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May 27, 2015, 10 a.m.

What happened when a college newspaper abandoned its website for Medium and Twitter

At Mt. San Antonio College, they’ve traded in print for distributed publishing, focusing on realtime reporting and distribution: “We’re speaking the language of our generation.”

The Mountaineer student newspaper at California’s Mt. San Antonio College no longer exists. About two months ago, the paper dropped its print edition, abandoned its website, ditched its longtime news production process, expanded its coverage base, and rejiggered its entire reporting philosophy. It also changed its name to SAC.Media.

The result of all this reinvention: A small editorial team at a two-year school in the Los Angeles suburbs is running one of the most daring, innovative college media outlets in the United States.

SAC.Media is one of the only student news operations hosted exclusively on Medium, the digital publishing network emerging as the next buzzworthy blogosphere. Staffers are laser-focused on hyperlocal and realtime reporting as the cornerstones of their coverage. They publish organically, without artificial deadlines — based on nothing other than when news breaks or stories are done. And they are determined to engage Mt. SAC (as the school is known) students and area residents in not just reading but responding — adopting a news-as-conversation model and showing that “student issues” are no longer confined to campus.

For their efforts, at a recent journalism conference, a longtime student media adviser described the SAC.Media staff as nothing less than “rock stars of journalism.”

Mt. SAC journalism professor and SAC.Media faculty adviser Toni Albertson worked for music magazines in the 1980s. She summoned a rock star relevant in that era to describe the larger byproduct of all this transformation.

“For a long time, with the print paper, we just had to go with ‘Here’s what happened this past week or past month on campus,'” she said. “Now it’s like the doors are open. The wind’s blowing in. It’s like a Stevie Nicks video — the wind in the hair. The students are all excited. And I’m happy to come to work. Not that I wasn’t happy before. But I come to work with a whole new attitude, because I wonder, ‘What are they going to do today?’ This has turned this entire place into an experimental lab.”

“A reporter in the real world”

One major part of the experiment has been its real-world focus. A large majority of student newspapers — and professional papers — feature sections such as news, opinion, lifestyle and sports. For the moment at least, SAC.Media’s only content designations are hashtags. And they identify places, not parts of the paper.

#SOSMtSac#SOSLA#SOSElMonte#SOSPomona and others are the driving engines of a coverage philosophy that Albertson told me boils down to four words: human connection and conversation.

SAC.Media is actively pursuing a hyperlocal reporting model — covering protestsfirescrimesQuidditch matches, and hairstyle and fashion trends not only on campus but in the neighborhoods surrounding the school.

The hope is that through the localized hashtags, a growing number of students, community members, eyewitnesses, and citizen journalists will join the conversation. One outlet cited as an inspiration by the SAC.Media crew: reported.ly.

There are numerous benefits to such a push. One is pure public service. “There is a lack of coverage for local news in this area,” said SAC.Media art director and staff writer Cynthia Schroeder. “As journalists, as young journalists, we want to change that.”

The hyperlocal approach also responds to an obvious new reality: News of interest to students no longer stops at the campus front gate. Schroeder, 21, currently balances her studies with a full-time job taking care of adults with special needs. She works the overnight shift and makes minimum wage. Thus, SAC.Media’s coverage of the “Fight for 15” — the push for a $15 minimum wage, recently approved by Los Angeles City Council — holds a special resonance for her and many nontraditional students like her.

“On a day-to-day basis, I see examples of things like poverty, corruption in the police department, and immigration issues with day laborers,” said Schroeder, a resident of Pomona, one of SAC.Media’s coverage areas. “For example, on my way to school, I drive by day laborers sitting and waiting to be picked up. And now with this project, I’m talking to them. This project allows me to be involved with my community, and it essentially prepares me to be a reporter in the real world.”

“Print, what’s that?”

SAC.Media may be the only college media outlet whose main website is in many ways secondary to its Twitter feed. So far at least, staffers seem to have flipped the script on how most student and professional outlets report the news.

Traditionally, core coverage has been complemented by occasional realtime tie-ins. For SAC.Media, realtime is the tie that binds the rest of its coverage together. A majority of its news stories have roots in tweets on its Twitter account, @SACOnScene (SOS).

Three recent examples: a huge wildfire in Chino Hills which forced the evacuation of 300 homes; a massive march marking the centennial of what activists call the Armenian genocide; and a set of protests against police brutality staged in spots throughout Los Angeles.

The goal to be present in person at news events for better reporting is laudable enough on its own — especially in an era in which many students are hard-pressed to pick up a phone to call a source.

But this boots-on-the-ground, one-tweet-at-a-time push also aims to meet the millennial audience where they are. (Hint: That’s not a newsstand, the morning after a big story breaks.)

“Students don’t really care about reading campus news,” said Talin Hakopyan, SAC.Media managing editor. “They don’t really care about picking up the print newspaper. It’s just so much easier through a tweet…We’re speaking the language of our generation.”

To be clear, the outlet still regularly reports longform, hard news stories. But in a world without print production deadlines, story quotas, or word counts, staffers are empowered to dispense with the filler and fluff in a few tweets instead of full stories or news briefs. The SAC.Media team is subsequently free to focus its energies on news that matters and keep readers informed without boring them.

According to Albertson, this win-win scenario for readers and staff is what compelled the outlet to reinvent so dramatically in the first place.

“While [staffers] used to like putting out the print newspaper, they began to loathe it and the long hours and late production nights it took to produce it,” she wrote last fall. “You know there’s a problem when the editor-in-chief yells, ‘Go to hell and take the print newspaper with you’ and half the room walks out. Maybe if the student population was reading the paper they might have felt differently. Each semester they would go out on campus and take a survey: ‘Do you read the student print newspaper?’ The answer was a resounding ‘NO.'”

By comparison, the resounding, repeated sound that has come with SAC.Media’s shift to Twitter and Medium has been clicks — and the traffic that comes with them.

schroeder-hakopyan-serna

Cynthia Schroeder, Talin Hakopyan, and Albert Serna.

One example: Last fall, Albert Serna wrote a story on the machismo culture among gay Latinos for SAC.Media’s affiliated magazine Substance, which is also hosted on Medium. In less than a week, it grabbed more than 11,000 pageviews — a total far beyond anything Mt. SAC student media had ever accrued on its old websites or could ever hope to achieve in print. (According to Serna, the content manager for Substance, the story currently boasts more than 18,000.)

As he put it to me, “With print, who is your readership? It’s the people on campus who want to know campus news — the administrators, some dedicated students, and the professors who pick up the paper. That’s who’s looking at your stuff. The moment you step online and away from print, your audience is no longer only college. It’s everybody.”

The Medium factor

During an interview in April with top editors of The Pitt News student newspaper at the University of Pittsburgh, former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson called Medium “an interesting new platform that has a lot of interesting blogger voices. A number of people on social media have sent me interesting links to its content. It seems to be getting traction from what I can see. Tumblr was kind of, for a while, some years ago, the ‘it’ blogging platform, and now it seems like Medium is.”

SAC.Media was the first student news outlet worldwide to spot Medium’s emerging ‘it’ factor. And the outlet’s decision to completely abandon its previous web property for a place on Medium may just be the Fifth Element of its game-changing success.

According to Albertson and student staff, the Medium high has yet to wear off. The advantages they cite are numerous — from a super-stable content management system to an easy-on-the-eyes website chock full of extras. “It’s very simple,” said Serna. “It’s much simpler than WordPress and all the other sites college media are using. It’s even simpler than Tumblr. It might look, with the white [background color], a little bland. But there’s so many ways to customize your own page.” Medium also affords SAC.Media the chance to tap into a larger community that otherwise would probably not have heard of Mt. SAC or its student newspaper.

The Medium partnership and larger upending has compelled the SAC.Media crew to continue experimenting — report, tweet, tinker, repeat. “It’s a learning process and if something doesn’t work, we try something new,” Hakopyan said. “We’re not throwing away news. We’re just changing the way we deliver it.”

Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and creator of the site College Media Matters.

Panorama of Mt. San Antonio College campus by David Bradley used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 27, 2015, 10 a.m.
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