Refocusing student media to align with digital first approach

We all know the way people get their news has been upended in the past two decades. If you wanted to get the day’s news a few years ago you had to get it when the news organizations said you could have it. That usually meant a few times a day on television and radio or when the newspaper was published.

By the time what we now call legacy media was able to present the news it was inherently old.

Times, of course, have changed. News organizations have to change, too.

That’s the basic idea behind why at TCU’s Schieffer School of Journalism, where I work, we’re going digital first with our student media and realigning our structure to allow us to make that happen. We’ve been converging our student media operations over the past few years and this is the next logical — and perhaps most important — step.

We have a four-day-a-week newspaper, the TCU Daily Skiff, a weekly television newscast, “TCU News Now” (which also produces daily updates), Image magazine and our one-year-old converged website, TCU 360.

Since 2009, our student media have moved into a new converged newsroom, began holding joint budget meetings, moved to a single website and switched the copy desk from the newspaper copy desk to copy editing for all of student media. That was just the start.

Now, the separate news organizations are being reorganized into a single news gathering force that will focus on digital and then use the content that is produced to serve the legacy outlets. There is a caveat. Because of its much different cycle, Image will remain largely independent initially. As will, a community news website that our program also runs.

Rather than centering the newsgathering on a particular media platform, the goal will be to have reporters produce content in real time and digitally. It’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s one that has to be embraced and sooner, not later.

In our setup, a student general manager will oversee all of student media. Working with that top leader will be a group of journalists focused mostly on content – news, sports and visuals, plus an operations manager to make sure the content gets where it needs to go.

The news group, in particular, will be broken into several teams, or small groups of reporters and a team leader/senior reporter who will focus on beats to come up with and produce stories. Teams could include administration, campus life, Greek life and academics.

Under the operations group will be an engagement person working with social media and a copy desk that will edit stories and post them online, in addition to production specialists who will make sure the paper and broadcast are prepared.

One manifestation of this digital focus could be live coverage of a campus event that takes tweets and relies on an editor – like the rewrite desk of old – to produce that content for print publication.

Steve Buttry, who works for the aptly named Digital First Media and is an alumnus of TCU, helped consult with us – cementing the ideas many of us have had for some time.

The biggest difference from Buttry’s recommendations and what we are doing is that, for now, we’re not reducing the publication or broadcast schedule. Many of us agreed with Buttry. We’d like to go further, but the decision was there simply wasn’t enough time to make such a drastic change on such relative short notice. A university committee governs our student media and the committee hires leaders for each traditional media outlet, according to the student media by-laws. There are also concerns of how advertisers would react.

Digital first is something you’ve likely heard quite a bit about in the past few days. The New Orleans Times-Picayune announced last week that it’s moving to a digital focus and reducing its daily print schedule to three days a week.

The University of Oregon’s Daily Emerald also announced last week that it’s reducing its print schedule to focus on digital, among many ambitious and exciting initiatives.

The Red & Black, the University of Georgia’s independent newspaper, reduced its print schedule to weekly to refocus on digital last year.

In some cases, but not all, a reduction in the print schedule is fueled by a desire to save money.

At a university, particularly one where student media is partly subsidized through an operating budget, we have the luxury that that is not the case.

We get to do this for the right reasons — that it’s the best way to prepare our students for the jobs they will have and because it is how people get their news now.

Simply put, digital first provides more up-to-date news in a more engaging way to better serve the public.

No one that I know in this business is anti-newspaper. However, those in touch with reality know changes like this are a necessity. We can’t cling to daily printed sheets of paper forever.

If there are skeptics, and I’m sure there are some, take comfort in the fact that if you are focused digitally the content will inherently be able to still meet the needs of the print or broadcast products. In fact, when done right, more news content should be produced and available for legacy outlets.

What we’ve found in our discussions about moving to digital first is that reducing the production time associated with traditional media allows for more time to be spent on producing journalism – and isn’t that what we’re all about, anyways?

Universities can take the lead. Some are doing that and we should. There is less pressure and fewer risks for us. If we want our students to enter an industry with a future we have to do our part to figure out new ways to provide great journalism.

I’ve shared a lot here. Now for the most important part: What are your suggestions and advice for going digital first?

Thanks in advance.

About Aaron Chimbel

Aaron Chimbel, a five-time Emmy Award winner, is an assistant professor of professional practice at TCU.

Before returning to TCU in 2009, Chimbel worked at WFAA-TV in Dallas, where he won five Emmy Awards and a national Edward R. Murrow Award. He was hired, likely, as the first person at any local television station to produce original video content for the Web. He was the station's "MoJo" or mobile journalist before becoming the station