5 Lessons From The Oregon Daily Emerald’s Digital Reinvention
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The web address: future.dailyemerald.com. The one-word header atop the homepage: Revolution. And the tagline just beneath it: “The Oregon Daily Emerald, reinvented for the digital age.”
The student newspaper at the University of Oregon — best known for its five-day-a-week print edition — is morphing into a more wide-ranging, digital-first “modern college media company.” On a special site that went live last week, Ryan Frank, the publication’s publisher, outlined a number of major new initiatives that will be rolled out in full force this fall.
Among them: a print issue that will appear twice per week, with new size, design, and content specs; the creation of an in-house tech startup and a separate marketing and event services team; and a ramp-up in “real-time news, community engagement, photo galleries, and videos on the web and social media.”
As Frank shared in a recent MediaShift post, “We’re about to close the book on the Oregon Daily Emerald. After 92 years, the University of Oregon’s newspaper will end its run as a Monday-to-Friday operation in June. Yes, it’s the end of an era, and we’re sad about that. But it’s also the start of a new era, the digital one.”
To be clear, this is a big announcement within college media. The Emerald is the second high-profile student newspaper to dramatically reinvent itself this academic year, following inthe digital-first footsteps of The Red & Black at the University of Georgia.
The Emerald’s self-declared revolution is not borne from financial despair. There have been some down years in the last decade, cost-cutting, and grimaced glances at an uncertain future. But, as Frank told me, “This will be our best year financially since the year 2000. We don’t have any debt. We have a healthy reserve fund. We could have continued operating as a five-day-a-week newspaper and been fine for a period of time … But we really wanted to stop and ask, ‘Is there a better model out there that’s completely different from anything that’s been done before?’ That was our mindset. That’s what we set out to try to create.”
Even in its nascent stage, the Emerald’s creation should serve as an instructional, inspirational model for other professional and student news outlets seeking to reinvent, truly reinvent, in the digital age.
FIVE EARLY LESSONS FROM EMERALD 2.0
1) Innovate Now, for the Right Reasons. Frank and the outlet’s top student staffers wisely worked to transform the Emerald on their own terms. Instead of “buckling under the pressure of advancing technology and retreating readership,” as the Emerald’s site says, student editors acted off instinct — about what their student peers want in a media outlet, where the industry they love is heading, and why breaking from 90 years of tradition will better the Emerald as a whole. As a narrator shares at the close of a teaser video explaining the outlet’s transformation, “We’re proud of our history, but it’s time for a revolution.”
The revolution did not happen smoothly or overnight. Frank and the students gave themselves plenty of time to figure out each facet of the Emerald’s new face. They slowly molded what is now the Emerald Media Group beginning last October, in part by utilizing related research, case studies, and expert advice. “We’ve been talking and debating and arguing,” editor-in-chief Andy Rossback said. “This has been an exhausting, exhaustive process.”
Most importantly, it was also an open process. The right way to carry out this type of reinvention is to gather input from as many camps as possible — staffers at all levels, related advisers and professors, student readers, the overseeing board, and alums of your outlet now working in the industry. Don’t invite sheer chaos, but embrace competing views and outsider perspectives.
The day after the Emerald’s announcement, the New Orleans Times-Picayune unveiled a similar print cutback and online push. Yet, there was a big difference between how the two changes were handled. At the Times-Picayune, only top executives had a say, spurring immediate staff and citywide confusion and resentment once news of the plan was leaked. By comparison, the Emerald crew patiently built the foundation for the outlet’s next step atop feedback from everyone, specifically ensuring staffers in all areas and at all levels weighed in on how their roles might be best redefined. The result: a smooth initial rollout and an excited news team.
2) Take Control of the News Cycle. The most significant part of the Emerald reorganization: a news cycle power shift. Simply put, the staff fought the daily deadline gods — and they have won their freedom.
Reporters and editors are determined to no longer practice “the journalism of filling space and time.” As digital managing editor Josephine Woolington said, “We don’t want to keep putting out a daily paper just to put out a daily paper.” Instead, staffers are preparing to both speed up and slow down their coverage, at their discretion and to everyone’s benefit.
On the slowdown side, the drop to two issues per week enables step-back, big-picture, group-think about the identity and impact of each issue. The reprieve from an ever-present deadline also gives student reporters time to track down and flesh out more details, angles, and side-issues on the big stories. And, in theory, it enables every facet of every story to be fully vetted — the reporting, editing, graphical accompaniments, and overall design.
As art director Nate Makuch confirmed, “The most important difference between next year and previous years at the Emerald is planning.”
The ultimate goal of the slowdown plan is twofold: 1) Increase the number of high-quality stories that stay relevant even after a few days on the newsstand. 2) Eliminate the lackluster stories that often end up running because, as Rossback put it, “we have a hole to fill and an event happened.” Or as staff explained on the paper’s announcement site, “We can do the journalism that matters most — and cut out the rest.”
Along with slowing down, the Emerald is speeding up. It is introducing a squad of “iPad-equipped digital news reporters” that will work all hours to report on big campus and community happenings. The Speed Team, as it’s been dubbed, is again about asserting control over the news cycle — not letting a daily deadline delay stories from reaching readers or leaving stories overlooked because of their timing.
For example, Woolington cited the paper’s traditional weekend blackout. “How it works now is that the Daily Emerald kind of just dies over the weekend and on Monday we’re alive again,” she said. “So we are going to try to be on the 24/7 news cycle where we can compete with local media like the Register-Guard and the Oregonian and get stories up as fast as we can and not wait until the day after they come out.”
3) Create Different Kinds of Beats, Brands. Within the scope of its redefinition, the Emerald is seeking to report news that no one else is covering, or covering as consistently, deeply, and through so many channels. To this end, the staff will unveil specialty blogs and something called micro-beats. Coined by Rossback, the micro-beat is a coverage area more specific or timely than most reporting beats, especially at the student level.
Among the micro-beats the paper plans to cover come August: student debt, the business of college athletics (something the school knows a bit about given the heavy Nike presence), and declining state support for public universities (another issue of high current relevance at UO).
Each one will be tackled by a veteran staffer throughout the academic year, macro and micro — from tweets and blog posts to video features and investigative reports. The result: Emerald staffers who become synonymous with their coverage areas and whose related knowledge and contacts base will breed confidence and better journalism.
At a major college media convention earlier this spring, New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter told students, “Media in 30 years will be more about individuals than institutions.” For example, he said, the New York Times will still exist but be more a collection of well-known journalist brands than a singular journalism force.
The Emerald micro-beats embody this branding philosophy. They allow star staffers to garner the individual attention they deserve while focusing their energies on a single, impacting area. “Very few college newspapers can dedicate reporters to a specific topic and create meaningful journalism,” Rossback said. “They’re being pulled in so many different directions that they can only scratch the surface with their stories. The idea of a micro-beat is that you can spend nine months on it … and actually create journalism that can create some sort of change.”
4) Get Out of the Railroad Business. Over the past eight months, staff spent a lot of time trying to figure out what student readers want. “That is the biggest challenge every news company in America is facing,” said Frank. “It’s a constantly connected generation, but as one of our students said, ‘You can’t compete with their news network on Facebook.’ And he’s right.”
To better compete — or at least join the game — the Emerald is shedding its “gray, daily newspaper” identity. To start, the newspaper is now a magazine– a Monday edition mainly focused on meaty news and sports recaps (“Think Newsweek + ESPN Magazine”) and a Thursday edition with more features, leisure news, and weekend previews (“Think Rolling Stone + Wired + Vanity Fair”). It is also “trimming the fat” from stories and doubling down on making their relevancy clear to readers. And it is upping the outlet’s visual A-game, adding an attractive cover page (a before-and-after front page example is below) and additional print and online photos and infographics.
Emerald 2.0 is also aiming to be a digital nerve center for all UO information and entertainment. To this end, staff are tinkering with The Garage. The tech portal aspires to eventually provide online guides for all elements of university life including classes, professors, dining halls, housing, and employment. It will also feature real-time data streams and cutting-edge, quirky programs.
One program already running: InstaO, which grabs and features all Instagram photos submitted by users within a 4-kilometer radius of the UO campus. The API provides a unique glimpse at what students and community members are spotting, capturing, re-imagining, and sharing.
Separately, Emerald Media Group is launching a marketing division to “deliver the campus to our clients” in ways a dead-tree advertisement cannot. Emerald Presents, an event services team, will be part of this new endeavor.
“It’s the line about ‘The railroads aren’t in the railroad business, they’re in the transportation business,'” Frank said. “We’re not a newspaper, we’re a media company. From a news standpoint, we’re informing, educating, and entertaining our readers to help develop them as citizens. From a business standpoint, our goal is to be the portal to campus for anyone trying to reach the audience.”
5) Be a Bit of a Maverick. Dedicated planning aside, top staff admit they’re not sure how specific portions of the overhaul will turn out. They are also cognizant of the possibility that the whole shebang might fail miserably. But given the gale-force winds of change swirling over the media landscape and the need for more student publications to truly pioneer the digital frontier, they view their attempts as well worth it.
A Storify put together by the Emerald captured readers’ first reactions to news of the reinvention. One noted, “The landscape of #journalism is changing. @DailyEmerald just grabbed a shovel (and it’s a beautiful thing).” Another lamented, “[T]hese digital-only days are here, but sorry to see it happen. Many of us ask: Is it leap or fall?”
Frank embraces both sentiments equally. “[T]his state has always been a bit of a maverick — from our politicians to our sports programs,” he said. “It’s a culture that runs deep here. We adopted that to some degree and said, ‘We want to be a bit of a maverick and think differently’ … This may flop. Who knows? I can’t tell you it’s going to be great, but what I can tell you is the excitement, energy and passion we’re seeing [about the changes] has reaffirmed that people want to believe that there’s a model out there that makes sense. Rather than sitting around waiting for it to fall in our lap, we’re going to try to find out what that is.”
Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blogCollege Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His textbookJournalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age is due out in early 2013 by Routledge.