From AJR, June 1999 issue
Web Site Challenges Campus Daily
Students at University of Virginia last December launched a Web-only publication, providing competition for the Charlottesville campus' Cavalier Daily.
By Steve Fox
Steve Fox is a senior politics producer at washingtonpost.com.
T HE MAD RUSH TO GET THE college newspaper to the printer and onto campus may soon take a backseat to struggles over domain names as students join the realm of online journalism.
While most major college newspapers are also available online, students at the University of Virginia last December launched a Web-only publication, the Angle (www.theangle.com), providing some competition for the Charlottesville campus' Cavalier Daily.
"This is a trend that is going to increase a whole lot," says Debashis Aikat, who teaches journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "Student-run publications are very expensive. But now, with the Internet, it is so easy. You can get server space for free. You can literally run a virtual office, without the constraints of space and having to meet together."
Virginia's online newsmagazine is the brainchild of Executive Editor Anna Robertson, a junior, who came up with the idea while interning at ABCNEWS.com last summer. Early costs were minimal: $70 for the domain name, $15 a month to keep it and about $30 each issue to advertise the site to students. While the Angle has no specific editorial stance, Robertson says, the site strives to go beyond the student government stories that often dominate college newspapers. "We hope to focus on providing resources for students," Robertson says, such as guides to apartments and restaurants. "So far, we've provided a lot of first-person accounts, which has been our strength."
Since the university doesn't have a journalism program, the task of setting up a viable news Web site was a daunting one. "We were all completely in the dark about how to start things up and find reporters and just do everything," Robertson says.
While at ABCNEWS.com, Robertson met Jim Sheppard, now deputy editor at washingtonpost.com. Sheppard invited Robertson and a small group of UVA students to take a firsthand look at the Post's Web operation on election night last November. A few months later, eight Angle editors spent a week at washingtonpost.com, learning production, design, photography and marketing.
The Angle staff now includes an 11-member editorial board and about 30 contributing reporters--all of whom work for free. After the debut in December, the site published February, March and April issues, and a year-end May edition. In the fall, Robertson's goal is to publish every two weeks.
The first issue featured an up close look at crime on college campuses. Subsequent issues have included interactive polls, photo galleries and a regular column from a student studying abroad.
"I was very impressed with what they did," says Aikat, who is in the process of reviving the Fifth Estate (www.metalab.unc.edu/5e/), a UNC online newsmagazine. It was launched in September 1996, but has not published regularly since February.
The Fifth Estate was up and running after an initial outlay of $23,000 for four computers and software; it received free office space and other support from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. But Aikat found that many staff members took their skills from the unpaid college Web site to the private sector, where they could make more than $20 an hour. He's hoping to get credit next year for staffers to make the job more attractive.
Recruiting new students is on the minds of the Angle's founders as well. "It's tough to compete with the print paper, seeing as how it is considered the `institution' for journalism at this school," says Kathleen Robertson, the Angle's managing editor.
So far, the Cavalier Daily's editor in chief, Mike Greenwald, sees little threat to his print operation from the new Web site. And while the Angle has begun to solicit ads for the fall, Greenwald doesn't fear a loss in advertising revenue. "We put out a paper every day with a circulation of 10,000, and we feel we provide the print and online experience," he says. (The paper is online at www.cavalierdaily.com.) "Their site is very nice looking, but we don't see them having new innovations we don't have."
While student-run Web sites provide real-world experience, some educators and journalists wonder whether those who are cyber-trained will enter the field with the appropriate ethical sensibilities--a devotion to getting the facts right, not just first.
"One has the feeling that the temptations of the Web would bring out the worst characteristics and the worst performances," says Larry Pryor, director of the online journalism program at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication. "Professional journalists who have made the transition are well aware of the pitfalls because [the Internet] is so fast.... Whether students would have that same discipline is worrisome."
But Aikat sees "great journalists being born" on the Web. Accuracy and truth-telling will remain important journalistic tenets, he argues.
"The medium has changed, but not anything else," Aikat says. "The older methods still matter."