EXAMINE THE NET WAY OF LIFE
by Paul C. Pinderski
If you are a campus administrator, you probably should close this page and move on to a coffee break. This issue is devoted to stirring up the creativity of the student population of your campus. There is always something happening on campus. There are events, issues, increasing student fees, crime and university publishing controls. Most campus student newspapers are affiliated with either the college communications department or with the student activities board. Only off-campus publications are truly independent of campus controls, such as advisors, student fee budgets, and potential censorship. The biggest problem with running an off-campus publication is the cost of composition, printing and distribution. The internet solves each of these problems. With proper planning, a small group of dedicated individuals can have a fully functioning, financially sound, and independent campus publication.
There is always some controversy surrounding the diversity that a university community creates each semester. Whether what is taught or not taught in the classroom. What occurs on or off campus. What is proper and what is not politically correct. The debates are endless. But the vehicles for expression are usually limited. The thesis is that there is an affordable way to expand campus expression as an independent organization.
It would not take much effort. Five friends, colleagues or associates. That is the foundation from which to build a weekly publication without burning out.
Access to the Internet Every campus is wired; most students have their laptops, Internet browsers, and simple web page applications readily available.
Some cash. By national press standards, only beer money.
A cause. The purpose of a publication is tied directly to an unfulfilled need. Every college has some issue that is undercovered, wanting more publicity, or needs a political voice in the community.
Just those four elements are needed to begin.
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The Digital Campus Newspaper
by Paul C. Pinderski
To have an Independent Campus newspaper, there used to be a large expensive barrier. One needed the resources to have composing equipment, a printer to have quick large scale runs, and a distribution system that was at least campus wide. With the advent of the world wide web, simple home page programs, cheap host servers, and a few pieces of software, the barriers have been brought down like the Berlin Wall.
First, capital. What does it take to run the operation?
Web page publishing program: $0-$300
Computer: probably already have one or access to one.
Domain registration: $35
Web Hosting service: $15/mo. x 12 or $180.00
Word processing/graphics program: integrated works program probably already have.
Clip art for the uninspired: $25-200.
Advertising or promotional: optional.
Start-up costs are approximately $550.00.
Second, division of labor. What are the gears to this machine?
Five defined tasks show the diversity, flexibility and division of imput to a web publication. For a general interest campus publication, there are four content editors and a business/editorial person. A college can be easily divided into four general topics: news, sports, entertainment and opinion (editorial). The assignment of one area to one person creates a specific focus and little overlap or duplication of effort. Unless your group have immediately access to your grandfather's trust funds, the fifth element is important to the enterprise. The editor-in-chief will be the coordinator, webmaster, and business manager. The plan should include the goal of soliciting paid local advertising to support the web site. Unless you plan to forego all advertising and income prospects and self-fund all the expenses of maintaining your site, you have to run it as a business. The site can be self-sufficient if local advertisers want to target your college demographic. That is not usually a difficult sell. The real hard part is selling your site to the advertisers. And that is a full-time job.
The editor-in-chief or business manager has to play a pivotal role in the success of this enterprise. You will be running a small business. Income, expenses, contracts, contacts, content and bill payment must be maintained. If you come together informally as a group, you are general partners, each liable for the activities of the others. It is the simplest form of business ownership. You could incorporate, with the core members being officers of the company, but that takes additional expense, state filings. In any event, a business must report income, expenses, pay taxes and make appropriate filings (licenses, taxes, etc.). As part of your due diligence before launch, check with your local resources on what is required for you to legally operate a business in your locality.
Where can you get five talented people? Any dorm floor, or frat house has a diverse group of writers, English majors, communications majors, jocks, computer freaks, artists, finance and business majors, and probably even more poli sci and opinionated zealots in need of a productive, creative outlet for expression. You and your four comrades have to promise to work together, equally share together the workload, the expense and the profits of this enterprise for it to work.
Third, mission statement. Why are we going to do this project?
An independent campus voice is usually the reaction to a heated debate. Politics, student fees, faculty grading, security, scandals, political correctness, censorship. The college experience is fertile ground for the seeds of discontent. You don't have to have a crusading issue to create a campus digital paper. You may just want to create an independent community voice. You may want to get credentials; be invited to press conferences; spark up the resume with applied experience. You can be as general or as specific you want to be; but remember, the public will ask you why should we be interested in your publication? What can I get from reading your web site that I can't get from the university press or local paper?
For example, if you believe women's issues are not being given enough attention, then one could focus the publication on women's issues: women's campus news focus on security issues, equal pay issues, women's organizations and speakers; women's sports; entertainment--movies, books, seminars targeted for women.
For example, if you believe club sports and intermurals are not being covered properly, then you can focus on that issue: upcoming events; team results; features on players, sports, rules; columns or first-person accounts of the competitors; or even literary prose on the subjects.
Fourth, pre-launch events. You should have a format in place before you start your web page design. Are you going to have one long home page, or four jump pages? Are you going to have pictures, graphics dominate over words, stories? How many advertisers will you need per issue to break even? Where will you put advertising boxes on the page?
You want the home page to look professional. You need the home page to be professional because you want to earn the respect of your readers, your peers, your advertisers, and your administration. All of those viewer groups are sensitive, easily jittery, short-tempered, and hard to please. It takes some guts to get outside the cocoon of easy campus life or the bottom of the beer keg to experience the real world. It is worth the experience.
Fifth, test the waters. Is there anyone else on campus uploading their own zine or weblog? If so, how are they doing? Are they willing to interact or join your group? Who are the potential sponsors of the publication? Local restaurants, bars, beer distributors, movie houses, music stores and fashion boutiques are the stable of campus newspaper advertising. You can research the local rate cards for the papers that serve campus to get an idea of what advertising have been paying for space. But remember, you are new; untested; in a new medium that most people still don't understand; with no audited circulation or track record; but have no costs of printing presses, ink, newsprint, delivery trucks and large payrolls. You are in the position to offer deep discounts to advertisers who covet your targeted readership. Don't forget that students are also potential advertisers as well: classified ads are the staple of newspapers. If you plan, you can market a campus classified section at half or third the cost of your competition.
The thought of making money is important. It is okay to make a profit. You may want to make money to invest in other programs to upgrade your site to provide things traditional papers cannot provide its readers, like animated editorial cartoons. You may have free labor with your core group of editors, but what if there is a need to travel with sports teams? The need to pay freelancers for artwork, feature stories? What if advertisers want pictures in their ads and no one has a digital camera? You should not go and make a full commitment to a high-profile (local) web site without acknowledging that the beast will get hungry along the way.
Sixth, if you are a go for launch, you should do a dry-run prototype. You should determine how often you will publish: daily, weekly, monthly or something in-between. You should test your skill level by writing, editing and designing your paper in the needed timeframe. The first prototype will help you learn the pitfalls, bugs, problems, and work flow of creating and publishing a dynamic, organic publication. It will also show you how the web page will look, how it will interact, and what needs to be changed, either technically or visually. It will also provide you with a tangible document to show potential advertisers and/or readers. (For a sample home page, click here.) Don't try to do everything at once, or be unrealistic about the site. Try to make it work as a weekly before you increase the load on running a daily site.
Seventh, the hype. Just like NASA blast-offs, you can easily create a buzz about your publication. Tell you friends; host a party where the main event is a mouse click that uploads to your web host you first publication. The dot.commers did it all the time. Relive what you will miss out. You can send out a press release to the traditional media, your competitors on and off-campus, to get a reaction or some publicity. You can go to the Kinko's in your budget and copy a ton of flyers, like bookmark size papers with your URL and logo and place them in the union, library, food service, wherever students mill. Or you could buy a classified or small ad to promote your site. (Your host provider will tempt you with a thousand different search engine listings, PR services, consulting and web directory posting. Since your focus is on-campus, spend your dollars close to campus first.)
Eighth, pray. In any conventional way. Any engineer or builder, if he is honest, will tell you he has butterflies everytime his bridge or structure is completed, hoping against hope that it won't collapse upon itself. The same is true with your enterprise. The good-feelings of launching a web site can turn into a tedious non-credit course by mid-semester unless you can keep the focus. The editor-in-chief may be the quarterback, nursemaid, cheerleader, rainmaker, taskmaster, bully and whipping boy all at the same time. But the good vibes should outweigh the burdens over time.
Ninth, follow-up. One good issue deserves another. Take criticism, analyze it, and use it to make your site better. Add features when you are able to fully commit to them. Share the workload; support each other's pages, stories and contributions. The team is made up of individual talents, but it is the team as a whole that gets judged by its wins and losses. If you make mistakes, correct them. If you do good work, break news, don't gloat. If you promise something, make sure you deliver on that promise. And, if possible, get the money up front.
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Do You Want to be a Publisher?
by Paul C. Pinderski
Ah, to be 20 again, with a high-speed Macintosh, a DSL line and plenty of free time on my hands. But that is not going to happen, but it could for you. Anyone can be a publisher. We do it every day without realizing it. Anything we write or say to a third person is speech. You are covered by the First Amendment against government interference with your rights of free expression. However, your state libel laws still control the conduct or limits of speech in the civil context between private citizens.
Every publisher must be careful. Credibility and reputation are closely guarded because they must be earned and given by others. Even if you are a judgment-proof bored college kid sitting in a dorm room wanted to hack-off the dean of students, there are more powerful elements in the universe then the send key on your computer.
You have to cover your ASP. Accountability. Sincerity. Professionalism. Remembering ASP should keep you out of trouble. You serve many functions as a publisher: reporter, editor, commentator and deep-pocket target. You are accountable for anything you write or publish. You must strive for accurately when you are reporting news, you must be aware of the context of your words to the subject matter, and you should have some checks and balances in place before anything is posted on the site. Another pair of eyes on copy never hurts. Quality controls need to be maintained.
You also must be sincere in your efforts. Half-baked or wild ramblings without any foundation will hurt you in the long run. Comedy or wit has it place, but not in the lead of an auto-accident story. You should have Journalism 101 knowledge, or at least the editor-in-chief should be competent in this field.
Finally, you must act professionally. When you are out in the field, you are representing yourself and your publication. That fact can either open doors or close them. If you publication is about campus sports, and you constantly trash the coaches or players, press credentials, or access to events could be cut-off by the athletic director. If that would occur, then the project ceases to have viability or merit. Remember, the subjects of your publication want to be portrayed, promoted, publicized and quoted in the press in a good light. Fair criticism won't hurt you if you quoted your sources correctly.
You should archive everything, including your written notes, in case there is any dispute in the future about what was published. You should have an email link on your site to your editor(s) so you can get feedback. You should maintain objectivity and open-minds when your publication gets negative feedback, demands for a retraction or worse. Have a forum available to correct mistakes, re-exam the issue in question, or print letters to the editor. It will enhance the image of the site and make it a better publication.
If you have a tough problem, a gray area question or concern, legal or otherwise, before you publish it, get a second opinion. From a faculty advisor, or pull some money from the operating budget and see a local attorney. It is better to spend a little to get good advice before you are dragged into a much more expensive, cost-prohibited battle.
Now that you want to be a publisher, create a useful and important site for your community and issues, one last question has to be asked: how long do you want it to last? It is an interesting concept in the university context because most students graduate and leave the college womb. Like campus clubs or societies, their chapters are passed on to new members. Do you want to leave a campus legacy? If so, you will need to think about succession prior to your graduation by recruiting underclassmen with shared interests and visions to succeed your editors. Of course, you could shut down and spawn imitators. There is no wrong or right answer to the final question posed to you. You could keep paying the host and domain name fees for years and your site could be a digital tombstone to your time on campus. Or you could cut and burn your archives onto CDs and donate them to the university library. Or you can take the applied knowledge and experience of being web publisher to springboard your post-campus career.
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