From the Field: Making Student Media Sustainable

Gretchen Macchiarella

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Unlike their industry counterparts, college media organizations don’t have investors to please or dozens of chain-owned properties to consider while dealing with the industry’s shared problems of how to monetize and become financially sustainable.[1] Most student media organizations are nonprofit corporations or divisions of the university directly. Their structures play a major part in the way that innovation plays out. For the sake of simplicity in describing some of the distinctions, we will focus on the student media organization that would have once been called the student newspaper but now might encompass many publications with little or no ink involved.In the first part of this decade the loss of advertising revenue at college newspapers was clear[2] but the only solid solution usually proposed was for universities to begin funding the operations. Next came a round of reducing print circulation and other general cost cutting. In 2014, the trickle of papers cutting their print publications became a deluge[3] and digital reliance has since become the norm. That put those papers on the same path of many industry organizations, unable to make up lost revenue from print editions with digital advertising.Innovation and an entrepreneurial focus has changed that at many student media groups. These organizations can’t count on what used to work, especially for independent publications.Duke Student Publishing Company, publisher of The Chronicle newspaper, made a standalone visitors guide website, created a housing database called, and added sponsored social media advertising. This year, with buy-in from the board of directors and a sizable investment, The Chronicle launched an advertising agency within their organization. It will bring in close to $60,000 in new revenue, according to General Manager Chrissy Beck. She tells her students they have to keep trying, change the strategy along the way, and be ready to fail.

“It helps us be super flexible, and I think that creates a sense of innovation and trying,” she said. “Because we have to.”

Disrupting Student Media From Within

Student media organizations are not immune from the disruptions faced by the larger journalism industry. When coffers got low, student media organizations got creative:

Student Media Strengths Table
Do what you do, better Niche publications Find a new platform Think outside the newsroom
Newspapers print Editor’s Picks for the calendars, but now they can build a recommendation engine specialized to the visitor’s taste. Find small audiences and speak to them directly with low-cost platforms like specialized social media or podcasts. Ethnic groups, sports junkies and fashion consumers have all been successful markets. A radio team can start an email newsletter or the print newsroom can try keeping it short and sassy on social media. Media organizations do much more than deliver news; they connect people. Host a live storytelling event, make shirts using the best quotes from the year or write a guide to your community.

Looking for Innovation in Student Media Looking for Innovation in Student Media

Instead of shrinking, the Iowa State Daily Media Group has grown from 70 student employees to more than 200, and it now reaches more of the community. They recently considered starting a subscription box for alumni that would deliver local production, and of course, the newspaper.

“If you want different results you have to do things differently,” General Manager Lawrence Cunningham said.

At Cal Poly, the Mustang Media Group in San Luis Obispo, Calif. hosts an annual event with advertisers passing out food samples and coupons on campus. The Iowa State Daily Media Group created a dating contest that brought couples together and sent them on sponsored dates. Advertising agencies, social media management, sponsored podcasts –  these nimble media organizations are considering revenue options that once would have been far outside their scope.

Paul Bittick, general manager at Mustang Media, has changed his entire focus in the past five years. He said at least 75 percent of the organization’s sales are not in the regular print product, but in coupon books, events, or sponsorships of live streams. This year he is making a calendar to send home with visiting parents sponsored by wineries and other attractions trying to entice the next extended family visit.

“Our job is to train these students is to go into the media organization of today, not the ones I left,” Bittick said.

In our examples so far, Mustang Media Group at Cal Poly is a division of the journalism department, while Duke Publishing and the Iowa State Daily are independent nonprofits. Other recognizable publications include the Daily Wildcat, which is part of the larger area of Student Media, a largely self-supporting campus auxiliary that is part of student affairs at the University of Arizona. The Missourian is the most well-known professional collaboration, with students coming from the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

Beck says she wouldn’t trade Duke Student Publishing Company’s status as an independent newspaper for any amount of university funding or support. She feels she is running a business, with the autonomy to make big changes.

“I can make a decision today and it happens tomorrow,” Beck said.

Two major elements impact how innovation happens: where the bulk of the money comes from and who gets a say in new ventures or changes.

If the majority of the funding for the basic needs of the organization are covered by the university, there is less perceived need for innovation. More important, the money coming in might be specifically earmarked or tied to legacy functions. For example, there may only be money for printing and not for developing an app.

For those with close campus ties, the power structures can be complex. A campus club that produces student media cannot choose to start selling T-shirts if that isn’t part of its charter. But an auxiliary might be able to get the usual fees waived to allow it to use the campus mascot to promote a standalone sports website.

In a recent analysis of a national survey of college newspaper advisers,[4]  Dr. David Bockino found that student media that displayed an entrepreneurial orientation and that a closer connection with the marketing and sales departments also tended to provide more journalistic autonomy. “This result perhaps suggests a greater flexibility within the papers’ infrastructure, that is, newspapers more concerned with economic fluctuations, such as changing media habits or increased competition, have more incentive to provide their students the leeway to solve such problems compared with newspapers less concerned with changes in the audience.”

At Iowa State Daily Media Group, Cunningham said he has pushed to make innovation and “crazy thinking” part of every day. The student leadership group is often asked to assume there are no limits. The process is part of creating a learning environment as close as possible to the growing demands of the media industry.

“We bridge the gap between what students learn in the classroom and what they will be expected to know in the marketplace,” he said.

Overcoming the Challenges

The level of work and focus can be hard to sustain. Cunningham said after four years of adding publications and trying new ideas, the team has slowed down. And, with new revenue sources coming in, the need to do something, anything, has decreased as well.

The most common challenges to creating a culture of innovation were professional staff burnout, low tolerance for risk, a constantly changing student staff, and pressure from faculty members or alumni to stick with the traditional.

“The students, who are well-intentioned, sometimes are the ones holding us back,” Beck said.

Longstanding institutions like The Chronicle can feel like a heavy responsibility for students barely out of their teens. They don’t want to be the ones who let a venerable institution die. So Beck, and her counterparts, push many of the changes themselves and then let the students run with it. Over time, the student leaders loosen up and get more flexible.

“I am still hopeful they are going to come up with the next cool great idea,” Beck said.


No two student media organizations are the same. Some have journalism department classes that feed them reporters while others are tiny student clubs that recruit from all comers. Many are nonprofit organizations that are independent from the universities they serve, but these may still get student fees or access to campus space and resources. Their advertisements might be sold by a full-time staff of professionals or only occasionally by a student volunteer. Each college student media organization has its own recipe, with a dash of this and a heap of something else.

The following chart gives a very rough categorization of the types of student media organizations. Each lists characteristics like funding sources, oversight structures, and benefits.

Types of Student Media Organizations Table
Journalism department affiliated Club or student government subsidiary Campus auxiliary Independent nonprofit Professional collaboration
$ – may be self-supporting through advertising or other revenue along with college funding $ – steady, but limited funding $ – student fees likely provide a steady stream of revenue, but they are reliant on outside revenue $ – must earn or fundraise; often produce events and publications such as housing or visitor guides $ – advertising supported with a professional business staff
Used as a training tool, there is likely to be significant support and oversight by the faculty Student-driven, but may have advisers or supervisors without journalism background Students are likely to have significant freedom while maintaining official connections Staffed by students with a small professional staff that reports to a Board of Directors Students are an integrated part of the newsroom but work with professional journalists and sales reps
Benefit: A trained and available workforce, often working for class credit Benefit: Likely little pressure to increase revenue or even cover expenses Benefit: Facilities and staff may be paid for by college Benefit: Few business restrictions Benefit: Usually serves the community at large, adding potential business opportunities


Gretchen Macchiarella is an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, where she has also worked as the publisher and faculty adviser for the student newspaper. Prior to joining CSUN, she worked as an editor and journalist during the formative years of the digital transition. She earned a master’s degree in digital journalism and design from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg, and a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she spent most of her time working at the newspaper. Find her at  @collegejournos

Editor’s Note: This sidebar is new and will undergo its first use and testing in Fall 2018. This sidebar is not yet available in the print edition. You can leave feedback using annotations on the chapter, or contact us.

  1. Joseph, Lichterman, “Business Realities Are Impacting all College Newspapers. But What Happens When They Are For-profit?” Neiman Lab, August 2016,
  2. Jerry Bush, "College Papers' Financial Health Questionable," Gateway Journalism Review, March 2012,
  3. Tim Magaw, “Evolution of College Newspapers: What Does It Mean for Future of Journalism Programs?” Crain’s Cleveland Business, June 2014,
  4. David Bockino, “Preparatory Journalism: The College Newspaper as a Pedagogical Tool,” Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 73 no. 1, 67-82, January 2017.


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Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Copyright © 2017 by Gretchen Macchiarella is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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