College newspaper editors, like everyone else in print media, have had to confront increasing competition online as well as potential declines in ad revenue. Now they're worried that the latest competitor could be the company that hosts their own Web sites.
Ever since College Publisher bought New Digital Group (previously Digital Partners) in 2005, campus newspapers that choose not to design and host their own sites have had essentially one company to turn to that would provide those services for free in return for an online ad sharing agreement. After an acquisition the next year by mtvU, the college channel produced by MTV Networks, that service, now dubbed the College Media Network, is part of the media conglomerate Viacom. The company's latest bid for college readers reflects not only its disappointment in the growth of online ad revenue at campus newspapers but a reliance on corporate tactics that student editors and paid general managers never expected.
The initial reaction this past week was one of shock and betrayal when representatives of mtvU first introduced a network of Web sites called Campus Daily Guides, customized for individual colleges and clearly targeted to the same online audience as college newspaper Web sites. Like other online guides to local happenings -- from Google Maps to Citysearch -- the sites offer a calendar of events around campus, a directory of bars and restaurants that users can update and similar services. Two components clearly aimed at students include a "Rate My Professors" module for the college, integrated with the popular Web site, as well as links to the latest news ... direct from the college newspaper itself.
"This definitely caught us by surprise," said Brad Arendt, the general manager of The Arbiter, Boise State University's newspaper, and a member of the College Publisher advisory board. He added that much of the initial reaction was shock that the company never informed its 550 or so partners, including members of the board, before building the network of sites -- a "lack of communication," he said.
"How do you deal with the Internet and what works best?" he continued. "I think there are some aspects of the Campus Daily Guides that could certainly work well in terms of a partnership with college newspapers. I think some of it’s going to require a change in thinking, which is what you’re seeing in the commercial media ... and how we all deal with things. But initial reactions to this is kind of ... is this going to be competition? Fighting for the same eyeballs -- are students going to go there instead of here?"
In some cases, that's an acute concern, especially for newspapers that produce dining guides supported by local advertising, ventures that could see direct competition from the Daily Guides' restaurant listings.
Representatives of the Campus Media Network were unable to respond for comment on Friday, but a spokeswoman for mtvU, Janice Gatti, said that the sites were "still in development at this point," and that the company is working with its partner newspapers. While students and advisors to the papers deny that there was any such consultation beforehand, Gatti noted that they haven't been officially launched yet. According to the sites themselves, they're currently in beta, with 25 so far and possible plans for expansion to other areas.
Arendt said he understood mtvU's rationale for launching the sites, and that it made sense for the company to want to control the content as it sees fit. "College students, they don’t always change rapidly," he said, pointing out a reality that student editors might recognize. In some cases, that's also due to external circumstances: College papers were in many cases slow to embrace the growth in online readership because local display advertising remained strong, lagging behind national trends, and their print editions are still widely read on campus.
According to notes of a conference call between representatives of the Campus Media Network and its newspaper partners obtained by Inside Higher Ed, the company says that 68 to 71 percent of visitors to its member college newspaper Web sites were 34 and older -- hardly the demographic advertisers seeking to target college students are looking for. (Many college papers have reported that they have many alumni readers, especially those anxious for sports coverage of their alma mater.)
Initial reactions aside, however, some see an opportunity for further partnerships and even the possibility of increased traffic to their newspaper Web sites. Currently, it's much like the Google News model, which aggregates articles from thousands of publications and sends traffic to their Web sites. Similarly, Viacom would presumably sell advertising on the Campus Daily Guides, potentially making revenue off of member newspapers' content unless it encouraged visitors to follow news links to the sites themselves.
But some hope for an arrangement that could be mutually beneficial. "There may still be ways, with linkages back and forth ... to try to make this work as a win-win for both parties," said Kathy Lawrence, the director of student media at the University of Texas at Austin and former president of the College Media Advisers organization. "I think anything we can do to try to drive traffic from college students through ... alongside the sites, I’d rather have it be part of this, I think, than not be part of this at all."
One newspaper that won't remain a partner is The Michigan Daily, which today is launching an independently built Web site after years with College Publisher. "We haven’t been too happy with the software that we got from College Publisher. There have been a lot of outages and whatnot," said Andrew Grossman, the paper's editor in chief. More importantly, he added, a paper of its size had an obligation to provide a learning experience for working on what is now an integral part of any newspaper operation.
Grossman said that many of the features at the Campus Daily Guides are already available elsewhere, and that many college newspapers, including his, were considering the possibility of rolling out similar services for their readers. Besides, he said of the Michigan Daily guide, "The bars don’t really match up to what campus bars are."
If newspapers could potentially lose revenue to a venture like this, he pointed out, it's not much different from the current financial situation. "I think there’s a lot of hyperventilating.... I was reading some of these advisor threads and it’s the Internet, it’s competition and you should have fun with it."