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Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Digital Media Toolbox

'Digital-first' training begins on campus

By Gil Asakawa

It's the middle of summer break, and although most college students are scattered across the country, news unfortunately doesn’t stop for the ebb and flow of the academic calendar.

In today’s environment, news is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year narrative. TV stations and daily newspapers have grasped that fact, and many are evolving their newsrooms strategies to “digital first” initiatives. But college and university journalism departments — and before them, even high school newspapers — need to do the same, or we won’t be preparing our students journalists to succeed in the new media world that faces them

after graduation.

Some schools are already making that transition. The University of Colorado-Boulder, for instance, received a lot of negative publicity when it announced almost two years ago (on my third day on the job, at an all-staff meeting) that it would discontinue its School of Journalism and Mass Communication. This academic evolution is necessary. I welcome it the same as I did the changes shaking up newsrooms in the “real world” when I worked for companies such as the Colorado Springs Gazette, The Denver Post, Advance Newspapers and MediaNews Group (now, ironically, part of Digital First Media).

The same economic stresses that have forced some large metro dailies (most recently, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and three other properties owned by Advance Publications in Alabama) to cut back on their print editions, are causing some college newspapers to also reduce the days they publish a print version.

The cost of newsprint forced the CU Independent, back when it was called the Campus Press, to go online-only almost six years ago, making it a pioneer. This spring, you may have seen the announcement that the Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon is undergoing a radical, digital reboot, which includes cutting back its print editions from a daily to two weekly editions. You can preview the future of the Daily Emerald at future.dailyemerald.com.

Unlike other school papers that are cutting back their print publications, the Oregon paper isn’t in dire financial shape. This isn’t an immediate economic strategy for them, although in the long run it is. Rather, it’s a journalistic one, and I applaud it.

Here are some ways college papers can go digital and help staffers get better jobs after school:

1. FOCUS ON BREAKING NEWS, 24/7

Post even just one sentence if something’s happening and that’s all you can confirm. Post it right away and then add to it. Use the “write-through” mentality that wire services and big major metros rely on. The first site with the news wins the SEO war. We throw the phrase “24/7” around casually but often don’t live up to it. Be 24/7 for real. Believe me, student journalists — and readers — are up all night. I had an email exchange with my editor-in-chief last year at 5 a.m. when I got up … and he was just getting to bed. But at the same time, balance that with the essential journalism adage: I’d rather be last and right than first and wrong.

2. USE SOCIAL MEDIA AS THE END AS WELL AS THE MEANS TO AN END

Social media drives lots of traffic to your website, no doubt. The CU Independent’s Facebook page is the source of half the page views to its website. But don’t treat social media as merely a marketing tool. That’s how newspapers thought of their websites in the early years, parking their online staff in their marketing departments or libraries. Since not everyone will click through to your website, be sure your social media presence has its own following.

3. EMBRACE THE NEW

New what? New everything. Especially at schools, where the stakes aren’t as high as at huge corporate behemoths, news orgs should dabble and try out new services, features, social media sites. Keep up with the rapidly changing industry and you’ll be one step ahead of your competitors.

4. FORGET THE WEB; GO MOBILE

This is a bit of an overstatement, especially for college students, because frankly, I still don’t see that many students using tablets on campus. But they said that about laptops, and at one point universities began requiring all incoming students to have laptops. But even if they don’t have iPads, almost all of them do have smartphones, and they use them for news.

5. HIRE DEVELOPERS AND OTHER GEEKS, NOT JUST JOURNALISTS

If you can find a journo who’s a geek, all the better. But creating a staff position for a developer/programmer/database admin will pay off in cutting-edge content and presentation.

Have you noticed every one of these tips is also applicable to real-world newsrooms that are lagging behind? The times, they are a-changin’, so you better pay attention, and not just in class!

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