A deeper look at Herald-free Fridays

I spent the better part of the week digesting this item:One
of the student newspapers at my alma mater is dropping its Friday edition for a
“digital-first” approach.
I obviously have some bias toward the dead-tree
edition of publications but I also obviously have a bias toward the Internet.
Both have been good to me for different reasons: I love advising the kids in
our newsroom as they gather on deadline to pump out the paper. Conversely, without
the Web, I’d just be a crank writing missives in a “Avengers” notebook.

The Badger Herald isn’t the first to do this and it won’t be
the last.
The Minnesota Daily dropped its Friday edition a few years back and
hasn’t looked back since. The Shorthorn at Texas-Arlington has moved to a
digital platform and TCU has launched TCU360 in place of a daily pile of pulp.

Perhaps the biggest gambler was the Daily Emerald in Oregon,
which took a profitable print publication and blew it up. The Emerald now
publishes as a primarily Web-based medium, despite making money in the print
world (a rare feat these days to say the least). In that case, the publishers
saw changing shifts in their readership and despite remaining relatively
healthy, they took a chance that if they wanted to survive long term, they
would need to get while the getting was good. At the time, it seemed akin to a
healthy woman in her early 30s getting a double mastectomy because she had the
breast cancer gene: a radical choice but one that was theirs to make. As is the
case with most of these things, the jury is still out.

However, in the case of the Herald, deconstructing their
approach and their argumentation gave me the sense that this was more about
triage than it was about trailblazing. Consider the following:

  • In an interview with College Media Matters, Herald
    EIC Ryan Rainey noted that the paper was going to create a “voluntary sandbox” where
    digital first ideas would come about and potentially be implemented as a
    substitute for the print edition. When considering how to move to a
    digital-first model, whether you’re doing it one day or every day, you need to
    have some semblance of a structure. If this move were for the purpose of doing
    SOMETHING, Rainey would have likely been more specific as to what that
    something would be. Instead, it felt very free-form. Don’t get me wrong: Good
    things can come of that free-form approach, but more often than not, it’s like
    having a task to do that lacks a concrete deadline. It rarely gets done.

  • Rainey noted a lack of revenue and concerns with
    the drop in advertising over the past few years at multiple points in his
    interview with CMM’s Dan Reimold. He explained that the move isn’t indicative
    of any major problems at the paper from a financial standpoint. That said, the
    Herald’s most recent 990 form shows the paper lost about $33,000 over the
    previous year (Download it here). For the past several years, the paper has shown a downward trend
    in its financial health. That said, the “voluntary sandbox” wasn’t in any way
    linked to a revenue-making process, which is a concern. In other words, it’s
    not enough to cut spending. You have to increase revenue. It’s unclear how this
    move does both.

  • When the other papers moved to a digital model,
    the proposals had been in the works for months. This included heavy revamping
    of the workflow to better accommodate the 24/7 aspect of digital-first, the
    reconfiguring (or redesign) of the website to show new and exciting things and
    an overall set of financial and editorial projections to outline some good
    markers to assess the success or failure of the venture. Although I am in no
    way privy to the inner workings of the Herald, the nebulous nature of this
    project would concern me. The interview was one thing: Reimold appeared to
    catch Rainey before he was ready to do a full roll out of this idea. However,
    Rainey’s own words, published three days later in the Herald, do nothing to
    disabuse me of this concern. He relies on some serious buzzword bingo and
    that’s about it.

  • When you say you value something and you want
    others to believe you value it, you actually have to value it. In most cases,
    what you are willing to pay for will demonstrate that value. I’m not say it’s
    always that way (I love FD the most and I do it for free), but when you set up
    a paid/unpaid tier system, you run the risk of telling people, “Put more time
    here and less time there.”
    To wit:

    He
    said salary levels for the paper’s roughly 55 paid staffers are being adjusted,
    simply due to the fact that “there’s going to be one less print edition, which
    means one less day of revenue.”

    Essentially, the staffers are
    taking a pay cut, the new enterprise is going to be revenue-free and no one is
    being forced/paid to work in the “voluntary sandbox.” What that indicates at a
    basic level is a) the paper remains the most important enterprise, b) we value
    the “sandbox” less both in terms of resources we are putting into it and the
    revenue we expect to receive from it and c) we have no cudgel to hold over you
    in order to get work out of you to help make this enterprise a success.

  • Why now? Today is the first “Herald-free
    Friday,” which means that with Thanksgiving break and upcoming finals, the
    Herald is essentially killing (at most) five issues. The financial savings
    isn’t enough to make that a rational choice. In addition, this is the most
    stressful part of any college semester. The Thanksgiving break usually means a
    boatload of stress, travel and catching up on the homework students have been
    blowing off all term. Then, it’s upcoming final projects, final exams and
    packing up for the holiday break. It’s not exactly a time period most conducive
    to thoughtful discourse, innovation and radical change. Students are lucky if
    they can get laundry done. One of the best advantages student news outlets have
    over their professional counterparts is the presence of extended school-year
    breaks. Summer, Christmas, Spring Break and more give student media operations
    a chance to stop the daily grind and regroup. Why not push this off to the
    middle of December and use that dedicated group of staffers that will be
    responsible for launching this thing to figure out what exactly will be
    happening.

Other problems are always around the corner, but these
appear to be the biggest question marks in an industry filled with them. The
one thing that remains the elephant in the room is that for the most part student
newspapers (the dead-tree editions) are still popular with students.Reimold
did some earlier analysis on this topic and found that, yes, people still pick
these up, they still read them and they still like them as a free, quick way to
catch up on the news of the campus.
By being ever-present on the campus, the
papers lack competition in many ways (although the Herald does have a competing
daily on its campus, it is the only paper in the country with this concern).
However, when you flip the switch to digital, you find yourself fighting for
air against millions of other sites, ranging from daily newspapers to Facebook
and Twitter. If I’m online, I’m not going to look for my student paper, unless
I have REALLY developed an online reading habit associated with that site. The
days of “If you build it, they will come” are over and have been for many
years.

What will happen next to the Herald and their Friday
experiment? That’s just one more question in a long line of them.

4 thoughts on “A deeper look at Herald-free Fridays

  1. Athenae says:

    However, when you flip the switch to digital, you find yourself fighting for air against millions of other sites, ranging from daily newspapers to Facebook and Twitter. If I’m online, I’m not going to look for my student paper, unless I have REALLY developed an online reading habit associated with that site. The days of “If you build it, they will come” are over and have been for many years.
    God, fucking THIS. I am so sick of the idea that all web sites are self-marketing. You still have to raise awareness, and that takes money. I get into this argument ten times a day. No, putting something on our web site will not magically make it “go viral” and bring you all the dollars. It’s a big Internet. You don’t need to reach all of it, and remembering the good old days of getting slashdotted, you don’t really WANT to reach all of it. People in Peru might give you a million likes on Facebook but that’s not money.
    IT ALSO WORKS 24-7. What smells the most to me about this move is the idea that you need to set aside a special day to think about the Internet. Why aren’t they thinking about the Internet all day every day? Does their Internet only update when they’re not publishing? What’s the fucking holdup? Learn to walk and chew gum at the same time, or train some freshmen to chew your gum for you. It’s not like the bad years when everything had to be custom-coded by some super-genius.
    There are so very many ways to do everything well now. It’s painful to watch people do it badly and then blame some imaginary inherent weakness of the medium.
    A.

  2. MapleStreet says:

    Like y’all said.
    Locally, like almost every small town in America which is trying to attract business, we have a group specifically paid to attract business. So far, it has attracted “businesses” that promise to come into town and generate jobs but then disappear – usually with unpaid debts. Not my town, but as you were nearby, one thta has become an symbol of the process is a company called Marmtek in Moberly, MO. (If you google, include both Marmtek and Moberly as there is a company that comes up under Marmtek that is totally unrelated).
    So right now our economic shill people have decided that they had to do something. So they have created a new and improved web page. Hooray ! n (Not a bad page, but we’re just one of many). The web page has their new and improved Logo. I’m sure this will knock the socks off Microsoft and Apple as they both move here.
    BTW – As I’ve seen in at least the last 5 years, the logo is the abbreviation for the company with a serif font. It is the same thing everywhere. And they get paid for this? Pay me to make a logo for First Draft. It will be the letter F and D, both with the serif points.

  3. MapleStreet says:

    Correction on spelling. Should be Mamtek.
    Would I be too cynical to suggest the Herald “strategy” (intentionally in quotes with a double snark) is to try to profit off the people in the public providing their own content?
    Staffers take a cut as there is one less edition a week so they theoretically work a day less a week (and if a big news event happens on the designated day, will the reporters be free to forget about it or will they be on call and essentially work for nothing – although labor law has that if you’re on call you get money for it).
    Looking at Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section on my local news web page shows that the world is full of people looking for their 15 minutes of fame. And to get it, they will make web postings for you without pay. CNN has a place for people to generate their own stories. So I’m sure the Herald can populate the page solely as a “community provided stories day”. The question is can they populate with anything worth reading.

  4. Aaaargh says:

    Sounds to me like the Koch Brothers have gotten tired of financing their little UW House Organ.

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