The Dalhousie Gazette cut their print publication schedule to bi-weekly in 2016, and fully revamped their online presence. Screenshot by J-Source.

How Canadian student newspapers are going digital

As reading habits change, many student newspapers are decreasing their print circulation. Continue Reading How Canadian student newspapers are going digital

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When Sabina Wex was an editor at the Dalhousie Gazette from 2015 to 2017, she spent a fair amount of her time in grind mode. Like many campus newspapers, the team at the then-weekly print newspaper often struggled to fill space under short deadlines, scrambled for pitches on what often felt like slow news weeks, and endured the weekly stress of layout come production each week.

“These print issues (were) such a nightmare for us,” Wex said. “You had to fill a certain amount of space, but you didn’t always have something to say, something wasn’t always happening, and putting together the issues, the design — it took a really long time.”

To make matters worse, Wex saw few signs that her writers and editors’ work was for good cause. She often heard from friends and peers that the newspaper was not well known or widely read across campus.

“I would ask people all the time about the Gazette, if they knew about it, what they liked about it, what they didn’t, and most people just didn’t know about it,” Wex said. “Hearing that and hearing (comments) like, ‘Why would I pick up a newspaper at the library?’ kind of stuck with me.

I was like, ‘OK, we need to change the way we’re doing things, because we’re not hitting our audience.’”

It was then that Wex and her former co-editor at the Gazette, Eleanor Davidson, decided to cut print in half, switching to a bi-weekly printing schedule in the fall of 2016. Using data from their online and social media analytics, the two worked to formulate a plan for revamping their online presence while drastically scaling back on print.

“I put together this digital strategy, branding strategy, social media strategy, we got a website guy to come in, we worked with him really closely,” Wex said. “Then we hit play on September 1.”

Albeit stressful for the editors planning it, the Dalhousie Gazette’s transition from printing weekly is far from unique. Amid layoffs, scalebacks, and refocused efforts on digital in legacy newsrooms across the country, campus publications have faced similar pressures to refocus their energy from print to online content. The steadily decreasing value of print advertising, declining pick-up rates at stands across campus, and looming pressure to modernize in an evolving media landscape all leave campus news editors with the burden of figuring out how to best serve their student audiences.

My quick, informal call for testimonials from campus editors on Twitter and Facebook was met with a swarm of responses that underscored just how commonly felt this pressure has been in recent years.

Improvements in engagement following the shift online

According to Wex, the Dalhousie Gazette saw a 100 per cent increase in online readership within the first three months of launching its new publishing strategy in 2016, which she attributes to the paper’s revamped efforts in social media and breaking news online. She also saw drastic improvements to print quality and readership with the extra time that the Gazette’s bi-weekly publishing schedule gave writers to perfect their pieces.

“The print editions were way better because they were filled with really good stories, they were more put together, there was more thought put into them, rather than scraping by every week,” Wex said. “(Writers) had time to say, ‘I wanna do an investigation,’ or ‘I really wanna get to know this subject,’ and see if there’s something there. And if there’s not, (we could) axe it and it’s OK.”

Improvements in print quality have been common for other publications decreasing their publishing frequency. While prior to both outlets’ shift to a monthly magazine format, the Gauntlet and the Link saw untouched issues left in stands week after week. Since switching, editors at both papers have noticed an increase in demand that leaves them restocking their stands between issues.

Editors cutting print frequency have also found the transition to alleviate editors’ stress. Jack Hauen, editor-in-chief at the Ubyssey, saw this occur very quickly after the publication switched from a twice-weekly to a weekly print schedule.

“People kind of overnight went from constantly scrambling to think about their content for the next print issue to being able to take their time with print layouts,” Hauen said. “The mindset went from, ‘We’re always preparing a print issue’ to ‘We need to get this up online right away.’”

Switching to a monthly magazine has also proven to be a sound financial choice for some newspapers, including The Gauntlet at the University of Calgary. According to editor-in-chief Jason Herring, declining newspaper advertising revenue was a primary reason for the change.

“I thought advertising would be a problem, but we budgeted very very conservatively for print,” Herring said. “We budgeted that we’d get, like, an advertisement a month, because it was something that there wasn’t really proof of concept for. And we did only get like one advertisement the first month, and then it picked up in a way that almost exceeded the rate that we were advertising at in our newspaper.”

Challenges to changing print production

Despite the apparent benefits of transitioning to digital, making drastic cuts to print comes with its fair share of challenges. Old habits die hard, and switching up printing schedules can test a paper’s workflow and efficiency. Cormac O’Brien, editor-in-chief at the Martlet, has found adjusting to new deadlines to be challenging for his team.

“When you have a print paper, you have a fixed date where (a draft) has to be sent to the printer, otherwise you just don’t have a product,” O’Brien said. “Having that hanging over your head is far more potent when it’s a print deadline versus a web deadline … One of the troubles we’ve had with bi-weekly is we kind of fall into this cycle where nothing gets done for a week and then everything gets done in a week.”

And for staff at the Gauntlet, the biggest challenge in transitioning has been learning to think creatively in laying out a print product, according to Herring.

“I think that our magazine is kind of intrinsically a more visual medium than a newspaper,” Herring said. “In the newspaper you don’t have a lot of room for experimentation. Week to week you’re kind of fitting into a mold that’s, like, pretty similar. You have room to make some creative artistic flourishes but that’s not exactly what you’re doing on every page. In a magazine you want every page to stand out. And that’s something that we’re still working on.”

Unique value in circulating a print publication on campus

With the numerous successes that seem to come with moving campus news online, the question of whether there is still value in circulating a print publication remains. To Wex, the permanence that comes with writing for print teaches writers and editors the importance of being thorough—something that writing for the web does not do.

“Seeing your name on a paper is different from seeing it online, right, because it’s just out there, you can’t change it,” Wex said. “Online, if you make a mistake it’s not a big deal, we can make a correction, nobody even notices. In a newspaper, people notice.”

And while this can be said for any publication, including legacy media outlets, there are other advantages to running a print publications that are unique to campus communities. Primarily, the institutional legitimacy that a print paper holds at a university is irreplaceable.

“An important part of our audience is the administration and the faculty, and I think they really consume print still, because they’re older,”  Jonathan Cook, former editor-in-chief at the Link, said. “They’re definitely paying attention.”

Cook also noted that with a constantly-changing audience at university campuses, circulating print copies is a tried-and-true way to reach new readers and potential contributors, who may not otherwise find student news online.

“There’s so much turnover at a university that it’s harder to reach people just solely online,” Cook said. “You can’t beat when someone’s walking into school for the first day and like maybe has to kill time before class and they just pick up this magazine and they’re like, ‘What is this?’”

Despite the historical legacy that comes with printing a newspaper, the fact remains that students, like most audiences, consume news differently than they did years ago, and it’s up to campus publications to meet these demands.

“It’s always hard to let go of a print edition,” Wex admitted. “It is a pressure a lot of student newspapers are gonna have to go through because that’s how students get (their news). And as much as I would love to be like, ‘Everybody would love print!’ people want things accessibly, and a mobile phone or computer is gonna be the way to do that.”

Audrey Carleton is a freelance journalist based in Toronto. She recently completed the Globe and Mail's summer staff program, after getting her start at The McGill Tribune. She enjoys going for long runs and tending to her house plants.