New UF study will assess the financial state of college newspapers

by | Oct 22, 2020

The University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications (UFCJC) announced it has received a $30,000 grant from Lumina Foundation to study the financial state of college newspapers, with a focus on editorially independent student-run media and how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the sustainability of campus journalism.

COVID-19 has exposed both the fragility of the nation’s local news organizations and the importance of student-run media as front-line providers of essential public health and safety information to college communities. The Washington Post recently called college newspaper editors “the journalism heroes for the pandemic era,” noting that student-run news organizations were “producing essential work from the center of the nation’s newest coronavirus hot spots.”

There is evidence that student media are suffering the same extinction risks as professional news organizations. Recently, editors of the Massachusetts Daily Collegian newspaper at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst launched a crowdfunding donation campaign to erase a $30,000 debt, while campus newspapers elsewhere are selling their buildings, cutting print editions, and eliminating staff salaries to make ends meet.

“There has been a tremendous amount of research about the erosion of professional community newspapers nationwide, and that research has been the basis of a groundswell of philanthropic investment into reinventing the delivery of local news,” said Journalism Professor Frank LoMonte, who will lead the project. “But there has been no comparable attention to student media, which increasingly perform the same civic information function as commercial newspapers, and at a fraction of the cost.”

The UFCJC research team, using publicly available databases and stakeholder interviews with industry leaders, will survey student news organizations to gauge their governance structures, financial needs and resources, and the effects of the pandemic on revenues and audiences. The team also will explore these organizations’ strategies and needs for building more diverse audiences, and the extent to which they are the primary news outlets for their local areas. In addition to LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, the project staff will include UF doctoral students Imani Jackson and Jessica Sparks, and Brechner Center Civic Tech Fellow Rebecca Harris.

“Student-led campus news is the beating heart of every college and university and for many communities,” said Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president and CEO, a former college newspaper editor himself. “There’s a role for higher education, and for philanthropy, in making sure these vital institutions, many of them with storied histories, do not disappear from the landscape when civic engagement is so urgent.”

In addition to a report addressing the needs and opportunities facing college news media, the researchers will generate collateral materials for partnering news organizations, and will make the resulting database accessible to the public for future researchers to build on.

“Campus news media provide ideal laboratories for experimentation in building broader readership and a more diversified revenue model, which can be scaled into the professional media ranks as well,” LoMonte said. “You can’t fix what you don’t measure, and the first step to putting student media on stronger footing is to quantify the severity of the need. We’re grateful for the vision by Lumina Foundation, which has long been invested in strengthening journalism about higher education.”

The College has a long history of supporting independent college news organizations. In 2019 and 2020, UFCJC provided $100,000 to The Independent Florida Alligator, the student-run newspaper and website at the University of Florida, to help support the news organization as a significant immersion experience for its students and provider of vital news and information to the UF community.

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