When you imagine the headquarters of a cutting-edge new media Web site, you probably think of ultra-modern structures with exposed brick walls and desks with sleek new computers perched atop them. Stock-option toting twenty-somethings in shorts and Birkenstocks wander around, playing ping-pong in the hallways during the random hours they work.
But the office where one award-winning site is produced isn't exactly like that. The digital publication's headquarters consist of "exactly one Macintosh computer inside a small bedroom." The sole person in charge of updating and maintaining the publication's site doesn't get paid for his efforts, even though he also reviews CDs, draws editorial cartoons and two comic strips, and writes a weekly column. And that's just for the newspaper whose site he manages: he also runs his own business, freelances for a national college syndicate, has an internship, and takes six classes.
While that workload may seem abnormal, even outrageous -- especially for no monetary compensation -- it's nothing out of the ordinary for the young men and women who work and live collegiate journalism. The staffs of the nation's college newspapers attend classes, work part-time jobs, and often work for far less than minimum wage to construct their school's publication of record. Most collegiate newspapers have taken their work to the Web, where the Internet's breadth and structure allow for new kinds of interactivity, user-defined and -created content, and unprecedented demand for that information.
Plenty of college papers are online: The Associated Collegiate Press, a national membership organization for college media, lists some 243 online college newspapers on its Web site; Yahoo's college and university newspapers category includes 426 entries. While their staffs may be small and their offices less-than-glamorous, the papers' Web sites aren't amateur products. They're professional and often cutting-edge online publications.
Like mainstream print newspapers, which mirror their content online and offer features of interest to their audiences, online college publications also reprint content from their newsprint versions. The Columbia Chronicle Online, the Web version of the Chicago-based Columbia College's newspaper, primarily publishes the paper's print stories, although a handful of stories are sometimes sent "directly to the site," according to the site's editor. But beyond that more traditional content, the online edition also provides a multimedia perspective on campus events for readers. The paper "work[s] with the broadcasting department to provide video clips [online] for stories that appear in the print edition," says Viewpoints/New Media editor Billy O'Keefe. Additionally, he says the paper plans an online photo archive "that will spotlight the extensive work of our award-winning photo editors."
A senior print journalism major, O'Keefe spends 2-3 hours every week constructing the paper's Web site on a Macintosh in his bedroom. Since Columbia College is a primarily commuter campus -- roughly five percent of the 8,273 students live in college-owned on-campus housing, he says -- the online edition provides "a way for students to access the paper if they cannot do so otherwise." The site was recognized by the Associated Collegiate Press as the top online publication Web site in the Midwest last February, and it receives 1,000 or so daily visitors, including alumni and "students researching school issues."
The number also includes students who take advantage of The Columbia Chronicle's message board that O'Keefe says provides "a way for all students to speak their mind[s] without" fear of censorship. Some online collegiate publications take uncensored comments a step beyond separate, distinct messaging areas. Below every story on The Whim, a "What do you think?" form asks readers for their comments, which are added directly beneath the story, in effect becoming a part of the content. It's a distinct feature offered by a distinct publication: unlike most college media, which have print and electronic versions, the online magazine at Radford University in Virginia exists only online.
In a decidedly different use of available technology, The Whim uses "Flash 4 technology to store text files of old articles," a process Whim Executive Director Brian Korte says "isn't done anywhere else but here!" Section managers edit stories and "paste them into the templates, and adjust the flash movies to reflect those changes." Those section managers are a part of a 20 or so person staff that includes writers and programmers, photographers and illustrators.
Although The Whim is produced and written by a relatively large staff, many publications have trouble recruiting willing and able people to staff their regular newsrooms, never mind their online desks. That situation can help to bring about new levels of cooperation between publications. Radford also has a weekly student newspaper, The Tartan, which contracts the Whim's staff to convert the paper's stories into HTML and publish it online every week. While the two publications may have competing interests, they coexist peacefully.
"We all pretty much get along. A few of our staff have a personal goal to out-perform the Tartan, but I can assure you, it is a healthy competition, not a bitter one," Korte says. "We support them fully, and they are often gracious to ask us if we'd like to advertise in their paper. It's a great relationship."
The Whim is followed by alumni, who can read the site from anywhere in the world to keep up with what's going on in Radford, Korte says. While The Whim can only be read online, regardless of the audience, groups of people who might never have had access to print versions of campus papers can now get to them easily because of the far reach of the Internet. Prospective students and their parents can read past issues of campus publications for information beyond that provided in glossy admissions brochures. Donors and others can keep tabs on what's happening on campus -- currently and in the past -- via archived issues.
Since most print student publications are distributed free-of-charge to the campus community, drawing on-campus users to the online version can be more challenging. To attract a student leadership, many plaster their URLs all over their print editions, in ads and elsewhere, and some also offer exclusive online content.
But The Murray State News Online takes a different approach, restricting online content to draw people to the print version. 'The primary goal of the online edition is to draw subscribers -- [m]ainly...alumni or students' parents. We don't run all the stories as a way to tease and tempt,' says Donald Lawson, the paper's online editor and only online staffer. The site's content is updated weekly, save for a new online column that's added every weekday. Recently, the paper has considered modifying their approach; Lawson says they're 'trying to develop more online content and information so people can make it their homepage.'
While the paper doesn't offer extensive Web-only content beyond the daily column, they do sponsor events that take place exclusively in cyberspace. One recent addition is a series of monthly online 'chat sessions with various university personalities to discuss various issues,' Lawson said. While the first chat only attracted five people, he said the staff has 'promoted the recent one more and hope[s] to get a bigger response.'
Sponsoring those kinds of events and offering unique online content isn't always easy. Andy Crewdson, the online editor at The Daily Californian at UC Berkeley says that their site's goal used to be 'to simply replicate the print edition's content. It often didn't do a very good job of this. I think we're doing a better job of not just 'shoveling.' But it is hard to diverge from the shovelware model when staff and resources are limited.'
While Crewdson is currently the sole person responsible for the publication's online presence, he says an intern program commencing in November will add three people to the online desk. Currently, the site is updated five nights a week, and sometimes on weekends when sports and other events merit. Database technology helps makes production of the massive site, which receives over 150,000 page views a month, possible for a single person. 'The site is completely database/template driven... all pages are served dynamically,' he says.
Like The Murray State News Online, The Daily Californian is looking to expand its Web-only content, with a goal of creating an 'autonomous online department' that produces Web-specific coverage. But Crewdson stresses that 'all of this is still very much in the planning stages, and there are of course lots questions about the viability of an effort like that, because of the nature of our publication (student run).'
Other papers are aggressively expanding their sites as well. Yale Daily News hopes to add streaming RealAudio and Video content – such as football games and arts-oriented events -- to its site soon. And it plans on entering the portal fray sometime after Thanksgiving, when the site will relaunch. The cover page will be customizable, similar to features offered by portals and major publications.
Online editor Eric Kennedy says, 'The front page will be customizable so readers can see not only today's articles, but also articles on subjects of their choosing over the last few weeks.' Parents and alumni had requested 'easier access to recent issues,' which the user-specified articles appearing on the cover page will provide. Overall, Kennedy says that 'Customization wasn't a feature that our readers have requested, but it allows us to be more of a portal for Yale students by allowing them to have local weather, Yale and national news, personal links, and sports scores all in one place.'