Students at Doane College in Crete, Neb., come from their classes and dorms, pick up their lunches and proceed to step back in time.
The millennials seek out an honest-to-goodness, dead-tree, processed-pulp newspaper, handed out by the paper’s staff, to catch the midday dining rush.
“It’s strange. These kids are walking around with iPhones and iPads, and they are looking for the college paper,” said David Swartzlander, newspaper adviser to the Doane Owl and president of the College Media Advisers, a national organization supporting college news publications.
The Owl is not unique.
For students raised on iPads, Kindles and Twitter, college newspapers are proving surprisingly durable, even as their real-world cousins face intense market pressures to consolidate or close. But, with education budgets tightening, too, many venerable college papers are discovering that they are not immune to the forces affecting the industry, and some have decamped entirely to the Web.
Advertisers, recognizing the niche market of coffee-guzzling, 20-something consumers, are still willing to pay good money to advertise in college papers. Although the lure of the Web has been felt among the campus media, the school newspaper appears to be holding its own.
“For the most part, print still rules on college campuses,” Mr. Swartzlander said.
Even with all the online alternatives out there, “Having a print paper on campus is very important,” said Lindsey Anderson, editor-in-chief of the Eagle at American University.
But there are clouds on the horizon.
College papers at schools as diverse as Bowdoin College in Maine, the University of Connecticut and the University of Texas face a battle for shrinking student activity dollars in an age of reduced state funding. Students at the University of Nebraska-Omaha this week voted to retain funding for the twice-weekly Gateway after the staff warned that a cut could mean the death of the 99-year-old paper edition.
Logan Aimone, director of the National Scholastic Press Association, said college media are “serving, really, a different type of reader,” a readership with common issues of intense interest inside the community - and little appeal beyond the ivory-covered walls.
When a campus newspaper covers the issues of that community, “it stands to reason that they will have a high readership in general,” Mr. Aimone said.
This combination attracts marketers such as Re:fuel, which targets niche audiences such as college students and members of the military.
About 60 percent of all college students have read their college newspaper, said Tammy Nelson, vice president of marketing and research for Re:fuel. There are about 1,800 college papers at the 4,400 higher-education institutions.
According to a survey that the company conducted of reading habits of college students in 2011, 88 percent of those who do read the school paper have read one of the past five issues. Three-fifths say they prefer the print version, compared with 16 percent who prefer to get their college news fix solely online.
“Print is still the preferred medium,” Ms. Nelson said.
The students said that reading their campus paper in print, almost always free and readily available at popular gathering places, was just the easiest way to stay current on school happenings, according to the survey. Students tended to reserve their online time for Facebook, Web surfing and academic research.
Ms. Nelson notes that many students cited another benefit of print: “It’s easier to read at work or class without attracting attention.”
For American University’s Ms. Anderson, print is a valuable asset in the overall product mix. She sees the paper as a part of a package working with the online and social media platforms. The online traffic to the Eagle has increased in the past three years, Ms. Anderson said, but print continues to be in high demand.
She said that the Eagle’s board of directors - a board independent from the university and made up of journalists from such places as USA Today and National Public Radio - had considered lowering the circulation count of the print edition from 6,000 copies because of an uptick in Web traffic. However, the current production run on the campus of 6,700 students is nearly gone on good days.
Ms. Anderson cited the paper’s edition a few weeks ago when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican, spoke at the school on a Friday and was met by 20 to 30 students protesting her state’s immigration policies. The Eagle staff posted updates of the speech on Twitter, uploaded photos to their Facebook site and had a story on their website, theeagleonline.com, within hours.
This was important, because students are using many methods for consuming the news. “So many of our students are on Twitter,” she said.
But when the Eagle came out in print with the same news story and three additional editorials, it was still a popular issue, Ms. Anderson said. Few copies sat on the stands the next day.
The online temptation
Even though Regan Pulaski, a neurobiology student, commutes between his Berlin, Conn., home and the University of Connecticut campus in Storrs, he occasionally picks up the school paper. He said he uses the most convenient method of getting the news - with his smartphone, that way is Twitter.
Mr. Pulaski said he notices most of his fellow UConn students grabbing the paper that is distributed outside cafeterias and dorms, and has even seen copies being read under desks during class.
“Every once in a while, I do pick it up and see what is going on,” he said. He attends classes three times a week and grabs a free paper about twice a month.
“You don’t want to be looking at [an Internet] stream all the time,” he said.
But the stream is precisely where the University of Georgia’s paper, the Red and Black, has jumped. In August, the university in Athens made the transition to a “digital-first” format, putting its daily content online while providing a weekly paper and a monthly magazine.
“We are being watched by a lot of college papers to see how it goes,” said Ed Morales, the Red and Black’s media adviser and a former sports reporter for The Washington Times.
The award-winning publication switched to an online emphasis so the staff could develop the skills needed to work in the modern newsroom, Mr. Morales said.
The majority of college students did not grow up with a morning paper, he said, and a newspaper is “not necessarily something they seek out.”
Part of the push for digital is continuing to bring the news to the reader in a way that is most convenient for them.
“If you are part of their news feed every morning, you are part of their lives,” he said.
While print remains popular, the content has evolved. The weekly paper is filled with stories that don’t become old news in a few days, including profiles and investigative stories. The breaking news goes online.