On Feb. 3, the Gateway announced it would discontinue its print issue, replacing it with expansive digital coverage and a monthly magazine. Screenshot by J-Source.

What the Gateway going digital means for campus media

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor Come May, the only way you will be able to read The Gateway is by visiting its website or picking up its new monthly paper. The University of Alberta’s campus paper announced on Feb. 3 it would end its weekly print publication at the end of April and start prioritizing…

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor

Come May, the only way you will be able to read The Gateway is by visiting its website or picking up its new monthly paper.

The University of Alberta’s campus paper announced on Feb. 3 it would end its weekly print publication at the end of April and start prioritizing digital coverage and a monthly feature magazine.

“It didn’t really make sense for us to keep putting out this print product every week that has such high overhead costs,” said Beth Mansell, Gateway’s executive director, noting that a student levy was going into a printed newspaper that students weren’t really picking up.

Staff also hadn’t realized how much they, too, would be affected by falling oil prices—much of the paper’s ad revenue came from hospitality industries, which are no longer as interested in advertising because of losses related to the slumping the oil industry. Ad revenue accounted for 45 per cent of the Gateway’s budget, while the rest comes from  a student levy.

But the move online may have come eventually anyway. Online views numbered 242,000 in the fall 2015 term—far outstripping the paper’s average weekly pick-up rate of 2,500, which had decreased from 7,000 in 2011, after the Gateway stopped producing twice weekly print editions.

That’s not uncommon at university campuses across Canada. Emma McPhee, editor-in-chief of the Brunswickan, told J-Source her paper has already begun considering its options for the future, including ending weekly print issues and switching to a monthly, magazine format paper.

“We do know we have to cut distribution,” she said. “Students aren’t picking them up as much. We’ve definitely noticed that pick-up rates have fallen a lot on campus.” McPhee said it’s not uncommon for her, while distributing new copies of the Brunswickan on campus, to pick up stacks nearly identical in size to the ones left the week before. Ad revenues have also not been high enough to justify the paper’s distribution numbers.

On the other hand, online views have doubled on the Brunswickan’s recently redesigned website in the past year.

In Vancouver, the Ubyssey has won numerous awards for the design of its print product, including a John H. McDonald award for best cover design this year. However, this year, the Ubyssey reduced its distribution to once a week after years of being a twice weekly paper. “Pick up isn’t as great as we would hope, but people are still reading it in print,” said Will McDonald, coordinating editor at the paper.

At the Varsity, the paper serving all three of the University of Toronto’s campuses, pick-up rates have actually remained stable according to editor-in-chief Alec Wilson—but he believes there will also be a move to prioritize online content. “It’s difficult though,” Wilson said. “This is a volunteer organization.” He said it’s tough to recruit technical staff who can pass on their knowledge, especially when competing with other on-campus organizations and projects.

At the Link, the Concordia University paper that has become well known for its micro-sites for special issues as well as its newspaper layout and design, student journalists have taken up the task of teaching themselves the digital ropes. “We do everything pretty much in-house” said editor-in-chief Michelle Pucci. “It’s a lot of learning as you go.”

She said the paper’s print pick-up doesn’t “even compare” to their online analytics—right now they average 1,000 page views a day. A single breaking news story can climb as high as 20,000 page views or more.

However, Pucci still sees value in the print product. “I’m not sure how often our administration will read our website, but I can be sure that they’ll have a copy of our print product on their desk at some point during the week.” She questioned whether the lack of a physical copy may make it easier for a student media organization to disappear.

But until that day comes, most student media outlets are still beholden to the print schedule. McDonald said the Ubyssey made the switch to a weekly printed publication so staff could focus more on the digital product instead of getting “bogged down” in print production.

“When people have the print issue in front of them, that’s often the deadline that people are working on,” said McDonald. Many of the editors J-Source spoke to noted that stories tend to get put on the website concurrently with the release of the print issues.

Thinking digitally means updating websites and social media daily—something that can prove a challenge given that journalists at campus newspapers are balancing their reporting with class schedules.

“It’s been a little slow sometimes catching on, but people have really picked up on it both in terms of our editors doing stories and our readers knowing they can come every day for new stuff online,” McDonald said—and web traffic on the Ubyssey has been increasing.

But at the Baron, on the University of New Brunswick’s Saint John campus, they’ve made the switch to digital. Serving a small campus of about 3,000 students, the Baron has been digital only since 2012 because of the rising cost of print and the drop in distribution, according to editor-in-chief Steven Hildebrand.

He said his staff aims to get one story up a day. “Whenever news happens, we publish it. And it gives us a little more time to work on bigger pieces to polish them up—which is more fun.” Their commitment to digital reporting has also helped attract the technical talent they need to get the job done. “People are interested in the tech side, getting those skills that they are not getting in their English degree or their business degree.” Hildebrand said the paper had 5,000 visits to the site last semester—which, taking into account the small audience size, is significant.

“When I think about the cost of printing and all the work that goes into layout and all the stress around deadlines, I don’t want to go there,” Hildebrand said of print.

Mansell said that the Gateway will save around $75,000 a year.

The Gateway team is still in the process of readjusting their organizational structure so that they are best-suited to take on digital reporting. All section editors have become contributing editors, and rather than have section meetings, the staff will now meet daily to discuss what stories they will chase for the day—much like digital-focused newsrooms around the country.

H.G. Watson can be reached at hgwatson@j-source.ca or on Twitter.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.