The Wired Campus: What It Means to Print

By: Steve Outing At at increasing number of college campuses, especially in the U.S., computers and Internet access are ubiquitous. It's not unusual for 80% of the student population to have their own computers. Some campuses are starting to require that students bring a PC with them when they start school. More and more college dorms have Ethernet connections supporting fast Internet access wired into every room. Libraries, student unions, classroom buildings and dorms typically have computer clusters where students can use PCs to access the Internet. Nearly every major campus has a computer center where the PC-less can go to check their e-mail.

In short, the most wired college campuses today offer a glimpse of society in general in a few more years, when the majority of the population is "wired" with fast Internet access, and accessing e-mail and the Web is as commonplace as picking up the telephone or turning on the TV.

If newspaper publishers are worried about the effect that a nearly totally wired population might have on their print products someday, they might look at college newspapers today. But my research would indicate that there's not a lot to worry about. Despite the fact that students are as comfortable checking their e-mail as picking up a print edition of the campus paper, dead-tree college media show no evidence yet of decline. Students are as likely to pick up the free college newspaper today as they've ever been. The difference now is that they also may go to the Web to look up an old story on the paper's archive, or look online when a major breaking event occurs to see what the newspaper staff has put up in advance of tomorrow's print edition.

Harvard 2000

At Harvard University, an estimated 97% of students have their own PCs and the school has a "port-to-pillow" ratio of 1:1 (meaning that every single student on campus has an Ethernet connection available to hook their PC up to the school's network), according to the Yahoo! Internet Life/ZDNet list of America's 100 Most Wired Colleges. Every student gets a default e-mail address upon starting school, plus unlimited Web access and a personal Web page. Yet the printed edition of the Harvard Crimson retains its historical readership, according to Crimson president Matthew Granade.

"It's hard not to read the paper," he says, in part because the student-run but independent publication is delivered to student's doorsteps -- most Harvard students live on campus -- as well as to campus buildings where it's picked up by students on their way into classes. The easy accessibility of the print edition, plus the notion that 'paper is and will remain an amazing medium,' are reasons why students are sticking with paper," he says.

Granade notes that many Harvard students read the New York Times Web edition, which is free. He's convinced that if "we put the Times on their doorstep every morning for free," they'd be reading the print edition instead of the Times' Web site.

That's not to say that the Crimson isn't taking the Web very seriously. It is in the process of redesigning its Web site and installing a fancy new database publishing system, which will make it easy to publish online and on paper from a common database. The Crimson Web site goes live with the day's news at 4 a.m., while the print edition isn't distributed till 7 a.m. The site includes everything from the print edition.

"We're asking ourselves, what new things can we add (to the Web site) to draw people into it," Granade says. Like many campus newspaper Web sites, it gets used largely by students looking through its archives, and from people off-campus -- most notably alumni and parents of current students. Web traffic also jumps when there's breaking local news. Granade says that when Harvard's women's basketball team won the first round of the NCAA tournament, usage of the Web site ballooned, for example.

Some parents drop subscriptions

At Dartmouth University, the campus newspaper, The Dartmouth, has a Web site and its traffic has been steadily climbing, yet the focus remains squarely on print. The site is updated with news only once a week, and Web readers tend to be primarily from off campus, according to The Dartmouth president Erin Loback. While print distribution of the newspaper on campus hasn't changed, Loback says that there has been a bit of a drop in print subscriptions from alumni and parents, who now can go to the free Web site.

At Stanford University in California, The Stanford Daily uses its Web site for breaking news where immediacy is important. When an El Niño-inspired storm flooded part of the campus this winter, the Daily staff updated the Web site hourly with reports about which buildings were closed and which classes were cancelled, according to editor Therese Lee. That doubled the normal traffic to the site.

But that kind of event doesn't happen very often, Lee points out, and for most students the print edition is read as much as it ever was before the campus became wired to the Internet. You can't read the Web edition in class while waiting for the professor to show up or if you get bored with the lecture, but you can with the printed paper, she points out. Lee thinks that the majority of Web news readers are parents and alumni, and that students use it mostly for breaking news and the newspaper archive.

The Stanford Daily's Web site has not yet influenced print distribution and the same number of copies are printed each day. This is despite the fact that dorm rooms all include Internet access and the majority of students have PCs, and the newspaper puts all its news on the Web every morning. "Stanford is so wired, I can't imagine it getting more wired," Lee says.

Take my Web site, please!

It's much more common for student editors to fret about how to get more online usage than to worry about the Web taking away print customers. At Kent State University in Ohio, home to a major new media effort and the Liquid Crystal Institute (and another of the 100 most wired campuses), Shane Geisheimer is online editor for the Web edition of the Kent Stater campus newspaper. He says that although the full content of the print edition goes on the Web each morning, few students opt to read that content online over print.

Geisheimer's efforts are focused on what can be added to the Web site to get students to take a look online beyond the well-used newspaper archive. The Digital Kent Stater regularly offers up online exclusives, such as coverage of the Editor & Publisher Interactive Newspapers conference held last February in Seattle. It also conducted an online contest during the NCAA basketball tournament, which was one of the site's most effective traffic boosters.

Not what you'd think

"Online news is changing the way college students read newspapers, but not the way most people might think," says Eric Meyer, a University of Illinois journalism professor and managing partner of Newslink Associates. Today's students still prefer to read their college newspapers in print, and paper editions are doing as well as if not better than they have historically -- despite nearly universal Internet access on campuses. What's changed, says Meyer, is students' behavior in reading off-campus newspapers. "Typically, many college students used to subscribe to a 'town' paper or a nearby major metro. Nowadays, they are much more likely to check the New York Times, CNN or ESPN online to provide what the non-campus newspaper used to provide," he says. "On-campus vendors attempting to sell subscriptions to distant papers during orientation week the start of each semester have steadily dwindled in recent years."

As for college newspaper Web sites, Meyer says that they draw some students looking for archived articles, "but by and large the vast majority of the page views most campus papers receive are from parents, former students and prospective students checking out what's going on on campus from a distance. That's a substantial change from the past, when campus newspapers barely circulated off-campus." This trend has even caused some problems for college administrators, who are concerned about parents and prospective students reading at a distance about crime or other problems on campus, he says.

At the University of Colorado in Boulder, a similar experience exists. Bruce Henderson, director of the journalism school's New Media Center, says that the Web site of the Campus Press, the on-campus student paper, gets its heaviest use from people who access its chat rooms -- with people coming in from all over the world. "The popularity of that is just amazing to me," he says. "It makes me think that online versions of print newspapers may not be what this medium is all about. ... (Online is very much about being) a communications tool, and I keep thinking about how newspapers need to change in order to tap into that."

The CU campus is not as well wired as others, and dorm rooms do not all have Internet access yet. Henderson thinks that in three or four years, it's possible that the Campus Press will print fewer than its current 6,000 copies per day. When students can access the campus network from their dorm rooms, he expects Campus Press Web site usage to double or triple. Another impediment currently is that the university's modem pool for students accessing the Internet from off the campus network is badly overloaded; it's rare not to get a busy signal when trying to connect. CU does offer a deal to students for Internet access for $10 per month through MCI, but Henderson says the majority of students opt for the free service, despite its poor quality.

There have been a handful of cases on U.S. campuses where Web sites have been used to reduce print expenses or even eliminate printed editions. Temple University in Pennsylvania is the most well known example, having dropped its student print paper in favor of the Web. This is not likely to be a trend anytime soon.

But the University of Florida at Gainesville "might be the place where we could see print editions disappear first," says David Carlson, a journalism professor who teaches new media. Beginning next fall, the university will require all incoming students to own a PC and everyone will get a university-issued e-mail/Web account. "I think that will change a lot of things, and not just the student paper," he says, including forcing the full faculty to become more "wired."

While the student newspaper's print edition has not been impacted yet, Carlson believes that this change could result in the printed paper being replaced by online as soon as two or three years from now. Still, a couple of factors could push back that prediction. Carlson says the job done online by the campus newspaper, which operates independently from the university, is "not stellar" and thus there's little incentive for students to use its Web site. And secondly, today's students seem "conservative" in many ways and are slower to adopt using new technologies than you might expect.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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