Editor’s note: Mark Plenke wrote a message on the College Media Adviser’s Listserv about the transition to an online-only publication at Normandale CC. I invited him to revise and expand his comments and share them with readers who don’t have access to the listserv. This is the result. – Bryan
Editors at the Lions’ Roar, the student paper at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn., decided last spring to drop their print edition and go totally online. The decision was difficult because the paper had published continuously since the school opened in the late ‘60s and had a good reputation and a loyal audience among faculty and staff.
The editors had noticed, though, that there just weren’t enough reporters, editors and photographers to do a consistently good job of putting out both a print newspaper and a website. They’d also noticed that the number of newspapers they were recycling was getting bigger despite a dynamic redesign and stepped up efforts at social-media marketing.
So they pulled the plug.
Here’s what happened and what we’ve learned:
- There were complaints, both during the informal public-comment period last spring when they made the decision and this fall when the news racks stayed empty as school started. But we didn’t hear from a single student; a few faculty said they missed the print paper.
- The students and I did a good job of letting people know what was happening, including a campaign that used the empty racks (Can’t find a paper?–look online!) to promote the switch.
- Readership went WAY up. The number of unique visitors to the site is triple what it was last May. The comparison I like the most: Lions’ Roar used to print 2,000 papers and close to half were recycled. In the first full month of school this fall, the website had 2,893 unique visitors and comparable numbers for October (2,821).
- The key to success was giving up the student fee money that would have been used for printing (about $7,500 a year) to secure a promise of weekly access to the database of student email accounts. The webmaster now sends a weekly update of what’s on the website to every student email box, and we publish the same hyperlinked mini-home page to an employee portal so staff has one-click access to the site.
- The biggest growing pain was getting students to understand that they weren’t putting out a paper every three weeks anymore, that news had to be covered, reported and posted in a hurry (still working on that one, but it’s gotten a lot better lately).
- Many more slideshows and video stories are being produced now. It’s no longer a medium for feature stories only.
- Writers are using more web-friendly forms, especially lists.
- Blogs have replaced columnists, a really good change in terms of the writing. It’s much tighter and brighter.
- Students are thinking more visually because it’s the best way to get a story promoted on the home page.
- Happily, a few advertisers (but none of the national agencies, unfortunately) have decided to go online with the paper.
- The one minus has been the loss of social time when layout night disappeared, but we’ve started scheduling staff events (a pizza-and-pop party in the office this week, for example) to help replace it.
I’m biased, but I think it’s fair to say the change was a big success. The site has three times as many visitors as it did last spring and at least a thousand more readers than the print paper had each month. I also think the staff is being served well because they’ve learned to report news when it’s still news and they’re broadening the professional skills they’ll need to find a job when they’re done with school.