University of Alberta’s student newspaper shifts to web-focused model

Is the Gateway setting a trend for campus papers with the move to a web-based model?

Is the Gateway setting a trend for campus papers with the move to a web-based model?

The Gateway moves online as market tendencies change

With Postmedia Network’s extensive staff cuts, consolidations, and downsizing in the recent news, print media has undergone a sizeable shakeup in Canada over the last few weeks. An announcement last week from the University of Alberta’s student newspaper, the Gateway, showed the trickle-down effect of the new media landscape.

Publishing in some form since 1910, the staff of the paper has decided to move to an online-focused model, with a printed magazine to accompany more time sensitive web-based content.

Executive Director Beth Mansell says that a drop in the number of students choosing the paper in its current hard-copy model spurred the move.

“The main thing that inspired both of us to try and make this jump this year was just looking at the numbers and how much it cost to produce this print product, and realizing that it’s not sustainable. Especially the fact that we get so much money from our student levies. It’s just not responsible to put this much money into this print product that barely any students pick up anymore.”

In tracking the amount of issues that students were picking up from stands, those in charge at the Gateway found that, in five years, the number had dropped from four or five thousand, to twenty-five hundred per week.

Editor-in-Chief Cameron Lewis says that the shift to the online environment was partially made in order to lead the way in terms of student journalism.

“It was something that people talked about as taboo and negative, but I wanted to make it into more of a positive thing, and view the shift as an opportunity to do something well before anyone else does it, and to kind of lead a change among different newspapers.”

As for how the shift will affect the editorial focus of the paper, Lewis feels that it will create an environment where the product will be more focused on events as they happen.

“It’s going to be more of a shift in the here and the now, and getting things done quickly, and constantly thinking. In the online sense, it’s about getting things done quickly and being creative, and doing things in the most interesting and efficient way. The magazine side is taking a little bit more time, and thinking about things that people will care about for a month. It’s two totally different ways of viewing it, and I think that different types of people with different kinds of interests, kinds of skills, will come out and fill those two different arms of roles.”

In order to function, a newspaper requires a way of supporting itself, outside of the student levy. According to Mansell, the widespread change will impact how the Gateway functions financially.

“A big reason why we wanted to shift to this model was so that we were less reliant on advertising revenue. I’m sure other student newspapers have experienced the same thing, but just the decreases over the past five years or so are really, really significant.

“We’re still obviously hoping for online advertisements as well, and we know that we’ll be able to generate some kind of revenue from the print magazine.”

Other areas in which the newspaper will be focused in terms of advertising include sponsorships and student engagement.

The Gateway’s new model has received plenty of media attention, most notably from the CBC, but Lewis says that many people with knowledge of the situation understand that the move is a sensible one.

“People accept, if they know the Gateway pretty well, that in order for us to exist and function as not only a piece of the campus and a medium of media and communication, but also as an unofficial school of journalism, we have to kind of operate in a different way.”

“We can’t just continue to lead and let it exist the way it is right now, just chopping staff, chopping salaries, chopping resources. Because, eventually, it’s all just going to run dry, and we’re going to cease to exist, and then what favours are we really doing anyone, right?”

With the Gateway functioning, as Lewis says, as a pseudo-official journalism school, Mansell also highlights the fact that in order for the staff of the Gateway to be gaining the full student-journalism experience – and for that experience to be meaningful – a change in approach was necessary.

“From a student perspective, we want to be training people and giving them the skills that they would need if they want to carry on in journalism, and things like layout is obviously not beneficial for them if they want to continue in journalism, whereas all of this timely stuff that we’re going to be focusing on, that’s going to benefit them in the next five, ten years, going out into that industry.”

So, what was the reaction from the staff once they were informed of their workplace’s new focus? On the whole, the Editor-In-Chief says, it was a positive and rejuvenating one.

“The response, it was a bit of a shock at first. I mean, no one saw it coming. We called the meeting in December to tell everybody what was up, and they thought it was just going to be some minor thing, and then when we explained what it was jaws just dropped. And people were a little bit intimidated, but then after Christmas break we gave them a chance to think about it, maybe air their grievances and things they didn’t quite like about what we had going, we shifted a few things, thought of ways we could make it work for everybody, and now everybody is really onboard.”

“I mean, I haven’t seen a Gateway staff with this much energy at the beginning of February in my entire time here.”

From the safe confines of the Carillon’s Regina office, it will be interesting to see how our counterparts at the U of A will fare in this new adventure. To their credit, in our conversations they seem ready and willing to share whatever knowledge they glean from this new journalistic escapade.

Time will tell, however, if student journalism is ready for a web-based model. The impulse seems to be yes, but even a full semester for the Gateway will tell us a lot about the feasibility of this new strategy.

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