Extra, Extra, Go to WWW...

Internal university communications continue migrating to all-online formats, driven, in part, by budget cuts.
May 15, 2009

Consider the evolution of University Week, the University of Washington's internal publication for faculty and staff, as a case study:

"Our publication started 26 years ago and we were all print. We got our first Web site in 1998, but it was very simple and what we did was just take everything that we have in print and put it onto the Web site. Then I think it was 2003, there was a budget cut and we were told that we needed to move our publication from weekly to biweekly. We felt that was not often enough to be timely and started doing an online publication in the off weeks. So we would do the print and put that information online and then the next week when we weren't going to do print we would do an online-only publication. So we went on like that and things got more and more complex," recalls Nancy Wick, University Week's editor.

"It was like we were essentially doing two publications with the same staff that had been doing one. In the meantime there was a tremendous move on campus generally towards online, and people were writing to us and saying, 'Why are you sending us this print publication, you're killing trees,' and all that sort of thing. It looked to us like it was time to just stop doing the print."

Which is just what University Week did, last fall, as part of a growing migration of internal university publications to an online only format. The trend has been ongoing for some years now, but has accelerated during the economic downturn, says Rae Goldsmith, vice president of advancement resources at the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. "It's been driven, in part, by financial issues. That's why you're seeing more of a flood of it right now. But it's also being driven just by the nature of the communications world and how it's changing. People are used to getting their news online. It's much more immediate," Goldsmith says.

In terms of cost-savings, "It's not just the money you spend on the print," Goldsmith says. "It's the human resources it takes to do both print and online, as well."

WSU Today, at Washington State University, printed its last print edition in February, and has launched a daily e-mail bulletin in its place. The transition was a result of a university-wide decision to move all internal communications online, explains Robert Frank, director of internal communications and WSU Today's editor.

"There are plusses and minuses," Frank says. "I'm a print person by nature. My training and my background have been in newspapers so I always will have a love for an actual physical newspaper.

"But moving to electronic has definitely had some advantages, in that we are able to deliver news immediately. The advantage of having the [e-mail] push system and having that delivered to every employee I think has improved communications. ...The biggest change has been obviously it offers us the ability that print doesn't of providing videos -- tough to do in a newspaper -- audio clips, photo galleries. All of those are very highly visited on the Web site."

One common challenge in moving to online only is ensuring the publication still gets to those staff members who don't spend their work days staring at computers.

In launching a new online publication with a new tone and a new name, Between the Columns, to replace a weekly print newspaper, the University of Maryland at College Park still maintained a minimal print presence to reach just those audiences. "There's a whole sector of our staff who are not getting our news electronically... folks like guys in the service shops, and dining facilities folks, and residence facilities and maintenance folks. We put drops of that [print] supplement in break rooms and lounges, places where they punch in their time cards," said Monette Austin Bailey, a senior editor/writer in the university publications office and managing editor of Between the Columns.

But she just learned that this month will mark the end of Between the Columns' printed supplement, after which "We'll be all online," says Bailey. She'll be sad to see the broadsheet go. "We've gotten great comments on our Web site and I'm really proud of it, but I wonder how many folks we're not capturing," she says.

"The range of options that you have in an online publication is just dizzying almost. I guess it just makes me a little bit sad sometimes though that I realize that if I really want something in print, want it or not, I can't get it."

Cornell University is trying to address just that concern in moving the weekly Cornell Chronicle to online only. The last edition of the weekly paper will be printed May 29, but Cornell is putting mechanisms in place so those who want a print copy can still get one -- a printable PDF version will be attached to the new weekly e-newsletter, so readers can print it themselves, and the university's print services division will also make copies on demand, for distribution purposes.

"It's like shifting your weight from one foot to the other. You want to do it in a way that you don't fall down," says Tommy Bruce, the vice president for university communications.

Bruce says his main concerns in switching to an online only format were to preserve the deadline and the editorial decision-making that make the Cornell Chronicle a newspaper (a house newspaper, yes, but a newspaper), as opposed to any other university publication. "The particular nature of the product is what you want to preserve," Bruce said.

"The question is whether or not an all-electronic approach is effective in a university setting. That's what we're analyzing now and looking at for next year," says Fred Volkmann, vice chancellor for public affairs at Washington University in St. Louis, which publishes The Record twice weekly online and once weekly in print, featuring much of the same content in both mediums. Volkmann says they'll make a decision about whether to go all-electronic soon and, if they decide to, it'll happen in 2010.

"The main thing is to be strategic with your important audiences," Volkmann says. "In fact, your most important audiences in many ways are your faculty, staff and students."


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