Why Are You Still Printing a Newspaper?
How one college newspaper talked to its audience, eliminated print, and forges on with a new digital mission
A small group of students gathered in The Sacramento Bee pressroom on April 24 to witness The State Hornet, which this year celebrates its 70th anniversary as the student-run news organization of Sacramento State, end its print era and shift wholly to a digital operation.
The scene was the culmination of a two-year process that started with a simple question posed by a student editor to the State Hornet Publication Board at Sac State: “Why are we still printing a newspaper?” The process climaxed with a vote that wasn’t even close: The students, administrators and faculty who make up the Publication Board agreed 8–0 to discontinue print publication at the end of the 2018–19 school year.
Between that original question in 2017 and the final print issue rolling off the presses in 2019, we had to do some soul-searching. As both an alumnus and the current faculty adviser of The State Hornet, I probed especially deep: I’ve dedicated years to this institution, and it has given me learning, experience, lasting friendships, connections and a career.
But working with The State Hornet has also taught and reminded me of the cardinal rule of journalism that I try to impart to students today: Audience above all.
And at a college news organization, soul-searching is no match for due diligence when it comes to understanding that audience and its needs and preparing students for the real world.
In fall 2017, our board stepped outside the Journalism bubble to ask students and peers at Sac State: What would the implications be if we eliminated print? We enlisted the support of an MBA class led by professor Brian Baldus, with the idea that The State Hornet would submit itself as a “client” for his students’ in-class consultancy.
We sat for the MBA students’ questions and analyses, reviewing factors and data like total print circulation vs. online traffic, print vs. digital ad revenue, and audience engagement and reach via social media.
The data yielded an imbalance familiar to many publishers: Digital readership outweighed print circulation by a 4-to-1 ratio, but virtually all of our roughly $16,000 annual advertising revenue derived from print display ads.
When asked in an audience survey what would compel them to more regularly read The State Hornet, campus respondents provided a series of especially enlightening replies.
“I think shifting to a digital platform would help The State Hornet be more convenient to students and more known on campus,” one responded.
“If the State Hornet was more easily accessible through the internet (and without many problems visiting with my phone), I would be more inclined to read it,” another respondent said.
“Maybe a digital version of the paper?” wrote one, echoed by another: “Produce [a] digital/online version and send to [the whole] campus community. I don’t see it, so I don’t read it. I would read it if it came to my inbox.”
The reality is that we won’t save newspapers, but we MUST save news.
Of course, we also received replies suggesting that the print edition could be better distributed, or that the digital product was just biased clickbait, so we had to carefully parse and interpret the validity of the responses. Overall, our peers in the business program found a consensus: In word and in deed, The State Hornet audience showed a sustained appetite for a digital-first news product.
With this information, the student editors refocused their efforts in Spring 2018 on news gathering and publication for a digital audience. The results dazzled us.
Strategic, sustained team coverage of the aftermath of the Stephon Clark shooting competed with The Bee, TV stations and other news outlets in Sacramento. (The Hornet’s original reporting even drew attention and links from The New York Times, NPR and CNN.) A story about a fight that broke out in the Sac State library went internationally viral thanks to diligent social outreach.
Combined with the types of in-depth news packages that earned The State Hornet a National Newspaper Pacemaker Award in 2017, the students’ breaking news coverage propelled StateHornet.com to more than double its returning readers year-over-year from 2016 to 2017.
Advertisers took notice, too, with The State Hornet developing multiplatform ad packages that kept its print revenue base in place while erecting a digital ad business from scratch.
This year, as we put the final print issue to bed, we found we’d drawn pretty much even between digital/social and print ad revenues at roughly $6,500 apiece for the year.
Headed into this spring, as people heard we were discontinuing print, we knew how it might look to outsiders who thought we had traded our legacy for a sheaf of MBA market research. We worked hard to anticipate and neutralize such instinctive reactions as “Better for the environment, I guess” or “Think how much money you’ll save!”
True, our largely student fee-funded budget will save $35,000 annually by no longer printing a weekly newspaper. And you never get used to the stinging complaints from alumni, peers and longtime readers who say that ending print sends a dangerous message that newspapers — and even journalism itself — are dying.
But our industry’s affinity with print and our dependence on a 150-year-old ad-revenue model tricks us into attempting to solve the wrong problem: How do we save newspapers?
The reality is that we won’t save newspapers, but we must save news.
At Sac State, we think of reinvesting our savings into students who can be on the front line in an innovative effort to save news: Innovation in creating and saving jobs. Innovation in media education and literacy. Innovation in advertising, branding and marketing. Innovation in revenue and economic development. Innovation in community service and audience engagement.
More broadly, when I think of our digital-only future, I think of meeting the audience where it is with news and products that they value, created by journalists with the tools and support they need to execute consistently excellent work.
Indeed, in The Sacramento Bee pressroom holding our final print issue, it didn’t even seem like an ending. But two years after I first heard the question, it’s no less relevant: Why are you still printing a newspaper?
NOTE: This article is adapted from a talk presented by VanAirsdale at the Associated Collegiate Press Midwinter College Journalism Convention in March 2019. The article originally ran in the May 2019 issue of California Publisher, available from the California News Publishers Association.