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The Sun, New Media ... and Big Media

I did a story for Inside Higher Ed recently about a new network of Web sites created by College Publisher, the Viacom-owned online hosting service, that many editors see as a potential direct threat to their own readership. It was a familiar story to me, since in my Sun days our Web site ran on the Digital Partners (later renamed New Digital Group) platform, a somewhat cumbersome but usually reliable (and free) site host that was later purchased by College Publisher.

Now The Sun runs its own site, and it's the better for it. But surely the specter of your ostensible partner swooping in with corporate backing to steal your readers -- and therefore your advertisers -- is one that keeps editors up at night. In general, I think the threat has been overblown (the bulk of ad revenue still comes from the print edition) and that papers should do even more to stay ahead of the curve by offering their online readers what they want (local bar guides, message boards, opportunities to send in cell phone pics) without creating services no one will use (yet another social network, etc.).

Papers, The Sun included, haven't always been at the cutting edge of the media industry; we only stopped cutting and pasting our flats in 2004! They've weathered the storm better than other outlets, but the holiday won't last forever and now's the time to take control. I think The Sun and quite a few other papers are now getting it.

The Sun's Ben Eisen addresses these issues in a blog post, pointing out:

Conglomerating a lot of local coverage from different places together under the direction of one company -- which the [Campus Daily] Guides are trying to do -- is a business model that has also begun to take over local community news. Gate House Media, for example, owns over 500 local town newspapers. Who’s to say that couldn’t happen in college journalism? Why couldn’t The Sun be owned by a large company that also owns The Harvard Crimson, The Daily Pennsylvanian and 100 other newspapers?

In 2005, there was a Gannett-funded (I think?) attempt to do just that, by publishing a weekly print-based alternative paper geared toward upstate New York college students. What I learned from that experience is that usually, attempts by corporations to appeal to young readers backfire because of a perceived lack of authenticity. For the foreseeable future, authenticity remains in college newsrooms as well as a handful of well-read blogs, which themselves rely on college journalism. It will be interesting to see where things are headed over the next few years.

Andy Guess | Posted on August 08, 2008 (#)

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