Simpson College’s The Simpsonian is experiencing decreased readership of its printed newspaper. And it is not alone.
Student-run college newspapers across Iowa are feeling familiar newspaper industry trend repercussions, reporting fewer print readers but increased online readership as young readers increasingly get their news from digital sources.
“I honestly don’t think any students on our campus read our newspaper, especially the physical copy,” said Ashley Smith, The Simpsonian’s senior editor in chief. The newspaper bills itself as the oldest continuously published college student newspaper in the United States but seven others in the country – none in Iowa – make that claim, too, the College Media Association blog College Media Matters reported.
“We distribute every Thursday, and I will come around the next Thursday and about the same size stack of papers will be sitting there. If I do see someone reading it, I actually get really excited.”
College newspaper staff members, students and faculty advisors have seen these shifts in recent years:
- The Simpsonian, in Indianola, prints 1,000 copies, compared to the 1,500 printed three years ago.
- The Daily Iowan, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, prints 10,000 papers per day compared to the 20,000 in past years.
- The Iowa State Daily, in Ames, prints 10,000 newspapers, compared to 14,000 five years ago.
- Wartburg College’s The Trumpet, in Waverly, prints 1,000 compared to 1,500 to 1,600 10 years ago.
- Grinnell College’s Scarlet & Black pared its press run from 900 a few years ago to 600 to save on paper its editors said was wasted when people did not pick up editions.
- The Mount Mercy Times, in Cedar Rapids, prints 1,000 compared to 1,200 three years ago.
“I’ve only skimmed the Mount Mercy Times a few times, but I never actually read a full article,” Shelby Malone, 20, a Mount Mercy University sophomore from Central City, Iowa, said. “I think when I get it in my mailbox I’m not interested in reading it right at that moment.”
Christian Hindt, 20, a Mount Mercy University junior from Cedar Rapids, said he goes online because he has an overloaded schedule.
“I occasionally read the school newspaper but when I do it comes down to having the free time, where I am caught up on everything else both in school and at home,” Hindt said. “But I do prefer to get my news online for the fact that its easier access with always being on the go with our current generation. We are always on the move.”
Emily Barske, editor in chief of the Iowa State Daily, said the newspapers have had to adapt.
“What that has meant for us is that our online product has had to attract the younger, college student population so our digital presence has definitely grown,” Barske said.
Bill Casey, publisher of The Daily Iowan in Iowa City, said although the printed newspaper doesn’t have the circulation it once did, online readership is up to 15,000 people per day.
“I don’t think our readership is a lot different than it used to be. It’s just they read in different ways,” Casey said.
AN UNSTOPPABLE TREND
Pamela Orht, executive director of Iowa College Media Association (ICMA) said the trends of college student newspapers are not preventable.
“These trends are obvious and there is no denying it,” Ohrt, an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Wartburg College, said. “There is absolutely an inclination to go to the online product as opposed to having an ‘in your hands’ product. I don’t care how much you defend the print product, it’s going away. I think we can all admit this in this case.”
Joe Sheller, faculty advisor of the Mount Mercy Times, said the Times is at a point where printing fewer copies no longer would not be logical.
“You don’t save any money printing 500 versus 1,000,” Sheller said.
Sheller said part of the reason printed student newspapers still exist is because of their impact on a college community and to be an established printed record that will last. “To fill the role for the university that a community newspaper fulfills for a community: like to alert people of what is going on, hold those in power accountable. And we still attempt to do that. But the culture is shifting away from newspapers.”
LEARNING DIGITAL REPORTING
The Tack, the student digital news outlet at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, was one of the first college-based news organizations in the state to transition to a complete online format in 2012.
Andrea Frantz, professor of digital media at Buena Vista, said readers want news in the quickest way and with an emotional component. “Our students are less interested in the breaking news and like more of the hard hitting, in-depth, long form of story telling,” she said.
The Tack allows students to use translatable skills needed for the available jobs in the industry, Frantz said. “Students cannot get out of here without knowing how to do audio, video, photo, web and traditional writing and research,” she said.
Buena Vista’s journalism students graduate with a complete electronic portfolio and the ability to reach a variety of populations, Frantz said.
“Occasionally we will have people say, and they are typically old-school people, who say, ‘I miss having the print copy in my hands’,” she said. “These tend not to be my students, though, but outside readers who would like to physically pick up the paper.”
Sheller said ignoring the industry trends would be irresponsible but that a printed newspaper is vital when preparing journalism students for that changing industry and the media resources they will use.
“A college newspaper gives such basic experience that can serve a student in so many different forms that it still has logic to it,” he said. “It provides a powerful thing as far as experience. But obviously students are not preparing for the same newspaper careers that existed 10 to 20 years ago.”
The student news organization at Upper Iowa University in Fayette started a strictly online news website two years ago and did away with its printed editions.
Despite that, Matthew Foy, faculty advisor of The UIU Collegian, said a printed newspaper still is important to student journalism because it benefits both the reader and writer.
“It adds legitimacy in the eye of the reader, it gives the students more excitement and it feels like more of a legit thing when you have a tangible product,” Foy said.
This year, Foy, who teaches the journalism workshop class, is running The Collegian without an editor in chief. The Collegian has operated with five full-time volunteer staff members and a few others contributing part time, he said.
“We are facing an uphill climb in getting people excited about print media, and I would suspect that is happening at lot of campuses in Iowa.”
Wartburg continues to publish news both in a printed newspaper once a week in The Trumpet and online at The Circuit website.
“The newspaper used to be the main source for students, but our circulation has gone down quite a bit while our viewership online is definitely where a lot of students get their news and information,” Cliff Brockman, faculty advisor of both The Trumpet and Circuit at Wartburg, said.
Jordan Thomas, 20, a senior at Wartburg from Anamosa, said going completely online would be beneficial.
“Week after week I see many of the newspapers being recycled because no one is picking them up and reading them,” Thomas, a journalism major who does not work on the newspaper, said.
“I personally feel eliminating our print product would help save a lot of time and money. Every week, editors give up their Sundays to put together the paper and it would free up their time if they didn’t have to edit and create a paper.”
Not only are student newspapers facing readership shifts, some are facing a key bottom-line question: How to continue funding the news efforts on campus?
Ohrt said many college student newspapers around Iowa are facing budget crunches. While some news organizations are run independently, many get funded from their college or university, or their student government.
“I think that when the administration looks at things, whether they think print is important or not, they see it as something that can be cut,” Ohrt said about student news organizations funded by a college or university.
“If you think about the expense of having a print product as opposed to online which costs nothing, it is a no-brainer for them to say ‘we don’t need this.’ And they will use the trends of the industry to defend that, whether it’s actual or not.
“It can be hard to defend keeping it when they say ‘these major newspapers have fired this number of people or terminated these positions to make online positions instead.’ So we try to incorporate that trend into our education at all of the colleges that we are dealing with at ICMA (Iowa College Media Association).”
Student government has been funding The Simpsonian but that has shifted to solely the college in a bid to prevent student government from cutting newspaper money. The college’s Student Government Association members had seen the printed campus newspaper’ decreased circulation and questioned the need for money from student fees the association doles out.
The college has been paying for one-third, or $13,333, of The Simpsonian’s budget, while the Student Government Association has paid the remaining $26,666. The college is to assume all funding by the 2018-19 school year.
The funding move is important for the college’s journalism program. “Since our practicum class is required for our major, we lobbied the administration to no longer allow students to control the money,” Mark Siebert, faculty advisor, said. “If they (student government) decided to de-fund our student media, we wouldn’t have a practicum and our students couldn’t graduate.”
Mike Schlesinger, publisher and general manager of The Marshalltown Times Republican, prints five college newspapers and 17 high school newspapers in Iowa. Schlesinger said he has recognized the shift to online reading at both The Marshalltown Times Republican and the college newspapers he prints. This has left news organizations struggling to fund themselves, he said.
“Our online product is not as significant as our print product from a revenue standpoint, and I think this is true throughout the entire industry,” Schlesinger said. “It is an interesting predicament. Lots of publishers have spent money developing these websites, but no one in our industry has done a good job developing the revenue that is able to pay for it.”
Bill Casey, whose Daily Iowan is funded mainly with student fees, grants and gifts, and advertising, said, “It is a lot harder to sell ads now than it used to be, which I think is pretty typical across the industry, and we (The Daily Iowan) have the same issue.”
With the transitions happening in student news organizations across the state, student journalists who were interviewed said they are happy to have the readers who see their work.
“Having readers on our online platform is better than nothing, but we do spend so much time laying out the newspaper,” The Simpsonian’s Smith said, “It is disappointing to me and to my staff to see that nobody really appreciates it.”
Smith said she has thought about The Simpsonian going online only.
“On our online edition people do actually read,” she said. “That is good and it’s exciting for us because we work extremely hard at what we do.”
About the reporter: Madison Coates is a junior at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, interested in journalism while working toward a major in nursing. From Manchester, Iowa, she was editor of the Mount Mercy Times in the 2015-16 school year.
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Des Moines Register, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) and Mount Mercy Times and referred to by Editor & Publisher, Business Record (Des Moines, IA) and the Corridor Business Journal’s (Iowa City-Cedar Rapids, IA) education newsletter under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.