By Andrea Behling
WHITEWATER—There’s been big changes at the Badger Herald student-run newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin in the past few years.
Changes that are happening in student newspaper offices across the country in a daring new shift in news delivery.
The Badger Herald has recently implemented a dual staffing structure focused on digital-first delivery, completely reinventing the way its staff thinks about the news.
It’s become what Editor in Chief Katherine Krueger calls the most massive shift in at least the four years she’s been on staff.
“I wasn’t sure if it would work,” said Krueger, who studies journalism and political science at UW-Madison. “But I’ve seen so much good feedback which has really justified the decision for me.”
The paper’s shift included printing bi-weekly instead of daily, putting out two beefier issues a week and constantly uploading content and breaking news to badgerherald.com. The dual staffing structure divides the staff into a print news team and a digital news team.
The idea behind having teams focused on each product, Krueger said, is that both products have different production schedules and methods of delivery. The print staff is constantly thinking about the next print issue and slowing down the news cycle by working on features and investigative pieces. Meanwhile, the online staff focuses on posting breaking news and developing the paper’s online presence.
“I really do think having staffers focus on a digital product allows you to have people who aren’t just kind of putting things online—they’re really thinking about what story would work best in a digital medium and what can be added to the story that’s multimedia,” Krueger said.
The Badger Herald, which is independently run and operated by students, is not alone in this new take on the news. It’s what Poynter’s calling college media 2.0.—student journalists around the country are diving into the unknown and massively reinventing the way they do things and the products they create.
These changes mirror what’s been happening in many professional newsrooms. Yet student journalists have a unique advantage, which also proves to be one of their biggest challenges.
The student newsroom lends a more forgiving environment for trial and error, risky changes and the implementation of structures that have yet to be proven successful. But with this room to explore the digital age comes the challenge of establishing a lasting model and designing correct and useful training.
This can be said about the student newspapers at the 14 four-year universities in the UW System, which have indicated a number of changes to their print and digital products in the past five years.
Print product changes
The EICS from these student newspapers participated in an online survey regarding changes that point toward a new focus on digital-first news delivery.
In the past five years, eight out of the 13* student newspapers have lowered the number of printed copies of the newspaper, including the papers associated with UW-Eau Claire, UW-Green Bay, UW-La Crosse, UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, UW-Oshkosh and UW-Parkside.
Colton Dunham, editor in chief of UW-Milwaukee’s UWM Post student media, might know more than any other UW System student editor how prevalent this change is.
The UWM Post no longer has a print product. It is a completely online-supported student media.
Dunham said there has been many challenges associated with this transition.
“The largest issue in establishing a strong online platform is making former readers aware that the UWM Post is not dead,” Dunham said. “There’s a great number of people who believe that the Post died when the printed version died.”
The Badger Herald has also made a drastic change in its printing schedule. The Herald, which has a circulation higher than 11,000, used to be a daily paper. Now the paper prints twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.
While some of the eight papers made the change for financial reasons, Krueger said the Herald’s printing change had nothing to do with saving money. Krueger said print advertising is still the Herald’s primary source of income.
It was a decision solely based on the changing needs of the paper’s audience and a desire to devote more time to online content.
“It was really a proactive and very conscious, calibrated move to better meet the needs of our readers,” she said. “Students aren’t picking up a daily paper anymore and when news breaks overnight, they’re certainly not waiting to see the headline on the front page tomorrow. People have just been engaging with our online content so much, it’s really been successful.”
In contrast, Megan Hanna has a different perspective as editor in chief of the Fourth Estate at Green Bay.
“As far as we can tell, our students aren’t very interested in looking at the paper online,” Hanna said. “We feel that before we can get online and multimedia materials to take off, we need to focus on rebuilding interest in the paper as a whole, and at this point, that’s best accomplished through print.”
Hiring a new editor
Another change UW System editors have indicated is the hiring of a multimedia or online editor in the past five years. Of the 13 papers that participated in the survey, 12 of them have hired such an editor.
Andrew Reuter was a web editor for The Exponent at UW-Platteville in 2009, when gaining web experience as a student journalist was invaluable experience looking ahead to employment after college.
Today, Reuter is one of two digital content coordinator for The Janesville Gazette in Janesville. Looking back at his time at The Exponent, Reuter said he faced several challenges, including training coworkers and doing more than just shoveling content onto the website.
Reuter said before the position was split into two positions—a web master and web editor—the paper was not focused on the presentation of news online. It was basically just fulfilling the requirements of making sure the Exponent had a website, he said.
“I saw that and I thought there’s an opportunity here to actually be doing more here on the Web,” he said.
A supportive, hands-on adviser helped Reuter in his role as web editor, but Reuter said he still had a hard time to get other coworkers actively working on the paper’s online product.
“I was trying to make a shift to get people to upload there own stories. … Anytime that you pass of that responsibility, management is not easy,” Reuter said.
Now as a digital content coordinator at the Gazette, Reuter still faces challenges with implementing training and helping get the entire staff on board with online news delivery.
“While we’re training people to do this stuff, we have to know for sure that it’s going to be valuable and it’s going to pay off on the business side,” he said. “So there’s always that in the back of your head, are we training people in the right ways, or is this wasting their time?”
Below is a breakdown of the 14 UW System papers and the degree of training the editor in chiefs think their staff has as a whole:
A slow process
Collectively, the UW System papers are taking steps to enhance their digital products, including implementing training in video production, social media management, stories written for the web and interactive graphics.
While these papers are making significant changes, the vast majority have indicated that implementation has been slow and steady.
“It’s been a slow process, but more and more readers are jumping on board … there’s more work to do this summer and into next semester,” said Dunham.
Hanna echoes the thoughts of Dunham.
“Progress on an online platform is slow. Our focus is on the print edition at this time due to the interests and behaviors of our student body,” Hanna said.
Maggie Lawler, EIC of The Ranger News at UW-Parkside, said the paper has made significant positive changes, but they have not found the perfect formula for a print and online balance.
“As much as we will fight to maintain a print paper, we understand the importance of having content on the web,” Lawler said.
Stepping into the unknown
While the many variables student journalists are currently grappling with don’t exactly spell out what the perfect model is yet, one thing is certain in all of this, according to Steve Buttry, a digital transformation editor for Digital First Media.
“Students live digital-first lives. Student media need to become digital-first. They should consider and experiment with new approaches even more vigorously and daringly than professional media,” Buttry said in his article published on the Nieman Journalism Lab.
The students working to create new ways of doing things at student newspapers, like the editors within the UW System, could become some of the journalists that will use their experiences in their student newsrooms to make big decisions for professional news organizations.
“The skills-based, boots on the ground reporting—like how do you react when news it breaking, what tools should you use—all of that has come from my time at the Herald. I consider those my most strong and marketable skills,” Krueger said.
*Jeff Gebert of Stoutonia at UW-Superior did not participate in the second half of the survey. The fourteen student newspapers that participated in this survey are the following:
-Nate Hanninen of The Stinger at UW-Superior
-Martha Landry of The Spectator at UW-Eau Claire
-Megan Hanna of The Fourth Estate at UW-Green Bay
-Nicole Laegeler of The Racquet at UW-La Crosse
-Katherine Krueger of The Badger Herald at UW-Madison
-Abigail Becker of The Daily Cardinal at UW-Madison
-Colton Dunham of The UWM Post at UW-Milwaukee
-Jessica Kuderer of The Advance-Titan at UW-Oshkosh
-Maggie Lawler of The Ranger News at UW-Parkside
-Shelby Le Duc of The Exponent at UW-Platteville
-Amanda White of The Student Voice at UW-River Falls
-Andrew Davis of The Pointer at UW-Stevens Point
-Jeff Gebert of Stoutonia at UW-Stout
-Samantha Jacquest of The Royal Purple at UW-Whitewater