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Advisers wary of print-to-online transition

Published June 28, 2012 in Cronkite Connection, an online publication of the ASNE Reynolds High School Journalism Institute at Arizone State University

The first Friday of every month holds a special excitement for students at King’s High School in Seattle. It’s newspaper distribution day, and it’s always a big event.

“We stand outside the school assembly and pass out the newspapers yelling ‘Hot off the presses!’ like a bunch of newsboys,” said Stephanie Platter, adviser of the school’s newspaper, The Quill.

Platter, like many high school journalism advisers in the digital age, has been contemplating moving her school’s publication to an online-only format. However, Platter said she worries about what might be lost in the absence of a printed product.

“Right now we have both online and print, but we’re struggling to get kids to read it online,” Platter said. “There is this special magic that comes with holding a print copy of our work.”

Platter’s dilemma is common among journalism educators, who must weigh the pros of building their students’ proficiency with digital formats versus the cons of giving up a traditionally beloved print format.

Marlo Spritzer, adviser of The Spotlight at Southern Lehigh High School in Center Valley, Pa., said students love the printed newspaper too much to give it up.

“My editors treat the newly printed paper like their newborn baby,” Spritzer said. “They feel a certain sense of pride seeing their classmates reading the paper that they don’t get from online.”

Despite the appeal of a printed format, some advisers see online-only as the answer to budget problems caused by high printing costs. Janice Johnson, journalism adviser at Vista de Lago High School in Folsom, Calif., is gearing up for the launch of her school’s first digital newsmagazine class this coming school year. Johnson, who has been advising the school’s yearbook for the past three years, said that creating a news writing class is the next step in building her program. However, publishing a printed product is not an option due to budget issues.

Johnson isn’t discouraged by this limitation. She said it’s important for her school to keep up with the news industry, which is placing greater emphasis on digital formats.

“If my purpose for publishing is to inform and motivate, there’s no reason why print is the only way to do that,” Johnson said. “Just because it’s what’s always been done, that doesn’t mean it’s what needs to continue to be done. Time to evolve!”

Many advisers attending the ASNE Reynolds High School Journalism Institute at Arizona State University agreed with Johnson’s view but said they are puzzled about how to market the new format.

Hannah Sagaser, adviser of The Courier at Mandan High School in Mandan, N.D., said she wants to start a website for her school newspaper but is worried that students might not take an extra step to access online content.

“Right now we hand out the newspaper during class,” Sagaser said. “If the students have to do more to see the news, would they do it?”

Sagaser said she is still going to try, and she plans to create a Facebook page to market the new website.

Similarly, Johnson said she is planning some creative marketing techniques to attract Web traffic, such as placing printable coupons for the school’s snack bar on the site, posting fliers around school and asking English teachers to create assignments involving student-authored articles. Also, she hopes to “create a buzz by covering legitimate news that people care about,” Johnson said.

She said her goal is to establish enthusiasm and brand recognition for her site before the students have the chance to become lackadaisical about it.

“It needs to become a part of the culture before it becomes part of the culture to ignore it,” Johnson said.

While Johnson and her students work to create an online news culture, advisers at schools with long traditions of success in print are figuring out how to change their cultures to place more emphasis on online content.

Sarah Zerwin, adviser at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colo., said this will probably be a gradual process for her publication, The Royal Banner, which launched its online version last year. Zerwin said she could see her newspaper going online only in four or five years, but right now the print version, which has a circulation of 1,700 copies per issue, is just too popular to give up.

“As long as the kids are selling enough ads and subscriptions, there’s no reason not to do both,” Zerwin said. “If I told my kids today we were going to online only, I think I would have a mutiny on my hands. It has to be a decision the kids are part of. It has to be a decision the community is part of.”