Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Want a cheap way to increase readership, strengthen loyalty and build content? Print your school newspapers

School Newspapers Online is a company that creates web sites for high school journalism programs.

Starting at a relatively low cost of $600, a school can easily launch an slick-looking and easy-to-update website using the Wordpress platform.

One problem. Companies like School Newspapers Online wouldn't exist if community newspapers were doing their jobs. SNO is filling a void that community newspapers left open long ago.

Years ago -- likely decades, actually -- my former employer began printing the school newspapers for the area's three high schools. Each Wednesday, the Manteca Bulletin carried a 4-to-8-page section written, edited and paginated entirely by high school students. It was genius: The costs were minimal (no newsroom labor, just printing and distribution), it built up a tremendous amount of goodwill toward the newspaper in the community, it encouraged teens to take an interest in reading the news, and the newspaper was able to distribute news about schools at a level staff reporters could never hope to achieve. Plus, thanks to the Audit Bureau of Circulation's rules about the Newspapers in Education program, the paper was able to claim a portion of the distribution at school sites as increased paid circulation. The Bulletin's school newspaper experiment eventually came to an end during a series of management changes. It was a cost-cutting move, no doubt, but I expect the various publishers simply didn't realize what a valuable service they had been offering.

I think certain community newspapers -- especially those that cover areas with just one or two campuses -- can still make a go of it. But before you do anything, make sure you and the school's staff know exactly what's expected of both parties. We tried a similar project at another weekly paper I edited, but got mixed results. Success rested on whether the journalism instructors could be counted on to ensure their students met deadlines and understood the process. There were two high schools in that town. One school's paper was printed regularly. The other school? Not so much. Chaos reigned in that classroom, and despite my attempts to make classroom visits and provide editing and production tips to students and staff, we never quite remedied why that high school couldn't get its paper delivered to our press room on time.

All of that was a long time ago, before newspaper websites were as ubiquitous as they are today. I'd love to see a community newspaper partner with its high school counterparts, perhaps building out sections and awarding student journalists some level of access to its content management system.

A newspaper with web development resources could even mimic what they're doing at SNO, but at no cost to the school. In fact, a newspaper could go one step further, putting its advertising resources to work for the school's benefit as a certain percentage of proceeds from ads on the campus newspaper web pages could be donated back to the school site.