College papers deliver

While the mainstream press struggles, corporations and advertisers latch onto profitable campus publications

November 20, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

Mainstream newspapers may be up against dwindling circulation and shrinking advertising revenues, but college papers have become hot commodities.

Spurred by research indicating that about 76 percent of the nation's 6 million full-time college undergraduates read their campus papers at least occasionally, big corporations and advertisers are latching onto student-run publications.

One of the most notable examples of the trend occurred in late summer, when a subsidiary of MTV, one of the country's best-known youth brands and part of the Viacom entertainment empire, purchased College Publisher, a company that runs Web sites for about 450 college papers - nine of them in Maryland.

So solid are the economic prospects for the student-run newspaper at Florida State University, FSView & Florida Flambeau, that it was acquired in August by a mainstream newspaper, The Tallahassee Democrat.

"There's no more local paper than a campus paper," said Dina Pradel, general manager of Y2M, which founded College Publisher in 1999. She said that while large urban newspapers are trying to woo younger readers, college papers have a ready-made audience of adherents, willing to read news about their immediate environment, and to be tempted by ads targeted to their tastes.

The typical campus audience they cater to, she said, is "a very attractive demographic," a group whose members will spend $1 million or more in buying things and services over a lifetime. While in college, many students will be making major first-time purchasing decisions - cars, insurance, electronics - a market advertisers dearly covet.

The health of campus papers is due also, in part, to the explosive growth of the Internet and of Web-based advertising, much of it aimed at the young. About 600 campus papers publish online editions, and advertisers have been quick to exploit their potential. Many campus newspaper Web sites now carry ads from national retail chains and other big-ticket companies.

And students are checking in. A recent survey by Student Monitor, which tracks the buying habits, concerns and activities of students nationwide, showed that, while students watch an average of 10 hours of television a week, they spend 15 hours a week online.

At the same time, college students are still reading the papers' print editions. A Student Monitor study says 76 percent of college students surveyed during the spring semester this year read one out of the previous five print editions of their campus paper. That number has remained roughly consistent for almost two decades, never dropping below the high 60s, said Eric Weil, managing partner of Student Monitor, which twice a year surveys 1,200 full-time students on 100 four-year campuses.

The difference now, he said, is that 38 percent of students regularly read an online edition of their campus paper, and they spend an average of 19 minutes doing so, Weil said.

"From a net readership standpoint, there's no question that the online versions have gained the papers' readers," Weil said. "In fairness to the Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, a college paper is free, and it's about me. For the students at the University of Pennsylvania, The Daily Pennsylvanian is a lot more relevant than The New York Times."

Mainstream newspapers like the Times are struggling to keep the readers they have. While many papers, including The Sun, have seen an increase in Web readers, newspapers' print circulations in general have dropped an average of about 3 percent in the last year. The decline has remained fairly consistent in recent years as the print media industry continues to be hit by competition from the Internet and other new forms of technology. In 1980, 62 million Americans read a daily paper. Last year, that number was down to 55 million.

Readers of campus newspapers, meanwhile, inhabit somewhat insulated ecosystems, with their own news, personalities and events, so that picking up a free copy or browsing for its content online is, for many students, almost automatic.

"We have a captive audience," said Brian Stelter, in his third year as editor of The Towerlight, at Towson University.

Stelter, who has gained renown tracking the television industry on his TVNewser blog, recalled being frustrated as a freshman when he kept seeing "a lot of papers still left on the racks."

No more. The Towerlight prints the same number of papers it did then - 10,000 copies, twice a week - but now they tend to vanish.

"That makes the circulation people happy," Stelter said. With Towson's student population of 18,000 expected to rise to about 25,000 in the next decade, the paper's role in campus life, he said, will rise, too.

"We might not be in print everyday in 10 years, but we'll be online everyday," said Stelter, who oversees 13 paid staff members, as well as a number of freelance writers. This semester, the paper began running Web-based classified ads, a crucial money-earner.

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