in College Media & Just Journalism

For college newspapers, the importance of platform is often overrated

I was taught in j-school that a story should be more than talking heads—that it should get beyond the standard said this, said that and actually look at the issue.

I bring this up because there’s a story Romenesko just shared published by The Chronicle of Higher Education that stumbles over the same old talking points without really any depth or insight.

“For college newspapers, prepackaged online versions are yesterday’s news” looks at the vague “trend” that student editors are looking for more flexibility than what College Media Network’s College Publisher can offer. It throws out buzz words I’m kind of tired of, like “templates.” And it uses two not-particularly exemplary examples of student newspapers that left College Publisher for an open-source platform (see disaster here and here).

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for open source (duh, I blog about WordPress and would love to see more student newspapers harness it), but I’m also for results, and all too often student newspaper sites, no matter the platform, are poorly designed and poorly maintained. The problem is really a lack of student knowledge and education in packaging content online. With that in place, then innovation on any platform can come, though obviously on open source there’s more room for that growth.

Normally I’m not College Media Network’s white knight riding to its defense (I would have liked to move my student newspaper site to WordPress MU but was concerned with what would happen once I left), but The Chronicle’s piece perpetuated a few assertions I think are unfair.

First, templates tend to be editable and College Publisher’s templates are no exception. While student organizations on College Publisher have to leave CMN’s ad placements alone (a pretty small price to pay for a free service), the stylesheet can be edited and on College Publisher 5, moving around elements is a matter of dragging and dropping. Custom styles can easily be made to give certain elements a different look, and those dreaded templates can be changed by editing the stylesheet.

Second, the story quotes a student editor on the flexibility of their new platform:

Now, she says, the staff has total control over how the site looks: “‘Where on the page do we want breaking news to be displayed, and how do we want breaking news to be displayed?’” she asked. “Before, we couldn’t really change it.”

CP5 is very capable of doing this in a drag and drop interface with a variety of elements. With basic HTML and CSS, new elements can even be made. In fact, even CMN’s old platform (CP4) is quite capable of advanced display. Just ask Andrew Nacin, whose team made their CP4 site look and function better than most college newspapers online.

Between the two examples that The Chronicle cited of student newspapers gone open source, there’s not a whole lot going on that couldn’t be easily—or easier—done with College Publisher. Just sayin.

The story also quotes Daniel Bachhuber, whose CoPress I wish was still in business, as saying that College Publisher templates have been “detrimental to their ability to innovate online.” Agreed.

But lack of knowledge and education in web publishing, basic coding and UX is the more daunting limiting factor for college newspapers.

Comments (1)

  1. Yes, you're dead on Hanna! It can be a struggle getting strictly developer students to see the benefit of building solutions for journalism, especially their school newspaper. But it seems kind of silly not to either be teaching j-students more about the technical side of things while also inviting opportunities for other disciplines to get involved and share their expertise.