Daniel Reimold of College Media Matters predicts a lot of student newspapers will be leaving College Media Network and its College Publisher platform after the new ownership announced licensing fees begin this year. And I hope he’s right.
The overwhelming majority of those who leave, I much more cowardly predict, will be examining and choosing WordPress as their alternative. For those thinking about the switch, here’s some advice from a recently graduated two-year college newspaper editor-in-chief:
Make this an opportunity to do something truly meaningful
Don’t just look at this as an inconvenient platform change. This is a chance to do something truly significant for your school, your media organization and, most importantly, yourself as a developing journalist or professional.
Been dreading moving to a truly online-first publishing model? Now is the time to do it. While you’re creating your new platform, do it intentionally. Utilize the wonderful library of WordPress plugins, including editorial-specific ones like Edit Flow, to redefine how you produce news.
Forget having an online editor who shovels stories from the web to a CMS and tweets a little bit. Get your entire staff involved. Give everyone some sort of access to your WordPress setup, and train them in using it. If they haven’t already, teach everyone some HTML and some CSS.
Yes, these are monumental tasks. But leave a legacy, and learn a lot in the process.
Ditch the print product
Say goodbye to ink-stained fingers! It seems drastic, but it’s time student newspapers have future-focused newsrooms. College campuses serve as a bubble, and lots of students still seem to enjoy picking up the print edition. But that doesn’t mean the print paper is still worth producing.
The print edition is a legacy cost taxing your news operation. It takes tremendous amounts of time and energy to produce. It costs significantly more to publish; my college newspaper could have saved more than $30,000 in just printing costs by publishing online only (not to mention man hours, page designer positions, in-office printing expenses, newsstands, distributors, loads of sleep, etc.).
In comparison, a WordPress-powered site could be run on a few thousand a year; imagine committing a full $30,000 as a student organization to innovating via your website, social media and mobile devices. The tablet is going to hit college campuses in a big way, and student “newspapers” have an opportunity to be ready for it. Or they can keep dishing out dead trees.
Most importantly, there is not much to be learned for you as a college journalist in the print publishing process. Don’t waste your time laying out print pages and learning InDesign. Instead, learn as much as you can about publishing on the web, and you’ll be prepared for much more than disappearing traditional journalism jobs. What’s more, make a name for yourself as a student journalist innovating online, and I guarantee their will be interest and opportunity come graduation.
For college papers that rely heavily on print advertising revenues right now, this may not be possible. But their counterparts that have a good chunk of reliable school funding have no excuse.
Maybe I’m nuts—I’m curious what others think.
Don’t use an existing WordPress theme
One of my biggest regrets as editor-in-chief was never reaching out to computer science students at school. I’m sure we could have hired some developers to do some great work for us. And though I was capable of developing a theme for the paper to use (and did, over spring “break,” for our blog), I was usually overwhelmed as it was managing the newsroom and, in retrospect, wasting my time on the print product.
If you’re moving to WordPress, seek out students or WordPress consultants who might be able to develop custom plugins and themes for you.
Existing WordPress themes suitable for a student newspaper are few enough to begin with, already in use lots of places and just look cheap. They’re also not made for your newsroom and audience.
Don’t want to start from scratch? Build a child theme off of a theme framework or a well-developed and documented theme.
Look elsewhere than CMN for hosted WordPress solution
Bryan Murley interviewed Rusty Lewis of CMN on Innovation in College Media and learned that the provider plans to charge $4,500 in “licensing fees” for “support related to CMN services related to server environment operation, DNS services and integration of CMN plug-ins.” Beyond that, it will be $150 an hour for support on parts of the platform CMN didn’t create.
I’m not convinced that CMN’s hosting or plugins are worth that. There are plenty of WordPress-specific or VPS hosting services that are totally suitable for your newspaper for much less.
What’s more, there are lots of freelance WordPress developers and consultants who could even be contracted for less than $150 an hour. You could probably pay a student developer $10 an hour because the experience will be worth it for them.
So much support already exists online that a college newspaper with a couple of WordPress-savvy students and perhaps a consultant will be just fine innovating for less.
Ask those who have gone before you
Don’t be afraid to reach out to those who have already made the decision to innovate with WordPress. I’m sure they’ll have good advice.
Also look for college pubs doing a great job with WordPress. A couple that stand out to me are Reese News at the University of North Carolina (hope to post about that project soon) and The Daily Cougar at the University of Houston.