Here’s the question: If your business is delivering news primarily to 18- to -26-year-olds, do you really have a choice whether to dial back the physical, paper end of your product and push the digital envelope?
Clearly, The Minnesota Daily believes its practical options are limited. Young adults consume information almost entirely on the fly, on devices. Paper is no longer primary.
On Wednesday, the 116-year-old Daily announced it was reducing its print publication to Mondays and Thursdays and enhancing its digital presence on the strength, they hope, of an improved website set to debut with the start of the fall semester. That prompted the obvious joke, “Now on newsstands: The Minnesota BiWeekly Daily.”
But Gayle Golden, chair of The Daily’s board of directors, and Dylan Scott, the paper’s current editor, make a presentable case for the paper not just accepting a 21st-century reality, but in the process better serving its essential mission: training the next generation of reporters and editors to do relevant, substantive work.
After “underscoring” that these changes were brought to the board by the student journalists, who contracted a study of reader habits by the Carlson School of Management, Golden says, “What we found, to no one’s surprise, is that students just aren’t picking up the print edition,” she said. “Certainly not as much as they once did. There are a variety of reasons for that, and it’s true across the entire newspaper industry. But young people in particular live on their phones. That’s a fact that has to be accepted. And The Daily’s problem was exacerbated by a website that just was not responsive on mobile devices.”
She says additional research convinced the board that vitally important advertising revenue would suffer only negligibly if at all by condensing everything into two editions a week, each with a “longer rack life.”
Chris Ison, the former Pulitzer-wnning Strib investigative reporter now teaching at the U, shared these thoughts in an e-mail: “I suppose going mostly digital is financially necessary and was bound to happen eventually. But I think it’s a loss. There is real value in the Daily’s physical presence in almost every building on campus. Students and faculty and administrators walk in and the headlines are there on the rack staring them in the face. And that’s a constant reminder to the community that important things are going on that they should pay attention to. And it’s a reminder to the administration that people are watching how they behave.
“The Daily will have to work harder to get its important journalism in front of people as it becomes more of a digital product. But they also have a chance to become really good at that, so the potential to break new ground will be exciting. And if they save enough money to hire more reporters and improve coverage — which should be the goal — the community will benefit.”
The Daily has already been operating a kind of dual track system for stories, each with different personalities. Breaking, first-glance stories appear on the web, followed by usually longer, more thoroughly reported and edited versions rolled out in print. The looming change will inevitably drive a diminishing distinction between those web and print personalities.
Scott, a Minneapolis native and English and history major, is careful to assert that The Daily intends to maintain the highest possible standards of journalism as it takes a significant evolutionary step toward becoming a product not just on the internet but of the internet.
The downside of the all-internet mindset is obvious to anyone interested in quality reporting. A recent New Yorker story laid out in detail the dilemmas of turning over virtually all posting/editing functions at the popular Gawker website to a single, not-all-that-experienced person with the directive to keep feeding the beast no matter what. It wasn’t entirely pretty (though for a serious journalist, someone determined to do right by the facts, it was a valuable plunge into the deep end of the pool).
Scott says he’s told his staff — which includes 100 students at any given moment of the school year, with “50 or 60” of them being reporters and/or editors — the expectation is for The Daily to become more immediate and “reactive” to events on campus, as they occur and whenever they occur. This is a shift from the traditional approach of taking maybe a week to put together that finished, polished story for print. The challenge with this evolution, again, is maintaining the quality of the printed story while making the transition from publishing a week down the road to mere hours after the fact. “What we need to do is provide a more relevant experience for our readers,” he says.
Asked what this means for the type of stories he expects his staff to pursue and the tone in which they report them, he said, “I expect this will definitely change the types of things we cover.” And as far as tone, “it means really being in tune with the pulse of the campus.”
If the college experience is about testing (and contesting) ideas, skills and limits, Scott and the rest of The Daily staff are living in interesting times. Can they deliver an in-the-moment, “relevant” product a young, tech-dependent audience wants to consume while maintaining the standards for substantiveness and accuracy of credible journalism?
Logistically, Scott expects to add “two or three” more editors to have enough eyes available when a reporter files off an event, regardless the time of day.
“Another part of the reality of what we’re dealing with,” he says, “is the fact that not a lot of the students we’re writing for grew up seeing a newspaper on the family breakfast table. Yet there is still an expectation that at some point they will see a physical print product. I have no idea when The Daily will go completely digital. For me, personally, I’ll be sad when the legacy print product is completely curtailed, and not just because most of our revenue is in the print product.
“I will say that the response to the new website this fall, the analytics we see from that, will tell us a lot about how fast we might move to an all-digital platform. That will be important information for us.”