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Media’s “Farm System” Outperforming Pros

September 18, 2009

College media are in the throes of a journalistic renaissance.  Their audiences are impassioned.  Innovation is ocurring at an ever-faster clip.  Free press fights rage on.  And their influence on campuses and within journalism and higher education at-large seems to be at an all-time high.

So much in the current media landscape is geared toward the future, hoping against hope some new invention, content improvement or audience inclination will right the ship and raise the revenue.  My argument: Stop, turn around, and look back. This is one moment in media history in which the professional press can immensely benefit from taking a closer look back at what Washington City Paper once called its “farm system”: the college media.

Simply put, students get it.  And while history seems to have overlooked or undersold the student connection to all-things-innovation, they have long been instrumental in the reinvigorating and Web-ifying of journalism and our world.

Need proof?  Here’s a brief glimpse at the highlights:

– Justin Hall started what is publicly recognized as the first blog, “Justin’s Links from the Underground,” while still a student at Swarthmore College.

– The Tech, the student newspaper at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was the first paper, collegiate or professional, American or international, to place content online.

– Student journalists at Brigham Young University helped foster the creation of NewsNet, which sported the first converged newsroom among any news organizations, again at either the university or professional level.

– And, of course, many of the most significant and successful new media ventures and companies were started while the founders were in college (Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Napster’s Shawn Fanning), graduate school (Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin) or after they had only recently dropped out of university (Microsoft’s Bill Gates) or were still of student age (Apple’s Steve Jobs).

Currently, student journalists are making innovation and continued audience relevance look easy. The young leaders of Journalism 2.0 recognize that the new journalism is mobile, revs 24 hours daily and can be presented in a variety of formats that come together to produce a cluttered splendor of stories, blogs, vlogs, tweets, geotags, photo slide shows, podcasts, word curdles and Facebook apps.

Amid numerous economic, administrative, and new media bombshells, college journalists are propelling forward as more professional, interactive, eager, and able to compete with the professional press for eyeballs and Googling fingertips than ever before. Campus newspaper and magazine readership, against all odds, remains incredibly strong among students in print and is beginning to grow online among alumni, parents of students, and random Web surfers. College radio and television outlets are also adapting and increasing their audiences, one Web-stream at a time. Alternative and online-only college media similarly continue to expand, popping up in evermore newsstands and search engine results.

Yes, you read that right. The generation supposedly tuned out and turned off by all things real world, serious and especially ink-stained are regularly reading, watching, listening to, interacting with, supporting and starting up more news outlets than ever before, online and in print.

Why?

Because the student press is keenly adapting with its audience, not lagging behind them. They are employing a new media sense with a journalistic sensibility that the professional press can only gaze upon with envy and wonder.  SMOs (student media organizations) and individual student journalists have proven much more adaptable to quick structural change than their professional counterparts, refusing to allow staff hierarchy, old media traditions or different new media knowledge or skill-sets block the path toward the realization of the media utopia of tomorrow. Journalism is the better for it, and so are we.

This blog aims to tell their story, as much as possible in their own words.

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