John Schuster

The unraveling of the traditional newspaper model has been a refrain played more often than a Katy Perry song in heavy top-40 rotation. Print is dying, or at the very least gradually fading away, and newspapers are trying to figure out how to bridge the gap financially in the digital age, often to the peril of its employees.

That prompted the university to the north to take a drastic step over the summer. The ASU student newspaper, State Press, scrapped its print presence, which had been dwindling anyway, and went all-digital. 

Arizona State is one of a handful of colleges to make the move, and certainly the most recognizable. It’s a dramatic decision that didn’t sit well with the traditionalist sect. 

“I get upset emails all the time,” said Jason Manning, State Press Publisher and Director of Student Media at ASU. “’You may say this works over there, but it’s not going to work here and here’s why,’” and I say fine. I wouldn’t suggest to you how to run your thing, although there are a few inevitable, inexorable trends we see, and one we see is print is a problem, and revenue for print is a problem. That argument is over. We should be looking forward from that and look to how that problem gets solved and how it plays out in our communities and institutions. That will be different for all of us.”

At State Press, the writing was on the wall, which meant ink would not be on paper. Once a daily, in 2013 the publication was pared to two editions a week. Furthermore, full-time staff was slashed from 9 ½ employees to 2 ½, although some were reassigned. As a result, State Press pitched, and got approval for the digital transition.

Once the move was made, that set the stage for problem-solving on two fronts. First, how to remain visibly viable. One of the arguments among supporters of maintaining the traditional print model is that the presence of a physical print edition helps to remind students the school paper still exists. As such, they might pick up a copy. But are those same students really going to remember there’s a student newspaper if it’s only available online, and are they going to bother clicking on those stories?

State Press says the answer is yes. 

“We’re up more than 50 percent above where we were two years ago and more than 44 percent above where we were last year,” said State Press editor Julia Shumway in an email detailing State Press’ online reach, which tallied over three quarters of a million unique sessions in the first two months of the school year and since the transition. The more successful stories from a traffic standpoint tend to be list or poll related. 

Not surprisingly, social media plays a critical role in relevance.

“You have to be really good, and really smart in social media,” said Manning. “We’re getting there. We’re getting smarter all the time. We have really smart students and have tried in our recruiting to expand beyond just journalism and communications and get some marketing and other disciplines in house. Nobody is going to go in that age demographic and type in, then go to the home page. They’ll see something cool on social media and then follow the link. More than 50 percent of the traffic is coming in from social media or search, so all the action is at the article page, and that’s another design challenge. Whether it’s search or social media it’s one and done (another huge issue faced by publications across the spectrum. Someone who clicked a story they saw on social media will often only read that story then leave the site without accessing other content). The challenge is how do you design those article-level pages so your best stuff is there, and you can keep that readership for longer periods of time for more clicks. It’s a huge challenge, and we’re grappling with that.”

And improving branding as well.