BATTLE | What we need, is a plan

I’ve challenged myself to battle the management at my school’s newspaper The Daily Orange with a new ‘new media’ topic every week. BATTLE look at the struggle of a college paper trying to evolve to succeed on the Internet.

My battle this week stems from a series of emails exchanged between myself, the IT staff, and the Business Director that originally stemmed from the ad department securing online sponsorship for a weekly print feature: Thirsy Thursday — a beer (mmh… beer) reviewing column.

The effort has devolved into a struggle to get the new IT staff up to speed, launch a new blog for Thirsty Thursday, and even redoing parts of the main website. My suggestions on that front were:

  • decisions about web design by non-web designers is usually a poor choice.
  • unilateral decisions about the structure of an editorial site by business staff is not a good move
  • I'd strongly suggest that many of our design issues are centered around college publisher inadequacies.

The Way Forward

This whole process lead me to realize that what the DO needs more than anything else, is a planned approach to the Internet, which until this point, has been haphazard at best. We have no plan for forward growth, and that means that we're likely going to continue to be frustrated with each other and with our own efforts. At this point there are plenty of other colleges out there that have easily surpassed our own efforts to both make money online and leverage it as a platform.

I for one, find this to be unacceptable. The Daily Orange has a strong tradition of … everything, and it's rather shameful to see us falling so far behind on technology that is both the present and future of the neworg.

There are already schools that have seen their traditional college newspaper challenged (and in the case of NYU, replaced) by an online only news startup. I do honestly fear that the DO stands to suffer the same fate if things continue at the current pace.

I strongly suggest the following steps:

  • Editorial and Business should brainstorm current problems with the way we approach the web. This should be a joint session that is not run by the board. It should contain a good sampling of ad reps, editors, etc… and should be influenced as little as possible by management.
  • Editorial and Business need to compile separate roadmaps for their vision of the future of the DO online. These should be imaginative and far reaching. The road-maps ought to extend at least 2 and likely 4+ years into the future. They should contain precise short, mid, and long-term goals. They should take into account the problems raised at the brainstorming sessions.
  • A budget should be created for the length of the timeline. This money needs to be set aside now, because if we think times are tough now, they're only going to get worse.
  • Part of the timeline needs to include moving off college publisher. They simply do not fulfill our needs, and with the demise of CP5, there is no hope of future growth. This should be a short-term goal. I strongly suggest we look at CoPress as a hosting provider. Wordpress may only be 90-95% of what we need, but at least that's better than the ~60% that CP offers us.
  • We need to be willing to take risks. I understand that leaving behind CP with its guaranteed ad revenue is a risky proposition, but I put forward that a) other news orgs have proven that it is possible to make far more than this online with far fewer pageviews, and b) the yearly ad revenue from College Publisher is less then the cost of 2 print issues of the DO. I argue that potentially taking a temporary hit on ad revenue will more than compensate itself in the long run.

I submit the following thesis

The business side of the paper is critical, but ultimately our product is editorial. We cannot continue to serve our customers running the site as we have, and will continue to bleed customers in the future.

The DO has been publishing the same number of print copies for a while now, yet the population of the campus has been steadily rising. It has grown roughly 2000 students in the last 4 years which is over a 15% growth. The fact that there has not been a greater demand for the print product is telling.

I also point to our biggest competition, the Post Standard, and say that they have easily lapped us on online content. So much so that students prefer to get their Syracuse news from syracuse.com over our site. …and yet, we frequently have a better product.

In case I haven't been clear yet: I'm exceedingly frustrated with our online effort. I see a way forward, but easily recognize that this takes a commitment from all listed here and several others for that to happen.

Believe me when I say that the some of the brightest minds in the world are working on problems very similar to ours, and still have not found the answer. There is no such thing as no risk at this point as no one can point to a magic bullet and say: this is how to fix all your problems. But, the clique: the biggest risk is to do nothing, applies here. Experimentation is how this whole mess is going to be figured out. It seems be working so far for others.

BATTLE | What we need, is a plan

Joey Baker

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I write code most days. Prevously: photojournalist, EMT. Somewhat obsessed with jouralism.