Snapshots from the future of online student news

Those of you (er, both of you) who have been following this blog since its outset (onset?) in February 2005 will recall that I first got involved with the actual production of online news at the Spartan Daily, the student newspaper of San Jose State University, where I remain a graduate student, believe it or not.

I walked into Prof. Richard Craig‘s office one day in the summer of 2005 and said “Why isn’t there an RSS feed for the Daily?” and he and the other advisers and Daily-adjacent faculty members basically gave me the keys to the site and told me to go out and do whatever I could to improve it.

It turned out that adding an RSS feed was easy, but my interest — and sudden new role as the contact for the hosting and CMS provider (back then it was a company called Digital Partners) — led me to my first news site redesign, turning the Daily’s site into something slightly more pleasant to look at.

I think I must have taken a few independent study credits and the title of Webmaster the next semester.  I wasn’t the Online Editor, whose job at that point in time was mostly to do a lot of painful copy/paste webmonkey work very late at night, but I helped the staff try to figure out a little bit about what more they could do with the system.

Digital Partners was promptly swallowed up by College Publisher, and I redesigned the site again, with the excuse of porting it over to a new CMS and hosting system.  It was fun, and I was working with the incoming Online Editor, Shaminder Dulai, who started driving multimedia into the story count requirements at the Daily. (And then Daniel Sato and Neal Waters redesigned it.  And then Kyle Hansen redesigned it.  It should be redesigned every semester if there’s a student or two with a passion for online news design, and if you don’t have one or two of those around, something’s wrong. )


This is all just to say that after working with a few versions of the dominant CMS/hosting tool for college newspapers, I came to the following conclusions:

  1. If all you’re interested in teaching or learning is content production, College Publisher is fine.  Stories, comments, blogs (?), video, photos — it can handle all that.  I’m pretty sure embeddable tools work as well.  But those are the limits.
  2. If you’re interested in teaching or learning anything at all about Web design, development, user interaction, interactivity, Flash-based multimedia or graphics, or community management, you need something more flexible than a turnkey solution.


Once you get past that, you’re loose in the touchy and complicated world of how/why/when/where to deploy some sort of open source software and server setup that students can manage — and far more importantly, that the next student staff can manage.  And the next one.  And the next.

I’ve been excited to see a few projects appear in recent months to address that issue, and get past it.  Here’s the best I’ve seen, so far:

  • The Populous Project: This Knight News Challenge winning project intends to build a fully featured three-phase system for student (and small town?) news, from CMS to a front-end newsroom system for print and online, to a social networking tool to add on to news sites.  This project is based at the UCLA Daily Bruin, where they’re coding up a prototype in Django which they plan to open-source.
  • CoPress: This collective project features a bunch of online news students and recent graduates that I know from around the Web, and they’re applying for a Knight News Challenge grant this year. (Sense a theme here?)  Check out their answers to my questions about their proposal.  The gang at CoPress knows exactly what a student paper needs to get their jobs done and be innovative at the same time, and you can see that in their list of Ideal CMS Features, which includes things like the need for a system that plays well with InDesign and IPTC data.

(For a sense of what’s possible when you break out of the College Publisher mold and go your own way, check out the WordPress-powered Miami Hurricane.)

My most important questions for any student media CMS project have to do with scalability and repeatability:

How easy will this CMS be to host, given the variety of university and external systems in play at student media outlets with a wide range of organizational structures?

How easy will this CMS be to maintain for a steady flow of students through a newsroom, year after year? – the ultimate student media vertical?

Two weeks ago, a little business brief zipped across my workflow radar at the office – mtvU buys*.

For those of you keeping up with the college newspaper business, last summer, mtvU bought College Publisher, by far the largest hosting and CMS provider for online student media.

Now, the Viacom subsidiary adds RateMyProfessors to its stable.

Awesome move.

What’s the best vertical service your college newspaper can provide to you readers? I say it’s a professor-rating site, closely followed by a textbook exchange bulletin board of some sort. (Note to self: develop ultimate Web 2.0 textbook exchange site and sell to mtvU for millions.)

Soon enough, we’ll start to see professor rating widgets showing up on college newspaper sites. Very cool, very sticky, and very useful to readers.

So what’s the one vertical your small-to-medium sized newspaper not on a college campus needs to provide to its readers?

Let’s put it this way: What’s the one thing unique and special and specific about your town that you simply should not get outdone on by any other media outlet or service?

*(School spirit disclosure: RateMyProfessors was founded by an SJSU alum, inspired by SJSU profs.)

The Baltimore Sun paints a rosy picture of college newspaper advertising

Student media has it all: A local focus, a microcosmic environment, and a captive audience.

Advertisers have noticed, says the Baltimore Sun:

“The health of campus papers is due also, in part, to the explosive growth of the Internet and of Web-based advertising, much of it aimed at the young. About 600 campus papers publish online editions, and advertisers have been quick to exploit their potential. Many campus newspaper Web sites now carry ads from national retail chains and other big-ticket companies.”

A quick fact-check, if you’ll humor me: The “national retail chains and other big ticket companies” pay College Publisher, the company featured in the story, to advertise across the CP network to the students, staff, faculty and alumni reading all those online college papers.

The student papers, as far as I know, don’t see a dime of that money.

It goes to pay for hosting their content. (Matter-of-fact, let’s make this into a reporting exercise: If you advise or work at a college newspaper hosted by College Publisher and you’ve ever been paid for national advertising, let me know.)

More on student media server options

Bryan Murley at Reinventing College Media provides a roadmap of server/hosting options for student papers, including those looking to stray from the College Publisher herd.

There are pros and cons to each choice, and Bryan does a great job of laying out what you’ll need to know, who you’ll need to trust, and what you’ll need to pay for each of these choices.

The missing link for student newspapers: Software to support a continuous news desk

When the Spartan Daily made the transition to College Publisher in January, I was struck by just how driven by a daily print cycle an online publishing CMS could be.

Why should it be that way? Why make online production dependent on your print stories being ready for publication? Why wait until after the print edition has been proofed to push the button to publish online?

Most of these questions are answered by the limitations of the software. The newspaper is divided up into dated editions, discouraging students from continuously updating stories. We tried to workaround that by adding a newsticker across the top of the page to use for promos and breaking news. It pulls headlines from a WordPress blog, but little else.

Here’s a question: Many folks, myself include, point to the Golden Gate [X]Press at San Francisco State as a great online student news site. The [X]Press, if I’ve got my facts straight, publishes weekly in print, but updates the online edition continuously, as the stories are edited. The site isn’t run on a conventional newspaper CMS, but on Movable Type, used more often for blogs and other dynamic web content. (Prof. DeVigal, please correct me if any of this is wrong.)

When we talk about redesigning our online edition, the common plea is to “make it look less like a newspaper.”

So how do we do that? And how do we instill student editors with the notion that the Web is the first place they publish, as events happen?

I’m not (just) going to be a part of the handwringing chorus, so here’s a specific, albeit nebulous proposal:

Let’s take an open-source content management system like Mambo or Joomla and craft a few basic templates that don’t look like newspaper front pages frozen in time at 11:30pm last night. Then, let’s offer those up to college papers that can host themselves on university servers and don’t need a hosted solution paid for by national advertising.

Or not. But if you can code a College Publisher template into something that would be useful to a continuous news desk that publishes as soon as the stories are ready, please let me know how it turns out and where I can find one like it.

Actually, that’s what CP really needs: somewhere for coders to exchange information. New Digital Group (aka Digital Partners) had (has?) a message board, and although it was pretty dead by the time I got there, I could read through old posts and find solutions to some problems. That would be helpful.

Okay, I’m off on a rant, but here’s the point: Student newspapers need/want to transition their sites to something resembling a continuously updated news site, and they need a content management system that encourages them.

Check out Rich Cameron’s ideas about a common platform for online student papers, and the advantages of using College Publisher. For now.

Then read Bryan Murley’s chronicle of moving a student paper from static HTML pages to CP, and be sure to peruse the comments as well.