in College Media & Just Journalism

Why many college newspaper websites are ugly

College student newspaper adviser Michael Koretzky had a post over at The Huffington Post today that turned me into a troll. I commented. In fact, I commented harshly.

Why? Koretzky’s post, headlined “College Journalists Are Good at Consuming Multimedia but Bad at Making It. Why?,” was wrong to the point of seeming confused.

It all starts with Koretzky explaining that he judged a college newspaper website competition and was aghast at how bad all the entries were. Apparently, multimedia is Koretzky’s word for news websites, already demonstrating a fundamental misunderstanding of the difference between multimedia posted on a site and the website itself. He went on to explain that for college journalism students, the print edition is still the most prestigious and important product of a news organization—all because of students’ psychology.

But he’s wrong. Take my word for it; I’m a recent college graduate and former editor-in-chief and online editor of a student newspaper, one that I believe (and was frequently told) had a better web presence than most.

Advisers, journalism professors and programs

Photo from Michael West on FlickrIn fact, one of the top reasons why college media websites (and even multimedia pieces like web videos, podcasts and photos with audio) are weak is because of advisers and journalism professors just like Koretzky. Entire journalism programs are mired in the past (code word for print publishing) while others only pretend to be digital-journalism oriented. That’s because advisers, professors and department chairs too often not only lack the skills to teach their students relevant web publishing, but they also lack basic understanding of the internet and technology. Students aren’t being taught user interface design, programming languages and Photoshop or Adobe Creative Suite skills in journalism classrooms. Often the only way to learn is to teach oneself.

This has never been more apparent to me than when I attended the College Media Advisers Spring Convention in New York City. I went hoping to learn lots; instead I was sorely disappointed by the low level of the discourse, especially among advisers.

If you think about it, though, it makes sense. Most journalism advisers and professors who are not adjunct are former journalists who were practicing well before the internet became the primary media consumption platform.

The cost of print

Most college newspapers make very little, if any, revenue off of their web presence. The print product pays the bills (often with some help from the university). Besides not having the money to invest in content management systems, designers, developers and hosting, it’s hard to justify moving revenue and attention away from the cash cow that is the print product. What’s more, universities themselves may dictate what the newspaper may do online; for example, forcing use of the university’s CMS on a subdomain of the university’s homepage.

But more importantly, creating a successful print product takes insane amounts of time and energy. Publishing a story online just takes entering it into the content management system after editing. Publishing in print involves having designers put it on a page and make graphics, pull quotes and teasers. Suddenly the process gets a lot longer and takes more people, and thus more management. For example, I always wanted to spend more time on my student newspaper’s web presence, but then found I was neglecting my duties for the print product.

Campus presence

In fact, I would have taken the newspaper, The Spectator, online only (that’s right, so long print edition!) were it not for the incredibly painful transition it would be. Having the paper on stands all around campus gave it a literal presence in the community that would be hard to recreate with a website only. In fact, I believe it would take two years or more to bring a newspaper’s recognition back to print publishing levels after going online only.

On this point, Koretzky nearly hit the mark; to college journalists, “online exclusive” often means your content wasn’t good enough for print. But it can also mean your story is breaking news that will go online first and develop, just the way news stories in this 24-hour cycle should.

The platforms

Of course, on a blog about WordPress and open source content management systems, I have to talk platforms. Koretzky went after his student newspaper’s College Publisher-powered site in his post and notes that college newspapers’ “print editions have verve. Their online editions have templates.” Koretzky also said:

Many college newspaper websites look like ours—not as clean as Facebook and only a tad less cluttered than MySpace. Alas, it takes a lot of time to maintain even a homely newspaper website. It requires a lot less time to design a fetching print edition.

Of course, that’s spoken like someone who hasn’t really maintained a college newspaper website. Once it’s built, the only things left to do are add stories to the database (easier than designing print pages), update section pages and keep innovating.

College Publisher 5As for Koretzky’s talk of templates, a student with knowledge of HTML and CSS can edit College Publisher, WordPress, Drupal—you name it—templates and themes to be quite different than the rest. But before that, students must understand how to use the platform and how to organize content so it’s easy to find and easy on the eyes—something lacking from most college newspaper sites powered by College Publisher 5 (CP5), for example, even though it’s easy enough to make a good user interface by dragging, dropping and customizing elements.

Apparently basic knowledge of user interface principles are not in most college j-students’ skill sets. To make matters worse, College Media Network will design a site according to the newspaper’s preferences, and because of their willingness to comply with those wants, most sites on the network appear “homely” from the start and won’t get better until students learn how to configure the system.

What I’m trying to say is this: In most cases in student media, don’t blame the platform. Students and educators are more than likely failing to use it to its full potential.

Big papers are guilty of the same thing

Long lists of blue headlines make The Seattle Times a perfect example of an ugly professional website.It’s important to keep Koretzky’s talk of bad college newspaper websites in perspective. Mainly, aren’t most professional newspaper websites (and community newspaper websites especially) pretty ugly, hard to navigate, cluttered and overwhelming? Case in point: The Seattle Times is a great looking newspaper, but its website is one long list of blue headlines and a usability nightmare.

Conclusion

There are far more factors to why college newspapers are weak on the web than student psychology. And while that may play a part, it’s up to journalism educators to graduate journalism hackers: storytellers and beginning developers.

Comments (3)

  1. Pingback: College Publisher vs. Open Source: platform's importance overrated | WP Journo: WordPress Journalism CMS

  2. The writer comes across as a know-it-all kid, very similar to our current students. They don't do the work themselves to make college sites better or take advantage of the opportunities offered to them, so they blame the professors. They misunderstand the purpose of a college education–it's like blaming the driver's ed instructor because you don't like the shape of the car you are learning to drive in!

  3. I loved the comment about the paper needing a physical presence in the community. I am managing editor of the paper at my school (Penn State Behrend) and maybe it's because Erie, Pa is a city lost in time, but I think the transition from print to purely online would be longer than two years. Between the marketing, the development of an app for the paper, keeping stories constantly updated, enticing stories to log on the internet instead of picking up a paper at lunch. The web may be the future platform for national papers to display timely information (the good lord knows Twitter can only do so much). For college newspapers though, the transition would take longer than a cycle of editors in their four years at the school to implement. A freshman would need to take over the paper in the first semester to have a shot at it, and that just simply is not going to happen at most college newspapers. Koretzky was right about something though, the good stories go to print while the bad stories go to the web. This is what I have observed in the past few years of "multimedia" journalism, however you would like to define it.

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