Columbia Spec’s smart switch to digital

As some trustees cry foul over Spec being the first Ivy-League daily to cut print, one says the students could teach their elders a thing or two

When the alumni advisory board of the Columbia Daily Spectator gathered recently to consider a student proposal to curtail the paper’s print schedule, it was bound to be contentious. Whether it’s running naked through the snowy quad during finals or stealing the rival’s mascot uniform, alumni tend to cling to traditions ferociously.

And this was a big one: The students were suggesting that the Spectator, which has been around since 1877, and which I helmed in 1983, become the first Ivy League newspaper to abandon daily print editions. So while some of the alumni reacted a bit like Dean Wormer in Animal House (accusing the students of treachery), most of the discussion appropriately focused on the serious issues at stake. Wouldn’t this undermine the newspaper’s impact? Wouldn’t fewer people read it? Won’t this lead to real journalism being replaced by listicles?

Yet as one of the alumni board members who voted for the change, I came away feeling that not only did the students make the right decision but that their approach could teach a thing or two to grownup media managers:

Invest newly available revenues in something useful. The basic background will sound familiar. The Spectator was seeing print ad revenue and readership fall rapidly. The staff projected a financial loss for 2015, and by switching from daily to weekly print edition, they would turn the deficit into a surplus overnight.

But interestingly, that wasn’t the emphasis of their argument or the heart of their plan. The students decided to immediately use the savings from the print change to finance improvements: more money for interactive features, faster turnaround of stories and extra money for work study so more middle-class and poor kids could work on the paper. They also suggested that if they have to spend less time lining up copy for a print edition, they could spend more time on other useful things—by which they certainly mean reporting, not attending classes.

Imagine if each time a big-city newspaper cut back on print, they added reporters to cover schools, hospitals, and courts or announced some new digital service to help residents. They’d save a little bit less money but improve service to the community and much better position themselves for the future.

Print is dead. Long live print. The students did not describe the new weekly as one-fifth-of-a-daily. They imagined it as a new product entirely, something with more pages, a greater emphasis on longform, a focus on weekend activities, and better design.

Indeed, in the media world it’s becoming increasingly clear that the question should not be, “Print: Yay or nay?” but rather, “What is the right balance of print and digital?” Digital star Politico has succeeded in part because of its print publication. The Wrap now publishes 12 glossy print magazines. Many others are looking to creative combinations of digital and print.

The economic logic of this approach can be quite strong. Many of the advertisers who still prefer print can be served in a weekly print vehicle just as well as in a daily. So a switch to weekly preserves a decent chunk of that ad revenue while dramatically lowering costs. After all, it doesn’t matter if cutting back on print hurts revenue (it will); it matters if it improves net income.

Accept your audience the way they are. On some level, Spectator editors may have been guided less by strategic brilliance than by social humiliation. They slave over the print newspaper every day—and none of their friends pick it up. But this just reflects the broader trend: 71 percent of 18-21 year olds get their news through the internet. As alum Rob Zeiger wrote to us, “The storytellers have to go where their audiences are, or they aren’t doing their job.”

Conversely, newspaper publishers that cut back the print run in communities with older populations will more likely harm their readership. What’s right for a college paper is not necessarily right for a big city daily.

Use your peculiar economic assets. The critics of this move were not wrong when they noted that it’s quite difficult to make pure digital media plays work financially. But the truism that “print dollars have been replaced by digital pennies” obscures one thing: Websites need not earn “digital dollars” to succeed. Getting revenue back up to digital quarters would be fine in most cases, because the costs are so much lower.

The problem is it’s often damn hard to create excellent content while keeping costs very low, especially since the main ingredient to good journalism is human beings. It’s almost as if you need some sort of cruel organization in which talented people work insane hours for no pay.

Hmmm. Sounds like a college newspaper! In fact, I suspect that there are few places where this structure—digital daily, print weekly—will work as well as on college campuses.

The Spectator, a nonprofit, also developed non-advertising revenue streams like events and donations that made the transition easier.

In a sense, what Spectator has made is not literally a model that can be copied in its particulars by the pros. But the students’ sense of balance, and their spirit, offers many lessons for the grownups.

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Steven Waldman is founder of, co-founder of Beliefnet, and a former newsmagazine journalist. Tags: , ,