Turning the Page: How CUNY Student Newspapers Tackle Digital

By Thomas Seubert

It was a way to put a dusty, old box of “merch” to good use—T-shirts for email addresses—thought Clifford Michel, who at the time was the news editor of The Banner, a student-run newspaper at The College of Staten Island.

The cache of email addresses he gleaned from CUNY students for T-shirts with The Banner logo stitched on the front, along with the emails he copied from CSI’s faculty and staff directory, comprised the mailing list of what became the The Banner’s first truly successful endeavor at a newsletter, CSI CheatSheet.

It was merely a barebones list of headlines and links to the week’s top stories, but it raked in over 1,000 opens each week. After Michel became co-editor-in-chief, though, the newsletter stopped being sent. This was just months after its inception.

“It’s always one step forward, two steps back, unfortunately,” said Michel, who with his new duties no longer had time to create the newsletter and he could find no one else with extra time to devote to sending out a weekly blast.

Students at CUNY schools mostly commute to class and work jobs and participate in internship programs. Few have time for on-campus activities.

Students at CUNY schools mostly commute to class and work jobs as well as participate in internship programs. Few have time for on-campus activities.

For student newspapers in the City University of New York system, this is not an unique situation. Students’ time and energies are limited. Most commute to school and balance coursework with jobs and internships. Apart from struggling to keep up with producing print editions, these publications also must find the bandwidth to effectively reach their audiences in a digital medium—a conundrum the professional publishing world still struggles with.

So, student-editors have been cherry picking from the pros what they think will keep their publications relevant to a millennial audience.

In Politico’s daily newsletter, Michel saw just the ripened fruit he was looking for. “In a digital space, [a newsletter] has the most potential to match the power of the front page in print,” he said, which is why The Banner is currently trying to relaunch its “most successful digital product.”

Of CUNY’s 25 campuses, each theoretically with a campus paper (whether it’s active or not is a different story), The Banner, Baruch College’s The Ticker and Brooklyn College’s The Kingsman are a good sample to illustrate how student-editors are grappling with the digital medium. The Ticker is a large, established print publication, considered by some to be the leading undergraduate publication in CUNY. The Banner is well-established but medium-sized, and The Kingsman is a smaller publication, new to the digital space.

The Kingsman launched its first website at the end of the Spring 2016 semester and has begun publishing multimedia features, which, after being shared on social media, have introduced more students to The Kingsman, which competes with several other on-campus publications.

“Our circulation in general has definitely gone up. They’ve been going out into people’s hands more [since the website went live],” said Dylan Campbell, The Kingsman editor-in-chief.

Not all CUNY publications are so digitally focused, though.

Editors at The Ticker devote a lot of their time to working on weekly print editions.

Editors at The Ticker devote a lot of their time to working on weekly print editions.

At The Ticker, it’s very much a print-oriented operation. Like at The Banner and The Kingsman, Ticker editors must find story ideas, assign them out to writers, edit them and then design a print layout. But because of The Ticker’s large, weekly print editions, more energy and resources are poured into working on the printed word, amounting to 25 hours of work or more, each week and for each editor.

“You can’t do a print publication—especially if you have a small staff—without giving it a lot of time, a lot of attention,” said Joseph Esposito, The Ticker’s editor-in-chief.

Printing so much and so often has its drawbacks, most notably, its costly. The Ticker has a massive budget and the board of directors for Baruch’s office of student life, which allocates money for The Ticker’s budget, asks Esposito each semester why his newspaper even has a print operation, pressuring the EIC to make the decision to go digital-only.

Over the last three years, The Ticker has bent to pressures from the board, decreasing its weekly circulation from 4,000 to 3,000 to 2,500, as a way to save money and offset dwindling ad revenue.

And The Ticker isn’t alone. This is a situation student publications across the country have had to do contend with.

Pew Research reported in 2013 that decreased print readership and declining print ad revenue was forcing student newspapers to reduce their circulation, with some opting to go totally online.

Esposito doesn’t consider that an option, though. “Without the physical paper out there, it would be difficult for people to even know what The Ticker is,” he said.

But, successful online promotion can lead to a wider reach, especially for publications without massive print circulations

A multimedia story about women being the targets of unwanted catcalling that Campbell reported, published and then promoted on The Kingsman’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, became their top-viewed story. While it ran in print, an extended multimedia version, resplendent with GIFs, audio tracks and big photos, gave the story a more “human element,” which is why it did so well online, according to Campbell.

At The Ticker, monthly online circulation is the most significant, coming in at over 10,000, and has spread standard news stories, such as “Vine Shuts Down After Consistent Monetary Losses, Lack of Ad Revenue,” which is the most viewed story on the publication’s website, though editors can’t see just how many times it has been clicked.

And at The Banner, a standard news story on a police investigation spread on social media like wildfire. The Banner, in general has had success with its website, reaching over 4,000 views each month, though it prints the fewest pages each semester.

Each publication’s editors feel digital will become more important as time goes on and are making strides—or taking swings—at what might work digitally. The Ticker launched an Instagram account and plans to start a newsletter. The Banner has considered printing monthly instead of bi-weekly, in order to focus on digital content, and The Kingsman is hoping to expand its multimedia projects.

A sizable print circulation may be viewed as prestigious, but Esposito sees it as a bit of a ball and chain going forward—especially in the digital age.

“I’ll take a zero on a homework, but can’t take a zero on turning in a newspaper,” said Esposito. “You could be dying, but the newspaper has to get printed.”

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