Print-to-Digital Evolution at Student Publications

As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I served as a writer, editor and cartoonist for the Cavalier Daily, an independent daily student newspaper with a circulation of 10,000. The experience was truly extraordinary: a few dozen 18-to-22 year-olds working 10 to 60 hours a week, without pay or supervision, to collect advertising revenue, write compelling and timely content, produce graphics and page layouts, and publish a 20-page newspaper before a 2 a.m. deadline.

The Cavalier Daily was a laboratory for leadership, creativity and innovation: With annual leadership transitions, staff members had the freedom to explore new approaches and break from tradition. Furthermore, without pay, only the most dedicated students stuck around.* I am grateful for my afternoons with the international admissions office and Scrabble-obsessed engineering students for article assignments; the daily email exchanges with my graphics staff as they insisted, no, their comic wasn't that offensive; and the late evenings spent searching InDesign layouts for missing periods or slightly off-center photographs.

[*It is worth noting that many of our most talented staff members come from low-income households, and the AccessUVA financial aid program (which guarantees 100 percent of demonstrated financial need) makes it possible for these students to participate in student clubs like the Cavalier Daily.]

Discovering one of my old comics during a visit to the renovated Cavalier Daily office last spring
Discovering one of my old comics during a visit to the renovated Cavalier Daily office last spring

The Cavalier Daily has changed a great deal since my graduation in 2010, following the financial crisis and the national decline of print newspapers. Local businesses are less willing to purchase print advertisements, and the financial model of our 125 year-old publication is no longer viable. Under the talented leadership of recent managing boards, the Cavalier Daily has transitioned to a twice-weekly print format, while considerably expanding daily online coverage. Although this digital transformation has cut costs, it has not been without growing pains. A New York Times article about rising costs at student newspapers noted:

"...[College] papers that eliminate too many of their print editions do so at their peril. Re:fuel research shows that students still enjoy picking up copies, free and convenient as they are, stacked in the student union and dorm lounges. In 2011, 60 percent of students read their college paper — a testament, if you will, to its importance as an outlet for student concerns, from tuition increases to the quality of food in the cafeteria. Of those readers, 60 percent preferred print, while 16 percent preferred to get their college news online."

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So, why the sudden nostalgia? I am Senior Editor of the SAIS Review of International Affairs, a twice-yearly academic journal of international affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The 35 year-old journal has always focused strongly on print; in fact, the SAIS Review did not have a website until 2011. Needless to say, there are many problems with this print emphasis:

  • The print journal is expensive ($22) and difficult to access: It can be reached through a paid subscription, select university libraries, or Project MUSE
  • International affairs changes by the minute: While some topics remain relevant after our four-month copy-editing and publishing process, others become irrelevant within hours
  • Authors demand instant gratification: Why submit an article to our journal if you can self-publish online and reach limitless viewers immediately?
  • Copy-editing can be brutal: We want to offer our volunteer student editors more opportunities to engage in rewarding, substantial projects and to expose their original work to a larger audience (See my previous post, "Motivating Volunteer Student Editors")

This year, my editorial board is launching a digital evolution. We've already made some big changes:

SAIS Review Uncharted Waters
SAIS Review Uncharted Waters
This semester, I have experimented with Canva to create graphics and flyers for social media and print distribution
This semester, I have experimented with Canva to create graphics and flyers for social media and print distribution

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We have a lot of work ahead of us, publishing our traditional print journal while transforming our staff hierarchy and substantially expanding our online presence. Some of the lessons I learned at the Cavalier Daily are directly applicable, while other challenges are unknown territory. But one constant remains: my fascination with the optimal management of student-run publications, especially as the greater print industry struggles to move its content online.

I will post regular updates related to our progress. It is sure to be a challenging and exciting semester, and "Big Data" is the perfect theme to usher in our digital evolution.