At HuffPost, the Old College Try

The outlet branches into college news

There’s a species of journalism we often forget to include when we talk about our fabled ‘new media landscape’: college newspapers. And part of that is structural. After last year’s folding of UWIRE, a college-journalism wire service, the Web has lacked a centralized space for college news.

Enter…The Huffington Post. Today, “the Internet newspaper” added a new vertical, its nineteenth, to its array of specialized sections. “HuffPost College” features content aggregated from college newspapers from across the country—fifty-five of them at this point, including schools like Berkeley, Princeton, Iowa State, the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, the University of Montana, Harvard, and the Savanna College of Art and Design—who have entered into content-sharing agreements with the outlet.

“I’m thrilled with the kind of things they’re producing,” Leah Finnegan, the section’s coordinator, says of the partner papers. “It’s really interesting, unique, original stuff—stuff that you wouldn’t hear about otherwise.” Finnegan edited the Daily Texan, UT-Austin’s 30,000-circulation paper—so she might be biased—but it’s hard to argue with her, and the section’s, underlying logic: “The college newspapers, of course, cover this stuff the best.”

Every day, the HuffPost College team—Finnegan is working under the HuffPost’s technology editor, Jose Antonio Vargas—will cull twenty or so stories from the Web pages of the HuffPost’s partner publications, linking, posting, and otherwise giving the full HuffPo treatment to those pieces. The vertical will be “a center for college news,” with “a laser focus on college journalism,” Finnegan says. “I’m definitely looking for things that will interest a broader audience than simply college students.” (Indeed, with its campus-and-beyond focus, the vertical bears a bit of resemblance to the Paper Trail blog, U.S. News and World Report’s college-headline aggregator.)

Because it’s the HuffPost, though, the straight news will be mixed in with the bizarre/wacky/entertaining fare. (Currently leading the section is a round-up featuring personal stories of student debt; underneath that is a blog post from Education Secretary Arne Duncan; a column arguing that “Teach For America Not All It’s Cracked Up To Be”; and a news item headlined “Cornell Mistakenly Disposes Animal Remains In Sewer System.”)

The section will also feature contributions from college students ‘hired’ by the HuffPost as citizen journalists. “Specifically, we’ll be bringing about 30 students, both photojournalists and videographers, to cover college issues for us,” writes Adam Clark Estes, the outlet’s citizen journalism coordinator. “There will be weekly assignments, training events, crowdsourcing projects, and most importantly, daily access to HuffPost editors.”

The idea behind all this, ultimately, is reciprocity: The college outlets and journalists get national exposure, the thinking goes, and their Web sites get traffic. (The HuffPost doesn’t host full articles, but rather abbreviated versions—with a link-back to the original article and thus to the college outlet’s site.) The college outlet’s content will appear not only across the HuffPost site, but also in its feeds and in its search results—meaning that its college partner outlets will ostensibly benefit from the HuffPost’s (in)famous facility with SEO.

That’s good news to a lot of college journalists, whose readership is often limited to fellow students and the occasional nostalgic alumnus. “Right now if I break a story for The Campus—which happens often—we get ripped off by one of the two major dailies in Maine and we don’t get any credit or traffic,” wrote the University of Maine’s William Davis during a Web chat, convened by the group CollegeJourn, to discuss the new vertical. “It’s hard to compete on our own with papers 15 times our size. But links from the HuffPo will make it easier for outsiders to find our stories, increase pagerank on Google, etc.”

What’s in it for HuffPo, though? More content, for one thing. Fashioning themselves as a centralized spot for college news, for another. And, they hope, exposure to an even larger audience (as of September 2009, the HuffPost had 28 million uniques a month) than they currently enjoy.

But traffic and exposure aren’t everything in the “journalistic impact” equation; there’s also branding. Some papers, Finnegan notes, have expressed concern about the HuffPost’s reputation. “Our college may not participate because of the political leanings of the site,” Suzanne Yada, online editor of the Spartan Daily at San Jose State University, wrote in reaction to the announcement of HuffPost’s plan. “Will we be punished because we want to be politically neutral?”

Still, fifty-five partner papers makes for a good foundation for aggregation. And the section’s presence on social media—the @HuffPostCollege Twitter account, the Facebook feed—will likely add to its outreach. The goal, Finnegan says, is to bring college news out of its current bubble. “This news exists in a vacuum because it’s not yet incorporated into social media,” she says. “We’re hoping to change that.”

Update: This post originally listed CollegeJournChat as the group that convened the Web chat to discuss HuffPost College. The group’s name is CollegeJourn. The post has been updated to reflect the correction.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.