Although the report was compiled in 1999, the data still depicts the high level of readership on college campuses today, especially given the fact that electronic and other media were available to students and professors during that time. Taken together, the Pew Research Center data and the evidence of high readership from Lipschultz, Hilt, and Miller show that the specific audience available on a college campus contributes to the continued success and high readership levels of campus newspapers.

This engaged, filtered audience makes it easier for the paper to maintain strong readership; however, it also helps the campus paper make more revenue through advertising. Miller mentions how only 13% of college students reported avoiding advertisements and 80% of students actually report responding to ads (Miller 10). This research suggests that access to a targeted audience, such as a specific group of college students, strongly appeals to advertisers. Despite their limited income, college students are still large spenders, making them an attractive market to advertisers. Additionally, many companies seek to advertise to college-age communities because they are brand-loyal, geographically stable, and responsive to ads (“Marketing to College Students”). Knowing such a high percentage of readers will notice and respond to advertisements, companies are naturally more willing to pay for ads in campus newspapers. Based on published advertising rates for The Observer, national companies are willing to pay up to $1240 for a full-page printed ad and up to $12 per thousand page views for an online ad (“Rate Card 2019-2020” 3). In contrast, ad revenues for mainstream newspapers have dried up as companies turn to other avenues of Internet advertising, which provide a larger audience and more opportunities to target specific consumers (Kuttner). Campus newspapers, on the other hand, still have some appeal for advertisers over alternate Internet ads because they guarantee the ad will reach a specific population of college students. The combination of a targeted audience and high level of readership helps campus papers remain afloat while traditional papers, facing a much broader, less specified audience, rapidly lose ad revenue and subscription fee profits. Advertisers realize that college students still read the newspaper, and many want to access that specific audience; thus, campus newspapers benefit from these ad revenues and maintain strong circulation.

On top of the concentrated audience, high level of readership, and potential for advertising, campus newspapers have yet another advantage over traditional newspapers that is a direct result of their role in journalism education. While most academics agree that the modes of journalism are changing, many hold fast to the idea that what characterizes good journalism remains unmoved. In his discussion on adapting journalistic education to meet new technologies, journalism academic Martin Hirst contends that while social media skills help a journalist succeed, writing, editing, note-taking, and interviewing skills are still essential (Hirst 447). These critical skills are best formulated and practiced by learning how to write for an actual newspaper. As Roger Pace, Ph.D., of the Communication Studies Department at the University of San Diego is quoted in a University Wire Article, “the best of the online news sources are staffed by trained reporters who were schooled in journalism and ethics at daily papers” (“Fewer Newspapers on Campus”). This quote suggests that the use of print journalism on college campuses is a necessary step that allows students to apply traditional journalistic practices and principles in future digital jobs. For example, the strict deadlines, formatting, and finality of a printed newspaper teach journalism students valuable lessons and skills that can be applied in non-traditional journalism jobs. Maria Leontaras, Editor-In-Chief for The Observer highlights the fact that newspapers “serve as an excellent way for students to learn about journalism and hone their skills if they are looking to pursue a career in the field after graduation” (Leontaras). Leontaras, Pace, and Hirst all reach a similar consensus that the educational aspects of the campus newspaper are very important, suggesting another reason for the campus newspaper’s success. The learning opportunity presented by print newspapers as well as their ability to leave an important historical record (Leontaras) provide another reason for their continued success and point to another source of revenue generated by donors who want to support the education of future journalists.

While students learn valuable lessons from writing and editing a print newspaper, opportunities for students to practice digital media journalism should not be overlooked, especially since Generation Z, the generation of students in high school and college right now, rely heavily on social media for their news. As one article claims, “a stunning 82% of Gen Z and younger Millennials include among their primary sources Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Buzzfeed, Instagram, Snapchat and their desktop feed” (Myers). A recent journal article on the news habits of Generation Z confirms Myers’s conclusion by proposing that “Gen Z’s are interested in news and follow news, even though they principally access it through social media” (Click & Schwartz 7). Ignoring the high demand for online news from the college population would be a missed opportunity for the campus newspaper. At the University of Notre Dame, The Observer capitalizes on both print and digital circulation by releasing a printed newspaper three times per week, posting all printed stories on their website, and highlighting top stories on Instagram in conjunction with every print release (Leontaras). Additional evidence shows that campus newspapers such as The Observer once again beat traditional newspapers when it comes to success in the online news sphere.

Research on the use of digital journalism, specifically Twitter, on college campuses shows that campus newspapers are adapting more smoothly than traditional newspapers. Twitter investigators Kris Boyle and Carol Zuenger analyzed the Twitter pages of 25 award-winning campus newspapers, filtering results to determine the “frequency, content, and interactivity of the tweets” (Boyle & Zuenger 12). Unlike mainstream papers, the number of tweets from campus news organizations was strongly correlated with the number of followers, showing that Twitter journalism is more effective on college campuses than it is in mainstream media (Boyle & Zuegner 16). While mainstream newspapers release tweet after tweet, their following does not grow in response. Campus newspapers, on the other hand, face a very responsive audience, gaining more followers the more frequently they tweet. This once again suggests a fundamental difference between audiences, and shows that the active audience on the college campus engages with both printed campus newspapers and digital campus news. In addition, the researchers found that Tweet frequency was positively correlated to publication frequency, implying that newspapers build their Tweets around their print papers (Boyle & Zuegner 16). This style of online journalism mirrors The Observer’s Instagram posting schedule and supports the claim that paper journalism skills supersede into non-print media, adding value to the campus newspaper. While campus newspapers might begin to use more digital tools, they still experience much greater success with these online platforms than mainstream newspapers due to their targeted audience. Many colleges manage a respectable paper circulation in addition to regular posts on their website, Instagram, and Twitter pages. This development and evidence from Boyle and Zuenger implies that the fundamental advantages of a campus newspaper—audience and educational value—impact both print and digital news formats. For most schools, including Notre Dame, that print newspaper still serves as the centering and grounding force from which digital media arise.

One more key difference between campus newspapers and mainstream newspapers is that campus newspapers are free, or at least not charged for by issue, and stocked around every corner on campus while traditional newspapers require a subscription fee. This means that campus newspapers have to make up even more revenue in advertising and donations in order to offset the free papers. In recent years, the prevalence of social media and online news has tended the narrative that news should be free, but this idea remains somewhat unrealistic. After all, printing papers and paying staff naturally costs a lot of money. Despite the inherent costs of producing a newspaper, evidence shows that college students consider subscription costs a barrier to entry in reading traditional newspapers. After all, why would college students pay for a New York Times subscription when they can simply catch up on all the current events via their Twitter feed? If traditional newspapers were free at the time of reading, like campus newspapers, students would be much more likely to read and engage with them. One survey conducted at the Rochester Institute of Technology mentions how “about 140 colleges in the United States and Canada are experimenting with providing papers to college students” through the College Readership Program in order to boost readership of national news on college campuses (Williams 25). An article published in The Chronicle of Higher Education explores this movement in greater detail through the examination of a specific case study of the College Readership Program at the University of San Diego. The journal article, titled “Free Newspapers Prompt Boom in Campus Readership,” describes how President Graham B. Spanier “arranged to stock the dormitories at all nine residential campuses with open distribution racks carrying the New York Times, USA Today, and the local newspaper” (Reinsberg). The costs are offset by an additional $13 added to room and board costs, and college students now read the mainstream news more often than ever. As the article quantifies, “nearly three-quarters of students read one of the three commercial daily newspapers regularly, at least in part because of their availability” (Reinsberg). This specific example shows that college students take an interest in news; however, the costs of print newspapers present a strong incentive not to read, especially when most news can be sourced for free via social media. This highlights yet another difference between campus and mainstream newspapers that accounts for the relative success of the campus newspaper. Campus papers are free and readily available while mainstream papers require a subscription fee. Even large news outlets recognize the opportunity presented by the captive audience on a college campus and want to capitalize on the unique situation. Ongoing debate surrounds the Collegiate Readership Program as some schools, such as Vanderbilt University, argue that it will destroy campus newspapers and the opportunities they provide for students (Reinsberg). That debate is beyond the scope of this paper; however, the disagreement only testifies to the valuable niche campus newspapers hold and their special advantages in the current news environment.

An article titled “Campus newspapers: hard times, hard choices,” published in the Gateway Journalism Review, highlights this special environment for newspapers, claiming that “the college press has long existed in a kind of alternate universe from the one its commercial counterparts inhabit,” largely due to a concentrated population of educated, involved students (Fiddler). Citing circulation reduction and online shifts at many colleges and universities, the article later argues that this idyllic market for campus news will not last (Fiddler). There is some credibility to the claim that campus newspapers will eventually face the same crisis currently paralyzing traditional newspapers; however, the relatively stable audience demographics, the education-driven approach, and the niche for local news point to the opposite conclusion. While colleges may shift the majority of production to online media, there is no strong evidence to believe that campus newspapers are doomed. Colleges seem to be actually growing more selective in recent years, micro-filtering the audience even further. Additionally, multiple sources contend that Gen-Z’s still have a strong interest in current events despite their changing preference for method of news delivery (Click & Schwartz and Myers). Both of these developments suggest that campus newspapers are not going anywhere. To further disprove the idea that campus newspapers will soon face extinction, the study conducted at the Rochester Institute of Technology finds that college students prefer reading local news in print as opposed to any other type of news (Williams 6). Editor of The Observer, Maria Leontaras emphasizes that the personal appeal of the campus newspaper adds to its popularity, writing in an email interview, “Students also grab physical copies when they are featured in the paper -- families love them” (Leontaras). Since campus newspapers specialize in reporting local campus happenings, the preference for local news in print, presents another reason why campus newspapers will continue to thrive. Finally, the ultimate educational goals of the campus newspaper ensure it will succeed thanks to benefactors and donors who provide the revenue needed to teach students the art of journalism.

Leontaras explains that The Observer receives funding through donations, a small fee added to student costs, and ad revenues both online and in-print (Leontaras). These sources of revenue identify the specific advantages of the campus newspapers for colleges around the nation. First, campus newspapers receive donations because of their educational purpose that mainstream newspapers do not benefit from. In addition, campus newspapers can subtly add a fee to students’ upfront costs so that campus papers are free and accessible at any point during the year. Finally, campus newspapers benefit from a specific, engaged audience that attracts advertisers and increases readership. These advantages and the revenue provided through a unique combination of sources allows The Observer and other student newspapers to remain relevant even as the storm of digital media and declining ad revenues threatens to destroy the outside, real-world newspapers. Understanding these reasons for success will allow current college students who are involved with campus newspapers to continue meeting the needs of their local audience and soliciting supporters for donations in order to preserve the campus newspaper for generations to come. Examining the special case of the campus newspaper and highlighting its causes of success also restores confidence in the campus newspaper’s future for current and future participants and may even provide valuable insight for how traditional newspapers can achieve similar success and stability. For example, mainstream newspapers may want to invest more resources into micro-targeted newspapers to increase readership and create a more attractive audience for advertisers. Traditional newspapers might even attempt to solicit more donations from philanthropists who understand the importance of responsible reporting. Either way, the specific success of the campus newspaper holds important implications for its direct participants and for the journalism industry at large.