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Last updated: Thu. Feb. 07, 2013 - 04:04 pm EDT

COLUMN

IPFW students getting a scary glimpse of the real world

The Communicator's struggle for survival isn't unique in the newspaper business

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College is supposed to prepare young adults for real world, so perhaps the student journalists at IPFW should be grateful that the campus newspaper seems doomed in its current format and faces an uncertain fate even on the supposedly lucrative Internet.

But to Publisher Matt McClure, any educational value that could be gleaned from allowing The Communicator to languish, or even die, after 40 years would pale in comparison to what more than 14,000 students would lose: an independent weekly source of news, opinion and advertising.

“Don't lose your voice on campus,” warned an editorial in The Communicator's Jan. 30 issue, which revealed that the newspaper could be over budget by $13,000 by the end of the school year – “an amount that would certainly close our doors for good.

“But we cannot accept that fate without a fight.”

As a professional journalist for nearly 36 years, I've heard that speech more times than I can count. Thanks to the Internet, more and more people – especially the young – are forsaking printed newspapers in favor of their (usually free) online versions. That reduces the news organizations' revenues, which in turns impedes their ability to provide the kind of journalism that attracted readers in the first place.

Or, as IPFW Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs George McClellan put it, “Student government doesn't see print media as the answer (to what students want to know).” That lack of readership, he said, is one reason that same government has reduced The Communicator's portion of student fees by several thousand dollars in the last few years to about $46,000, or roughly half its budget. And there's no guarantee more cuts won't come, especially if nothing changes.

But McClure, publisher since 2007, vows that changes not only will come, but must.

The Communicator has been online for years, but in an admittedly unappealing format that has attracted little if any advertising. But with the help of a $30,000 Knight Foundation grant, The Communicator will soon boast a vastly improved and attractive interactive Web page that will incorporate all the latest technologies: video, audio, social media and others.

If The Communicator stops spending money on about 4,000 copies per week that often go unread, McClellan said, his department would probably resume advertisements of various events that could be worth thousands of dollars per year. Even so, the shift of readers from print to cyberspace doesn't necessarily translate into an equal shift of revenues.

McClure pointed to another problem too many professional journalists overlook: Glitzy technology is no substitute for good writing and reporting. McClure acknowledged the paper has at times struggled to remain relevant with students, even embracing longer stories at the very time the Internet was offering news in bite-sized bits. Some readers, however, were at times dissatisfied with the “student nature of The Communicator” that has won awards and made mistakes.

The story in The Communicator said fundraising efforts are planned, and McClure said he is exploring the possibility of expanding The Communicator's mission to include other universities in Fort Wayne, which could also expand its base of potential advertisers. “I don't believe we're going away. How we come out of this is the question,” he said.

The answer will be complicated by the equally complex relationship between the newspaper and IPFW. The nonprofit Communicator receives no direct subsidy from the administration, and McClellan doesn't want to change that for fear of undermining the reality or perception of the paper's independence. At the same time, McClure said the nature of the student body's demographics would make it difficult for staffers and contributors to work for free in order to cut costs. Most receive a small stipend but up to now have received no academic credit for working for The Communicator.

But that could change, too, if The Communicator goes digital, McClellan said, because it would then be more compatible with the school's electronic emphasis.

“The university doesn't know what to do with us,” McClure concluded. Just as clearly, the “old” media are still trying to figure out how they can coexist with the new. But people who still care about real news – which is more expensive and difficult to report than the kind generated by meetings, press releases and well-paid spokesmen - should wish The Communicator success.

If a free, nonprofit college paper can't endure the technological transition, what does that say about those that must make money to survive?

kleininger@news-sentinel.com


This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call him at 461-8355.


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