As college newspapers struggle for readership and trim publication schedules, one community college in California is taking a different approach to digitizing itself.
The Mountaineer, the student newspaper at Mt. San Antonio College, recently stopped printing and moved its news operation to Medium, an online-only publishing platform created by the co-founders of Twitter. The new student publication is called Substance and has garnered thousands of page views in the three weeks since it went live, according to Toni Albertson, the faculty newspaper advisor at Mt. San Antonio College.
“Since it happened, it’s like the sun started shining on the newsroom,” Albertson said. “To have a story go out and within 24 hours have 13,000 views is amazing. The most we’ve ever had is 800.”
Albertson said the college newspaper previously focused on campus news and had a final distribution of 5,000 printed copies before it stopped printing. The newspaper’s companion website, Mountiewire.com, will remain online and be updated by a beginner news writing class, she said.
The student journalists now work on stories not specific to the Mt. San Antonio campus, exploring topics that are traditionally not covered in student newspapers, such as a recent longform story on Latino gay and machismo culture.
“All they want to do is write, and do it better,” Albertson said. “It’s a shift in production of journalism because people really do read good journalism.”
Substance is the first student publication in the country to use Medium as its default publishing platform, said Gabe Kleinman, who leads Medium’s systems design portfolio team, although many universities – Stanford, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology – are using the platform for various purposes.
“[What’s interesting] to me is the all-in push,” said Dan Reimold, who reports on student media for his blog, College Media Matters. “They decided to shake loose all of the old yokes of college media.”
“They’re trying to do something fresh,” Reimold added. “That’s what I appreciate more than the specific platform.”
Moving to Medium has reduced the costs for Mt. San Antonio. Although Media Temple, the hosting site for Mountiewire, charges $200 year, Medium is not charging the student organization to publish its content.
Previous to the switch, The Mountaineer relied on advertising for revenue, Albertson said. Because it is a two-year community college, Mt. San Antonio’s student media was able to sell ads to four-year colleges interested in recruiting its students, she said, and that revenue had funded the paper, along with a printing subsidy from the college.
“A big revenue source is all these colleges: specialty colleges, private colleges,” targeting the community college students with ads, Albertson said.
Reimold said one question about Substance is “whether it will be profitable.”
With the switch to Medium, Albertson said she is looking for a new sponsor for Substance to raise funds to help defray the costs of student media conferences and workshops.
Publishing on an Internet platform like Medium has provided Albertson and her students access to more detailed analytics than newspapers typically get for their readers.
In the first three weeks of the “experiment,” Albertson said she was surprised that some traditional college news stories fared worse than others.
“The story that got the least reads was the story on college students drinking craft beer,” she said. “My old way of thinking is college students want to read about beer, but it was the least viewed. The most read … were the longer stories.”
Albertson said the publication caters to a college-aged audience, and the ease and popularity of using Medium as a platform has boosted readership tremendously.
“You go on your stats and see how many people have read your story, how many have recommended your story and how many people stayed with your story,” she said. “Forty percent actually read the whole story; another three days, people had come back and read it.”
Medium’s analytics tool offers one unusual metric—a time stamp for the “read” at the top of the page, telling readers before they start how much of a time commitment it will take to read each story from beginning to end. The recent story about Latino culture, for example, warned readers that it would take nine minutes to read—and many still read it.
“I think it’s important that someone reads your stuff,” Albertson said. “Doesn’t it matter if you’re doing something and someone’s reading it?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Medium was charging Mt. San Antonio $200 a year; that fee actually is the web hosting cost for Mountiewire.com, the college paper’s companion website. The original story also erroneously reported that the college had cut the student paper’s funding and that Mountiewire would no longer be updated.