College Students Target Their Own With Student.Net

By: Steve Outing

College journalists, like the “pros,” are busy thinking up and implementing creative online publishing ideas. Many would argue that the most creative thinking in fact is coming from campuses, since young people are so much more attuned to working with computers and comfortable with Internet technology.

Student.Net is a nice example of a group of college students creating a professional-quality online “publication.” This start-up (it launched last week) has created a national (U.S.) college “newsmagazine” on the World Wide Web. It features a daily cover story aimed at the college crowd, plus features like personal ads, a directory of U.S. college students’ home pages, a television programming guide, pointers to the best Web sites of interest to college students, and an archive of cover stories. It’s a professional-looking site that outdoes a lot of online services produced by commercial publishers.

The venture is headed by Stewart Ugelow, a 20-year-old history major in his junior year at Yale University. Four months ago he joined with a group of friends and colleagues — including 8 classmates at Yale and several others scattered around the U.S. — to piece together Student.Net. Staff members — writers, editors, programmers and artists — are all volunteers “doing it for the love of it,” working with the idea in mind that they’ll be paid when the venture takes off as a commercial enterprise. In fact, the modest amount of money invested in the project has come out of staff members’ pockets. There’s no outside seed money at this point. The non-paid staff includes some talented programmers who have interned at places like Microsoft and Bell Labs.

Says Ugelow of the venture, “We started this because we felt like it was important that there be an independent college publication on the Web, one that was created by students and not by corporate marketers. Just as the soc.college.* newsgroups get spammed all the time by ‘make money fast’ types, most Web sites aimed at college students so far are nothing more than advertising slickly disguised as content.”

Student.Net changes content 5 days a week when colleges are in session. It’s a quick read; you probably won’t spend a lot of time perusing it each day. And that’s as a Web site should be, particularly one targeting busy college students who are unlikely to sit still for long. Cover stories are meant to be useful to the college crowd, such as the essay about how a student finagled 3 free tickets and a first-class upgrade out of the airlines by getting “bumped” from several flights over the Thanksgiving holiday. Another piece is about how to home-brew beer in your dorm room.

A nice feature that I haven’t seen elsewhere yet is found in the TV programming section. A search feature allows you to find out when your favorite TV show is on next. When you receive the results of the search, you can click a box, fill in your email address, send in a form, and the system will send you an email reminder the day before your show airs next. Student.Net gets its TV listings from TVData, which gave Ugelow a good deal, he says.

A personals ad section offers the typical mate-wanted fare. But it uses an email address registration scheme that allows prospective mates to correspond via email with their identity and real email address concealed. This is similar to a system pioneered by Electric Classifieds of San Francisco in its Match.com Web personals service, which allows confidential communication without the parties being able to contact each other directly (until both parties agree to do so). This is an important component of any online personals ad service, to help protect users from being harassed.

Future features are likely to include adding an interactive component so users can talk back and to each other, plus some innovative uses of the Java programming language. The site will expand to include more editorial content, such as a Friday entertainment section. Ugelow is reticent to tell the commercial publishing world about what he’s going to introduce next, saying that some of Student.Net’s future features haven’t been tried by commercial publishers yet.

The target audience is the college crowd, which Ugelow views as underserved by other online publishers. Web sites like Word or HotWired are aimed at the “older” 20-something audience, he says, and don’t really speak to his intended viewers. Sites that do target college students — other than the obvious online editions of campus newspapers — tend to be marketing driven and have little in the way of original editorial content, he says.

The site currently has no advertising, though that is how the service will ultimately be supported; Ugelow says he is opposed to charging a fee for access to content. Unfortunately for Student.Net, advertisers have been reticent to do business “with a bunch of 19-year-olds,” Ugelow says. “We’ve been having some credibility problems.”

Student.Net temporarily resides on rented server space but Ugelow plans to move it to his own computers on his own T-1 line soon. Some of the hardware comes from the student staff members, some of whom agreed to loan a new computer to the cause rather than update their older personal machines.

The site has had no formal marketing, with traffic coming from word of mouth mostly and inclusion as a Spider’s Pick of the Day. As of yesterday, Student.Net had 1,561 individual visitors since launch last Thursday.

Ugelow says he’s been overloaded the last few months juggling classes and Student.Net, so he’s taking next semester off along with a few of his buddies to devote to the project. His father, while proud of his son’s initiative, still insists that Ugelow graduate.

So, watch out, professional publishers. Among the competitors you should be watching are a bunch of college students willing to work for nothing, drawing on the talents of new-media-savvy friends and colleagues around the world. It’s just this kind of venture, created on a shoestring but the result rivaling professional publishers’ products, that the Internet is all about.

Japanese “electronic newspaper” project announced

Tokyo news consumers will have an “electronic newspaper” service available to them next spring, according to news reports. A consortium comprising the Sankei Shimbun, Fuji Television Network, Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp. have established Electronic News Service Inc. to produce the new service, which will deliver a daily electronic edition of the Sankei Shimbun to special subscriber terminals via Fuji Television’s channel 8 sender in Tokyo. Subscribers will pay 40,000 yen ($400 U.S.) to sign up for the service, plus a monthly subscription of 1,200 yen ($12). The set-up fee will include the receiver/reader unit required to use the service. News will be received through household antennas and viewed on the portable terminals, measuring 6.3 inches by 3.4 inches (15.8 cm. by 8.5 cm.). The service will be extended at a later date to the Osaka region, and eventually to all of Japan via the stations of the Fuji Television Network.

(The concept of providing proprietary terminals to read an “electronic edition” of a newspaper is a curious one to be embracing today, given the obvious trend among publishers worldwide to adhere to open standards and to shy away from proprietary solutions. While I wouldn’t bet money that this concept will succeed, I’m willing to concede that the Japanese marketplace may be different enough that this concept might work there. And its success will depend on just how “portable” the receiving unit is. In the U.S., in my estimation, such a venture wouldn’t fly unless the unit was extremely portable and had applications beyond just reading a newspaper — which is what Roger Fidler, formerly of Knight-Ridder’s now-defunct Information Design Lab and a proponent of portable tablet technology for newspaper applications, has been saying for some time.)

How to find CouponsOnline

If you read yesterday’s column early in the day and clicked on the CouponsOnline link (before I fixed it), try this one: http://couponsonline.com/.

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