‘Breaking Out and Breaking It Down’ details transition to digital

By Mary Kate Brogan

Buena Vista University’s representatives from The Tack made a single mistake during their otherwise flawless presentation on Saturday: they called their news organization a “newspaper.” For most students at ACP/CMA, this wouldn’t be a gaffe, and two years ago, it wouldn’t have been a problem for BVU’s students. But in August 2012, they made the switch from print to full digital. Their talk, Breaking Out and Breaking It Down: A Year in the Life of a Multimedia News Organization’s Transition, was an eye-opening account of the challenges and ultimately far greater benefits of having an online 24/7 news organization.

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 3.24.48 PMThe student speakers, Grace Bodey, Shauna McKnight and Aaron Burns, cited cost, consumption, innovation and quality vs. quantity as reasons for making the full switch. Going paperless cut costs for the paper, students’ media appetites were becoming more instant in nature, the university as a whole had a strong technological focus and online news allowed for long or short stories, depending on how much space the story warranted.

All of these reasons are strong points in favor of making the switch. Of course, these are not without challenges of staff changes (which included the elimination of the social media editor), training staff, fairly aggressively rebranding the product, working towards convergence with other student media and increasing interaction with the audience.

Overall, the presentation helped me consider the reasons making the switch to full digital might be helpful for an organization. Instead of wading into the sea of online news, BVU dove in head first and learned to swim fantastically. Certainly, many opposed the switch at first, but in the end, it has helped The Tack at BVU win awards for becoming a strong online news organization, one of the strongest in the nation.

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2 thoughts on “‘Breaking Out and Breaking It Down’ details transition to digital

  1. Some of your posts here, including Mary Kate’s on Buena Vista, got me thinking. First, thanks for all of the reports and congratulations on the awards! All this makes me think about your options with Pendulum. What if the Pendulum rethinks its system? What about this: Ditch the bi-weekly pub, which requires quite a commitment of time and money, and go instead to a neat little substitute — a handout, possibly a folded, four-pager the size of a folded map, much the size of handouts we receive when entering our annual Elon convocations.

    A tidy, easy-to-read handout like that could play up a summary of a lead story, offer some visuals and a lot of links to the website. Could use bar codes or such so students could access site immediately to read on their mobiles. Could be a lot of fun visually in a tight form. The handout’s main purpose would be to tease users to go to website and related digital products. It would fit inside a book or pocket or bag. Two people could produce the handout. The rest of staff energy could shift to emphasis on digital, with more breaking news, more in-depth reporting (including data analysis), more photo galleries, more graphics, more video/multimedia. More involvement with the online community.

    Why a paper handout at all? Because Pendy has a nice opportunity to reach students with paper as students enter buildings prior to their classes. It’s a chance to grab attention with a story index. If you were to find that you didn’t need the handout, then could kill that too. As a transition, it might work to keep the news ‘visible’ in a traditional way.

    Students used to ease into a desk seat prior to class and open the Pendulum, moving page to page. Today, not so much. They pull out their mobile phones instead — but I don’t know how many go to the Pendulum site or how long they stay. So why not recognize the change of media-use behaviors and come up with systems to reach students in forms they prefer? Use a handout for now to move them quickly to digital forms.

    Well, anyway. You got me thinking. Maybe it’s time to discuss your next big move. I hope you have even better ideas.

    • Hi Dr. Scott,
      Glad to hear your feedback on this model. BVU’s students said that their biggest marketing strategy was using a print handout with a QR code to be a visible reminder to students of where they can get their news. It’s definitely an interesting concept and one The Pendulum would probably have to research more before going whole-hog, but I think talking to other students who have done this at universities like BVU could really be beneficial to the future of the organization.
      – Mary Kate

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