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Emerson College student paper completes a fully responsive, mobile-friendly redesign

Most college newspaper sites aren’t much to look at; the Berkeley Beacon is an exception.

Screen shot of The Berkeley Beacon

The Berkeley Beacon, Emerson College’s 65-year-old independent student newspaper, mirrors a lot of professional newspapers: Its funding is in jeopardy; editors are (happily) overworked; the editorial board pisses off people in power.

But the Beacon is ahead of most professional media in another respect: Its new HTML5 website is responsive — meaning the same code gets reflowed into new shapes depending on the size of the reading device. The site is now fully mobile-friendly, the editors announced today, making it perhaps the first student newspaper in America with a responsive design.

Take note of the custom web fonts, abundance of white space, and large photos (which, by the way, grow and shrink as you resize the browser window). Article pages are designed to let the reader focus on reading. How many professional newspaper sites can claim that?

It’s no coincidence the Beacon site looks a lot like BostonGlobe.com, whose launch in September 2011 made waves in both the design and journalism worlds. Editor-in-chief Alexander C. Kaufman, a junior, and web editor Ryan Catalani, a freshman who designed and built the site, studied the Globe’s new design carefully.

“We realized the best sites were the ones that best replicated the print experience,” Kaufman told me. “We’re just a small, scrappy weekly, but we’ve always really strived to…emulate a broadsheet tone and a broadsheet mentality.”

Contributing to the site’s spareness is the fact that it lacks any advertising, which Kaufman said is temporary. The previous design was built on College Publisher, a turnkey content-management system and ad platform. Until now, College Publisher sold display ads and shared the revenue; Beacon staff focused on selling ads for its weekly print edition.

Kaufman said they are also wrestling with how to present ads without destroying the zen of the design.

“I don’t want to disrupt the reader experience just to be generating a lot of money,” he said. “Maybe once our traffic levels are really, really steady and people are just automatically going there all the time, we might do more and more ads. I would rather have something closer to BostonGlobe.com than Boston.com.”

He is referring to the Globe’s bifurcated model, which we’ve covered here before. BostonGlobe.com is a paid-subscriber-only site and features very little advertising. Boston.com, on the other hand, is free and features tons of ads.

Diversified revenue is more important for the Beacon now than ever. For two decades, the Beacon had enjoyed an 8 percent slice of the university’s student activities fund — it was guaranteed in the student constitution. But last semester — after years of tension between Beacon reporters and the student leaders they covered — Emerson’s student body ratified a revised constitution that removed the funding protection. (The paper covered the change extensively.)

Kaufman said the site received a big traffic spike during its coverage of the constitutional changes, hitting about 11,660 pageviews and 3,000 unique visitors the week of the student referendum. Traffic slowed during winter break but ultimately returned to higher levels than before the site’s November 2011 relaunch.

Good-looking, well-built college newspaper sites aren’t as common as one might hope — not least because the planning necessary for a lengthy project like a redesign can be hard to accomplish with constant leadership turnover.

Kaufman explained:

At most college newspapers you don’t have the luxury of a permanent staff that’s sticking around for several years. You’ve got people who are rising through the ranks each semester, each time taking new responsibilities, often. Launching a new website…and putting the focus on the presentation of the work instead of the daily grind of producing journalism. That’s a hard thing to prioritize.

But Kaufman said presentation is important, especially at a college focused on the visual and performing arts.

“People at Emerson really care about image,” he said. (Emerson is “dedicated exclusively to communication and the arts in a liberal arts context,” the college says.) “To get people at Emerson to take our writing seriously, and to take seriously the journalism that we produce, we…needed to present it well,” he said.

Kaufman’s tenure as editor ends this semester, concluding three years at the paper. He takes an internship with TheWrap.com this summer in Los Angeles.

                                   
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  • Javier Panzar

    We here at The Daily Californian ( http://www.dailycal.org ) are thrilled to see another college paper make the move to responsive. We did it in mid-February as a part of a larger online transition. Since we have moved to WordPress last May we have been making occasional modifications to our theme, the largest one being switching to a cleaner, responsive design to cater to our growing mobile readership.

    The responsive design has made a big difference for us, pageviews have gone up close to 30% so far in 2012 compared to the same time last year. Since we made the switch a typical month is now averaging over 400,000 pageviews a month compared to 250,000 a month before. March netted us over 500,000. We also built a new related posts plugin that has helped.

    As a financially independent publication, the new site has been the silver lining on our otherwise dire financial situation. Our student sales team has tripled online revenue so far this fiscal year to something like $39,000. In the future we see this playing a big role in our financial stability.

    The Boston Globe was a big influence on us and we highly recommend other college papers move to a CMS they can fully control and customize so they can move to a responsive design.

    - Javier Panzar 
    Online Managing Editor
    jpanzar@dailycal.org

  • Skye Dent

    Hello,
    I’m a born and bred Bostonian who worked as a journalist, publicist, TV-Film writer and now a journalist (again) slash professor.  So, I’m thrilled to see that the Emerson journalism students are on the cutting edge of new media without letting themselves get cut in the process.  Your contributions and your voices, as well as those of your readers, are of great value to Emerson and the surrounding community.  From a field and a world apart, I wanted to add my congrats.  

    Skye Dent

  • Bryan Murley

    What content management system is the Beacon using?