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Going Digital

Going Digital

October 21, 2008

It is no secret that the future of journalism is digital. That fact has been long heralded by elated technophiles and nervous Luddites alike. But for small newspapers, especially small college newspapers, the transition to the digital age is easier said than done.

The Miscellany News, the newspaper of Vassar College since 1866, of which I am Editor in Chief, has spent the last year trying to rapidly modernize. For a paper with such a storied history of weekly print publication, The Miscellany over the past decade has been gradually trying to adjust to the digital age. But the time had come for more radical progress; like most student newspapers, our Web site was in shambles, and our archives inaccessible except through aging microfilm in the library basement. Editors like myself, always slow to adapt, finally began to acknowledge that the times called for a new approach. To figure out exactly what that approach would be, and to make a smooth transition from our comfort zone of yellowed newsprint, we have been pushed to reflect on our role as a student paper.

Local papers serve two functions. The first is clear: to provide timely news, information and analysis that will inform community readers. But the second function is, in my opinion, slightly grander. Local papers serve as newspapers of record, often in ways that larger organizations such as The New York Times or The Washington Post cannot. It is no exaggeration to say that most of the social and administrative history of Vassar would now be lost had Miscellany reporters not been there to dutifully record and immortalize events for the ages.

I have particular sympathy for this historical function of our campus newspaper, having just completed six months of research into The Miscellany’s past. I have read through every issue ever published, over 200,000 pages of newsprint, and spoken with more than 150 former editors and writers from the Class of 1936 through the Class of 2008. My archival digging has convinced me that local and college newspapers open a unique window into history. As a student myself, I can view the past through the lens of The Miscellany’s coverage and see national events on a more human and more recognizable level than ever before.

To move their papers forward into the technological age, then, student editors must consider both uses of their papers: the present-day and the historical.

Looking Forward: Online News and the Question of Priorities

Not surprisingly, the Web serves the first function of a local paper exceptionally well. They deliver information instantly, and articles can be updated and corrected in real time. What is surprising, though, is the unfortunate and neglected condition of most student papers’ Web sites. The average site has a clunky layout, sloppy design and little-to-no attention to color schemes or aesthetics. Many sites are a muddled array of hyperlinks, with uncategorized articles strewn every which way. Graphics are poorly sized. Fonts are dull. Multimedia is ignored.

All of these flaws are shocking when one realizes that Generation Y, the most tech-savvy ever born, maintains and codes these sites. Yet their designs are, excuse my snarkiness, very 1990s. But worse than my aesthetic objections is my philosophical gripe: Most student papers’ online content essentially mirrors the print content. They are updated daily or weekly, only in conjunction with the print paper. Such an organization suggests a clear prioritizing of the physical newspaper -- a mistake that the professional news media, by and large, began to correct a decade ago.

The Miscellany’s online presence was certainly guilty of all of these charges, at least until now. With our new Web site, http://miscellanynews.com/, we have now entered into the next generation of online journalism. And, for better or worse, we have become one of the few colleges in the country to do so. On our new site, reporters can contribute live blogs, attach videos and other multimedia to their articles, and display high-resolution photography in a way that our print publication never could. Best of all, The Miscellany’s site is flexible, no longer burdened with the stagnant design so common among news sites in the 1990s. We have become one of only a handful of college newspapers in the country, along with The Yale Daily News and The Swarthmore Phoenix, to adopt a Web 2.0 approach and craft our site using up-to-date CSS and XML standards.

We maintain a weekly print edition, but no longer consider our online edition its ugly stepsister. The two media are equivalent in importance, as they should be in the 21st century. Far from just reflecting each week’s coverage, our site is updated daily with summaries of lectures, interactive polls, and breaking campus news.

Breaking news is not usually associated with student newspapers. But as the nation discovered last year with the tragedy of Virginia Tech, college journalists can quickly become essential on-scene reporters. In April 2007, many professional news organizations turned to the Web site of The Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech’s student publication, to read the continual reports of the young but tireless reporters. Although we pray that no such tragedy hits a college campus again, the importance of student news organizations cannot be overlooked in their ability to disseminate accurate information during an emergency.

Even under normal circumstances, an insistence on Web updating allows campus outsiders to keep abreast of intriguing news or discussions that might fit into a greater national dialogue. All student papers should institutionalize the maintenance of their sites by growing an online staff. The Miscellany, for example, recently hired an Online Editor who has been working tirelessly to ensure that new articles, videos and photographs are posted each day. The work is certainly important enough to merit a full-time job.

Finally, college editors should have a very self-interested motivation for adopting a digital approach to reporting: In the past, student newspapers have prided themselves as breeding grounds for future journalistic greats. William F. Buckley, Frank Rich, and Katherine Meyer Graham (herself a former Miscellany editor) all once served their college papers. If student newspapers hope to continue producing the journalistic leaders of tomorrow, they had better stop prioritizing the practices of yesterday -- namely the relentless clinging to the supremacy of the print edition. College editors must instead take a cue from weekly and daily news organizations across the world and adopt a 24/7 approach to coverage. Like so many of our professional counterparts, The Miscellany News is no longer just a newspaper; it is a news provider that delivers its content through several different forms of media.

Looking Backward: Digital Archiving and the Question of Access

This transition to online coverage, however, is only half the digital battle. How can technology change the second, historical function of college newspapers? More broadly, how can a local -- in our case, very local -- paper remain a newspaper of record in the digital age? As a history major who has spent six months bathing in news archives, the idea of losing print journalism concerns me. How can we ensure that those archives are readily accessible to researchers and members of our own collegiate communities?

Maintaining historical archives is an essential function of any newspaper, local or national. For historians, newspapers are a key primary source. They recount the events of a particular region, state or institution. They tell the who’s, what’s, when’s, where’s and why’s of history. But beyond these bare bones, they also give us a glimpse into the values and ideals of their writers and editors. Sometimes these ideals are easy to interpret, such as a Miscellany editorial in Fall 1964 against the “senseless bloodshed” unfolding in Vietnam. Other times, the ideals require more subtle examination. Which stories were placed on page one? What national and international issues were relevant enough to students to slip into The Miscellany? What was going on at Vassar or in the world that did not make it into the newspaper?

The Miscellany News serves both functions -- as a recorder of historical facts and a barometer of values -- for Vassar. The paper literally spans the college’s history. Vassar was founded in 1861, but with the disruption of the Civil War, instruction did not begin until Fall 1865; an early form of our publication debuted in Spring 1866, and included pieces written by students since their arrival on campus the previous fall. With few interruptions, Vassar students have continuously written and read some form of the paper ever since. This makes The Miscellany News one of the oldest continuously published college publications in the United States and, by my count, the fourth oldest in the State of New York. Equally important, The Miscellany was the first student publication of its kind produced independently by women. But all college newspapers can provide some sort of distinctive angle, be it geographic, socio-economic or personal. They are crucial records for historians, particularly for those interested in the history of education, youth, or the growth of political and social movements.

Archives are necessary not only as historical documents, but to inform current coverage. Because most college papers experience a 100 percent staff turnover every four years, an event that that happened five years ago risks being lost from the editors’ collective memory. And given the constraints of strict deadlines, it is unrealistic to send reporters digging in library archives to get a historical perspective on each article they write. As a result, current editors risk appearing transient, since newspaper coverage lacks long-term institutional memory.

In short, archives must be readily available for both scholarly and editorial use. The way to do this is to create digital, searchable archives in a public online database. Once again, this is another area where college papers are falling behind their professional counterparts. Digitizing can be an arduous process. There are numerous methods, many costly and complicated, requiring third-party companies. One popular and inexpensive method, used by Marist College among others, involves scanning news pages as ‘flat’ image files. Although this process is not too pricey -- about $70 to scan a school year’s worth of weekly issues, on average -- the PDF files are not searchable. This is a distinct disadvantage for researchers, who would not be able to browse articles by keyword.

A second, more practical digitizing method involves scanning and extracting the text of old articles. Though this is much more costly than creating flat images, this method can make searchable text of every article available online. Nevertheless, this scheme too has its drawbacks. In addition to losing photographs and graphics, this text-only approach takes away something even more significant: layout. Which stories did students prioritize on page one, and which did they relegate to the back of the Lifestyle section? Far from being trivial, the question of what people attached significance to makes up the crux of history.

To answer all of these concerns, an even costlier third option remains. The most complete method of digital archiving is to convert news pages into richly segmented XML. This process has several steps and is usually coordinated by third-party companies such as Olive or CONTENTdm. First, these companies scan print or microfilm records, turning each page into image files. Next, the image will be segmented into textual and graphical components. Finally, the newspaper’s archives are indexed in their entirety, making the text searchable and even adding searchable keywords to images. Each component is coded using XML, which allows them to be made available to anyone, anywhere via the Internet.

Only a handful of colleges have begun the time-consuming and costly process of digitizing student newspapers. Not surprisingly, large research universities with endowments of over $1 billion -- Harvard, Yale, Cornell and Georgetown, to name a few -- have undertaken some of the most successful and thorough digitization projects to date. Usually, these massive projects are coordinated by university libraries and financed with the support of alumnae/i. Digitizing The Cornell Sun will cost Cornell University nearly $800,000; Yale similarly intends to spend close to $1 million to digitize The Yale Daily News.

For smaller schools, financing is certainly a challenge. It would be sadly misrepresentative to have only the newspapers of wealthier institutions available online. Perhaps because the project is not a sexy one, digital archiving can be a hard sell to philanthropists and donors, who often prefer giving to tangible capital projects. But without student support, resource-stretched libraries will rarely undertake such projects. Students should try to work with their university’s library to determine the costs of digital archiving. Once librarians are on their side -- and at least at Vassar, they always are -- editors will quickly be in a stronger position to advocate their administrations for the funding. The Miscellany is currently working with the Vassar College Library and Development Office to make digital archiving a priority. Success will ultimately lie in the tenacity of student editors, who must badger their administrations and remind them of the importance of such an endeavor. After all, their own histories hang in the balance.

Looking Around: Digitizing for the Past, Present and Future

If college newspapers expect to remain entrenched campus institutions -- my research indicates that about 94 percent of American campuses have had only one continuously running student paper in their history -- they must digitize, in every sense of the word. The simple reality is that, by the time my children attend college, there will no longer be printed student papers. Rising costs along with rising environmental awareness will push news entirely to the Web. This is a reality that editors across the country should accept.

The digital age is a scary time to be a college journalist, and an even scarier time to be a paper-loving history major. For The Miscellany, navigating our modern functionality with our legacy continues to be a challenge. So as we launch our new Web site and begin the lengthy process of digitizing some 150 years of newsprint, I suppose I am excited for the digital future of The Miscellany News—but then again, I guess I don’t have much of a choice.

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Brian Farkas is a double major in history and political science at Vassar College. He is Editor in Chief of The Miscellany News, and author of the forthcoming book Covering the Campus: A History of The Miscellany News at Vassar College (iUniverse Inc., January 2009).

Bio

Brian Farkas is a junior and editor in chief of The Miscellany News at Vassar College.

 

 

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