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The end of newsprint?

In a recent comment HWC posed a provocative question that I thought could use its own post. Should the Record stop publishing a physical newspaper and become a web-only publication?

From what I have read, newsprint is a major expense for most newspapers, so I would expect that cutting out the printing process would save a considerable amount of money. I don’t know how much revenue would be lost by killing the print version of the paper (from advertising, subscriptions, etc.), but I would be surprised if there weren’t some overall savings. These savings could be used to upgrade the Record’s website. A better website would make the Record very readable online.

I know when I was a student – back when dinosaurs roamed the earth – I always really enjoyed going to dinner on Tuesdays (I think) and picking up a copy of The Record which I could read at dinner. It always had plenty of interesting news and commentary, which was unavailable anywhere else. Of course, at that time, you could not get newspapers online (I picked up the Boston Globe on Spring Street everyday).

I would guess that most students – and quite possibly a majority of the Williams community – only read newspapers online, or at least would be reasonably comfortable doing so, so that losing the print version would not terribly inconvenience the campus community. (Are they Wi-Fi networks available throughout campus at this point?)

The biggest loss would be for those alums who currently subscribe to the Record and would be unable/unwilling to switch to an electronic version. (Does anyone know how many off-campus subscriptions there are?) I think that is a price that the Record should be willing to pay.

Does anyone disagree?

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#1 Comment By hwc On May 12, 2009 @ 2:53 pm

Speaking of newsprint. Does Williams buy New York Times subscriptions for the student body? In one of the cost-cutting articles I read recently, Swarthmore was giving consideration to ending the free distribution of the New York Times everyday, a $13,000 a year expense line in the budget. If they don’t axe that one, somebody should be fired. There isn’t a college student in the world in 2009 who reads a printed version of the NY Times, when all they have to do is type http://www.nytimes.com on their laptop connected to wifi itnernet connections the colleges spend a fortune to provide.

Plus, think of all the trees… and Al Gore.

#2 Comment By wwilson On May 12, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

I would be shocked if the College paid for newspapers for the student body (there certainly was no such arrangement in the late 1980’s. But I know students now get a lot more for their vastly larger tuition payments. Can anyone with knowledge about this clarify?

#3 Comment By Ronit On May 12, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

1. Williams does provide paper copies of the WSJ and the NYT on campus. I frankly don’t see the need for this.

2. There is free wifi more or less everywhere on campus

3. Although I was a fan of the printed Record, I am positively certain that eventually they won’t be printing the Record anymore. At some point, they’ll realize the vast cost-savings and gain in efficiency inherent to going to a web-only publication. That being said, I am not sure how soon that point will come because I have no idea about the Record’s finances.

#4 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On May 12, 2009 @ 3:10 pm

Thanks for the information Ronit. I guess I’ve been shocked. I wonder how much that costs every year?

(BTW, if it wasn’t obvious, wwilson is also me)

#5 Comment By rory On May 12, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

I’m always cautious about complete abandonment…god knows when there’s a paper NY Times around, I read it a lot more than the internet version…and a lot of articles I’d never pick to read if not for being randomly next to something I was reading.

That said, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be curtailed dramatically…let there be free Times in common areas, but not many. Certainly not enough to cost more than a couple thousand. Shrink that budget!

#6 Comment By JG On May 12, 2009 @ 3:20 pm

CC fought for the subscriptions back in either the ’99-’00 or ’00-’01 academic year to get the subscriptions. They had to prove to the school that students would care/appreicate/use the papers and it was a bit of a battle as part of a wider initiative to encourage engagement in the wider world beyond the Purple Bubble. At the time, laptops were still relatively rare and there was no Wi-Fi (most people didn’t have cell phones either). It was still a novelty to be typing notes rather than hand-writing them. There were even (gasp) a handful of students who didn’t even have their own computers at all. Perish the thought.

I would agree that paper copies of the Times are no longer needed as everything is available online, but I thought the WSJ was one of the few papers that charged for online access? Do they have free student access to online content? That could be the only sticking point in my mind. I personally LOVE having a real paper in my hands and make a point to subsribe to the local wherever I am…but even with that I read most of my news online (yes, I read a LOT of news). As much as it pains me to say this, the hard core folks could always go to the library or coffee shop or something if they want hard copy.

#7 Comment By Ronit On May 12, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

JG – I’m not positive, but I’d imagine, given the enormous number of other subscription-only sites that you have access to through the Williams network, that they do have electronic access to the WSJ. If not, they should get that and ditch the paper subscriptions for environmental reasons if nothing else.

I really miss looking things up in the unabridged OED from my computer.

#8 Comment By David On May 12, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

1) I am no expert on the economics of newspapers, but I thought that the cost of distribution (which the Record does not face) was just as much an issue.

2) I have been told that the everyone-reads-the-Record-at-dinner (now on Wednesdays?) is still as much a part of Williams as it was back in the day. Can a current student clarify? Without a printed copy, that is not possible. And, given the many demands on student time, I would wager that student readership would drop significantly if there were no printed copy.

#9 Comment By Ronit On May 12, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

I have been told that the everyone-reads-the-Record-at-dinner (now on Wednesdays?) is still as much a part of Williams as it was back in the day. Can a current student clarify? Without a printed copy, that is not possible. And, given the many demands on student time, I would wager that student readership would drop significantly if there were no printed copy.

You’re right, but at some point, they’ll be carrying their Kindle-like devices everywhere – for taking notes in class, reading assigned texts in the bathroom, perusing the latest Record over dinner, etc. But that’s probably a few years away.

#10 Comment By lgeorge On May 12, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

I think the College pays for some (probably in a very low two-digit number) paper copies of the NYT for student use, but certainly nowhere near 2000, paper copies. I have seen students happily sitting on a sofa in Paresky sharing the paper edition (reminding me of my days at Williams when we pooled our dimes to buy the Sunday version and have the purchaser photocopy enough copies of the crossword offering to satisfy the avid puzzlers amongst us). It is a sweet, old-fashioned privilege and I do think people get far more out of the paper version than out of the electronic version, so I hope some happy middle ground can be found (and I will be very sad when there is no longer a paper version of the Times). As to the Record, I don’t think the paper version is as important (although I fervently hope that someone is keeping serious permanent archives of much that is slipping away to the e-sphere, and I worry about future accessibility to those archives).

#11 Comment By Josh Ain On May 12, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

I believe the record makes a good bit of money from Alumni paper subscriptions. I don’t think they have any reason to stop a paper distribution.

#12 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On May 12, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

If Josh is right, and the Record makes a lot of money off of alumni subscriptions, then ditching the paper version may not make sense. I assume there are some local advertising revenues which would go down – although adding on-line ads for the current version of Colonial Pizza) would likely bring some money.

Anyone know how much the Record spends on printing and distributing the paper?

#13 Comment By Ronit On May 12, 2009 @ 4:04 pm

I seem to recall hearing that more recent alumni had stopped paying for subscriptions to the Record, because why would they when they could get it for free from the website?

If I had to guess, I’d say that alumni subscriptions are a stagnant or steadily dwindling source of income for the Record. But that’s just a guess.

Also, apparently, at some point all graduating alumni got a year’s free subscription courtesy of someone – the Alumni Office? – and this helped to get them in the habit of subscribing to the Record for succeeding years. But they stopped doing this. Or maybe I’m just imagining things

#14 Comment By hwc On May 12, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

The printed circulation of the Record is 4000 copies, most of that distributed free on campus:

http://record.williams.edu/record/about/Advertising/

They charge $78 a year for 24 issues, mailing by first-class US Mail.

#15 Comment By Mike On May 12, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

There is no way the Record would survive without college funding as a web-only product. We were hurt badly in 2002-03 as the website started getting more traffic in lost revenues from alumni subscriptions. Most specifically, the college, which used to provide a subscription to all first year graduates, eliminated that program as the entire paper was available online.

We looked at this in depth at the start of my tenure as editor. There was no disputing we lost several thousand dollars due to the increase in web readership. I think the correct business decision was/is to stop giving away all of the Record’s content online for free. On the other hand, we all also felt that the Record was an important institution in a close-knit community that we wanted to provide people like Ephblog readers who were not on campus. As such, we opted to put up a page that everybody would see when going to the Record’s website asking for donations, which we got very few of.

The bulk of the Record’s revenues came, and I assume still come, from advertisements, specifically advertisements from non-local businesses. This is an incredibly cyclical business model. When Goldman/McKinsey buys a bunch of full page recruiting ads, the Record did very well. When the economy tanks and those ads dry up, the Record’s finances become much tighter. If you eliminate the paper product, you are going to lose the recruiter ads and the Record would get very little revenue.

My memory’s a little hazy 6 years later, but I believe our printing costs at the time were about $1000 per 20-page black and white issue, which was what the standard issue was during my tenure. Our issues tended to be thicker than the average issue in years prior, mainly due to Bart Clareman’s ’05 inability to write a soccer article that was less than 1600 words and his rage when I would edit his “voice” by trying to cut them down. So if you went paperless, you have about $22,000 in annual savings.

Your remaining costs would be for the hardware in the office (I think the College may have bought new computers when the Record moved to Paresky, so maybe that’s an acceptable tradeoff between independence and financial necessity) and a few thousand a year for pizza during the weekly writers meeting (unclear how many writers/photographers would drop out without that one perk). Clearly the legendary Record editors’ banquets would be out the window also (and it’s certainly debatable how much the editors deserve that perk, for the 900 hours per year they put into producing the paper).

If you went paperless, eliminated the editors banquet, and kept the pizza at writer’s meetings you could run the Record on a few thousand per year, which could be found from the administration and/or College Council. I know for a fact my experience at the CC witch trial after the publication of the David Horowitz ad would’ve been a lot more unpleasant if I needed money from those clowns.

#16 Comment By Mike On May 12, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

David asked me to clarify the banquet. I do as I’m told (well, not really as I promised him several years ago to post four times per year, which I have not).

The Record, up until at least 2005, I can’t speak past that, would have a once a semester dinner for the editorial board a dinner at a place like Mezze to celebrate the semester and thank the editors for the work that had been done. These would typically be about $2500, though during a few of the years where ad revenues were particularly generous they might have been a bit more expensive. One, in particular, was a bit more than a bit more expensive. It was also a lot of fun.

#17 Comment By Mike On May 12, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

Finally, the Record does make a few thousand off of its commencement issue which has advertisements from local merchants and parents congratulating their children on graduation. It is distributed at commencement.

For students on campus in my time, the enjoyment of the Record came largely at lunch on the day it was distributed. The number of students on campus who read the Record would be far lower if you went to a web-only publication. I think it would be a terrible decision from the point of view of the on-campus community.

#18 Comment By 1980 On May 12, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

I agree Mike that the Record was an important institution in the Williams community – I still remember looking forward to grabbing the Record on the way to dinner on [Tuesday? Thursday?] nights. I’m glad to hear that students still do this, and hope they continue to do so. I wonder, though, as I see my two college age kids read the NY Times and ESPN online, whether this model will hold up.

#19 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On May 12, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

Mike,

Thank you very much for your informed commentary.

#20 Comment By hwc On May 13, 2009 @ 12:14 am

The Record spends over $100 per person for an editorial board dinner each semester?

#21 Comment By frank uible On May 13, 2009 @ 5:25 am

One can get a good banquet in Williamstown at no more than $40 per plate.

#22 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On May 13, 2009 @ 7:10 am

^^ Alcohol included?

#23 Comment By frank uible On May 13, 2009 @ 10:10 am

No – but sit down. $30 would do it for a grand non-alcohol buffet at, for instance, Williams Inn.

#24 Comment By rory On May 13, 2009 @ 10:30 am

ahh…the infamous banquet of 2002 (that’s the right year, yes?). i wished so strongly that they’d invite columnists to that banquet.

#25 Comment By JG On May 13, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

I believe one of the years while I was at Williams (I’m thinking 2000 or ’01) there were town cars or something to drive the Board down to the banquet (maybe somewhere toward/in Pittsfield?)…it was absurd, and the staff was bragging about all the ad revenue and low overhead. Needless to say those without so much money (or subsidized space, etc. from the school) were less enthused.

Might have made sense to invest some of it in a better website or archiving, but they probably thought the stream of I-Banking ads would never stop.

#26 Comment By Ronit On May 13, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

Most specifically, the college, which used to provide a subscription to all first year graduates, eliminated that program as the entire paper was available online.

This was a subsidy from the administration, correct?

#27 Comment By JG On May 13, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

Re: alumni subscriptions – that was certainly ended before 2003. I graduated in ’01 and our class never got alumni subscriptions, nor do I recall my friends from ’00 getting one (thought I could be wrong on that).

#28 Comment By Whitney Wilson ’90 On May 13, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

I never got a subscription, so apparently it was short lived thing.

#29 Comment By kkg On May 13, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

JG: the alumni subscriptions were around when we graduated (I’m an 2001er as well). I received the Record for the 2001-2002 but canceled once they sent a renewal form (with an invoice).

#30 Comment By hwc On May 13, 2009 @ 3:39 pm

To correct something I said, Davidson’s paper has now been put on-line.

#31 Comment By student On May 14, 2009 @ 10:42 am

The Record has switched from pizza to Dunkin’ Donuts this semester.  Recent banquets have also been more modest, held at Coyote Flaco this year.  

Despite an attempted revamp, the condition of the website is somewhat unfortunate.  A student was paid a certain amount last year to redesign the site, but the results were less than had hoped.  I suspect the Record would welcome (particularly if free) technical help.  

While it is difficult for me to imagine the Record as anything other than a print publication, switching to website-only would radically decrease the amount of time editors spend doing layout for the print edition.    

#32 Comment By kthomas On May 14, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

I suspect the Record would welcome (particularly if free) technical help.

As someone who does such things “for a living,” my respectful comments would be, “you get what you pay for” and “doing it right, is far from as easy as it looks.”

Onion: on Drupal, and I have a good idea what they payed the consultants.

That said– while “only online” would be a mistake– I don’t see why you can’t draw a revenue stream with such a highly targeted, online audience (gasp: what about commenting on Record articles!???).

I’d be glad to discuss terms, including a forward-payment/revenue share, with the upcoming Record staff. On the condition that they agree to no parties with Town Cars…

#33 Comment By hwc On May 14, 2009 @ 7:26 pm

There at least one major online publishing network for college newspapers, offering a turn-key product.

This one, College Publisher, is owned by MTV. Another link to the same network is Here.

#34 Comment By JG On May 14, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

kkg (and anyone else who got a free subscription in the 90s-00s) – did you have some special role (class agent, officer, etc.) that would rate subscription rather than the rest of us?

They certainly had my contact info, as I received all kinds of solicitations for money and got the alumni review. The only thing I can think of is that I didn’t “rate” a free one? I don’t mean this in a bad way, I’m just honestly wondering.

#35 Comment By Jay On May 14, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

I could have sworn I saw something talking about a free subscription for recent alums when I graduated a few years ago. Maybe it was something you had to specifically ask for, and weren’t automatically opted-in to?

#36 Comment By kthomas On May 14, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

The fog of memory makes me think I received something in my S.U. Box which asked for my address, but maybe I’m thinking of the renewal form.

#37 Comment By Parent ’12 On May 14, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

When I graduated, obviously not from Williams, the alumni association had “gifts” to entice alumni to join the alumni association.

Does Williams have membership fees for the alumni assn & could a 1-year subscription been an enticement to join?

#38 Comment By kthomas On May 14, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

First CP site (from their list) I pulled up:

Syracuse Daily Orange

They also have served the WKU Herald Website, starting in 2002– one of the problems/dynamics being, that nothing much looks to have changed on that site since it was put in place.

Ditto Williams, for that matter– it’s like security– you can’t just buy security by throwing $ at it, you have to establish it.

I have a lot of suspicion about such offerings, and generally take the marketing hype to be somewhere between purely unsubstantiated and pure lie; but — well, their own words:

What College Publisher does is it allows us to easily publish all of our daily material, so that we can focus on our Multimedia content.

Editors: Take control of the online edition without coding a single line

Ad Managers: Start monetizing the online edition with better tools

Webmasters: The CMS is more accessible to staff, now spend time developing apps

Darn it, I can’t find the page on which they say you won’t have to learn a thing.

#39 Comment By hwc On May 14, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

Ken:

Those guys do a very large number of school papers: Here’s the list of weekly papers:

List of weekly papers

I see a lot of schools upgrading their own home-brewed online papers, too. I suspect somebody is selling a back end like WordPress to drive the publishing and the features so the college students just have to design a template, but I’m not sure. Google is obviously doing a deal to provide search engines in exchange for advertising links on many school papers.

#40 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On May 14, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

hwc: Saw that, already emailed to our sales guy etc.

I see a number of factors here. It looks like CP’s platform was build in ’99-’00 or. In tech, that’s ages and ages and ages. Trying to revise and rebuild it on an old technological platform is a bit like trying to replicate Office 2007 for Windows 95. So much is not there.

All the sites look old; they’re missing all kinds of things you might want. The WKU site is just… hard to use.

As well, the ethos of “you don’t have to learn new technology” seems to through their material. Well… that seems a problem to me. If you want to publish… effectively, online and off, you don’t have learn to hand-code HTML, but you’d better be prepared to learn “high-level” aspects of the technologies, what is going on, how to discuss it… and change.

For that, it seems to me reasonable that you need partners with domain experience to support what you do; and that you need a long-term strategic plan of sorts, with a view to “technology cycles” and keeping up with them. “Kindle-like device,” above, indeed– things are going to change again in the next five years.

The fact that the platform is proprietary/closed is also a big negative to me…

OK, gotta phone conference…

#41 Comment By JG On May 14, 2009 @ 10:33 pm

Parent ’12 – at Williams every alum is a member of the alumni association. They often do some kind of enticement to donate though – they like to show off the percentage and it’s a good way to start building the relationship. I believe I gave $5 or something like that, and I got a poster with pictures of doors on the Williams campus.

#42 Comment By hwc On May 14, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

Ken:

I’ve never really enjoyed reading the papers on that network, but at least they are more or less functional.

The Williams Record is a student-designed site (that doesn’t work worth a damn with Internet Explorer – an increasing problem with Firefox crazed student projects).

Pomona’s the Student Life appears to use a template from a vendor Joomla.

Grinnell’s Scarlett & Black is using WordPress.

Swarthmore’s The Phoenix is using a custom content management system and front end template designed by two students ’07 and ’08 and handed off to a current sophmore.

These appear to all be functional. I think simple can be just fine for college paper websites.

#43 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On May 15, 2009 @ 12:31 am

hwc: On a glance, all three sites appear to me, ‘too simple,’ if I may: from a UI perspective– they make really egregious errors with font sizing, margins, borders; they do not establish, well, the relative priority of information and provide an layout that is easy to scan and comprehend without a lot of work.

There are, of course, things called “style guides” and “house style guides” for these matters ;)

They have too many fonts; violate the three font rule and mix serif and sans serif for no good reason. (Getting rid of Times for article display on The Phoenix is an obvious fix).

Navigation methods are outdated/poor on all sites: it’s a drill down or “hide and seek” to find information; structure of information (information architecture) is not clear, easy to comprehend, clearly logical. Harvey Mudd’s right side navigation is simply a no-no.

Archives vary on the three, with the Phoenix standing out by making it very easy to browse previous ‘editions:’ and in fact, previous editions show a better info architecture, both giving a topical overview and allowing some ‘serendipity’ discovery of nearby topics. (Swarthmore’s “most popular”, “read more” do stand out as way above).

Ad strategies vary, but seem to have been given little thought and not to be localized.

A glance at the code (not running analytical tools over) shows some coding violations. None of the sites (just like CP) seem to be using some important techniques such as CSS/Javascript aggregration and compression — that means, you bundle and compress supporting code– which can dramatically improve page load speeds and the user experience.

The Phoenix is the real stand-out for readability, cleanness and spacing, while the others really make you search and scroll around to find things (as well as navigational tools)– and escapes some of these criticisms. It is very close to Drupal in many functionalities/approaches.

With any “roll it yourself” approach, I’m very concerned with standards compliance and data portability. It is very easy to not attend to these from the start– but they leave you with a long-term liability regarding your biggest asset, your accumulated intellectual property (content). Moving the accumulated content in any of these systems could be a very expensive “data migration” proposition, resulting in loss or abandonment of the content in the future.

One could talk more about functionalities as well– especially, syndication possibilities– I think an online publication, should take advantage of what is available online– but the big thing that strikes me, is the lack of effective ads. Where are the ads from potential employers– sports shops, selling paraphernalia– local businesses in the area– or if I’m an alum, local businesses in my area that want to target me?

Off the top of my head.

#44 Comment By kthomas On May 15, 2009 @ 2:16 am

Also:

Delving into content:

Bloom says, here,:

One such issue was the Living Wage, which in its first iteration I believe would have had seriously negative consequences for the institution.

Really? Serious negative consequences? Years of debate (as the article goes on?) How many faculty would have had to surrender 3% of their income– before taxes!–, to increase the income of the lowest ten percent, by 20 or 25 percent– after taxes?

My tolerance for this bad-faith exercise is very low.

#45 Comment By kkg On May 15, 2009 @ 1:05 pm

JG:
Actually, I was (uh, I guess I still am–please send in a contribution to the class notes :)) a class officer and class agent. I have some memory of actually filling something out to request the subscription, rather than getting it automatically.

#46 Comment By hwc On May 15, 2009 @ 4:55 pm

kthomas:

Bloom’s wage proposal, which was approved by the Board, called for a minumum pay at Swarthmore of $10.72 an hour plus 100% paid health insurance for a single employee. The first iterations demanded by the students (and not widely supported by the employees) were not realistic.

As it stands, I expect that Swarthmore will be forced to reduce its workforce as the money is simply not there to continue spending at 2008 rates. It is reducing spending by $8 million in FY2010 compared to the current year (FY2009) without layoffs but with salary freezes. However, the additional budget cutting for FY2011 and FY2012 cannot be achieved without cutting the labor costs. Labor is 59% of the operating budget.

#47 Comment By JG On May 15, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

kkg – methinks I know who you are now :) One of these days I should actually send something into the notes.

Perhaps I just missed whatever form was involved to get the Record, which surprises me given what a huge dork I was/am about Williams. Oh well…such is life. End of senior year is quite a blur.