Beyond its newspaper makeover, the Commonwealth Times revamped its website and broadened its social media presence. Photo by Jay Paul
Executive editor Mark Robinson says, "When it first came in, we kind of gaped at it."
While daily papers across the country seem to be to downsizing everything ― staff, services, even the dimensions of the paper itself ― The Commonwealth Times is bucking that trend.
Virginia Commonwealth University's student newspaper, founded in 1969, went from a twice-a-week publication to weekly in July, but upgraded to a full-color format and has increased in size to almost 14 inches wide and 23 inches tall ― bigger than the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
VCU student media director Gregory Weatherford says it took about a year to formulate the plan to take the CT in this somewhat contrary direction ― and the past summer to overhaul it for the fall semester. The savings from going to a weekly format allowed the paper to expand and add full color.
Among national newspapers, the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are about 12 inches wide. The UK's Financial Times broadsheet is bigger, at just over 13 inches wide and 22 inches high. But at a recent national conference of college and university newspaper advisors and staffers, Weatherford learned that the CT could be the only university paper that's recently made a conscious move in this direction.
"A few publications, like Louisiana State University, have always done it this way," Weatherford explains. Those papers tend to have greater budgets and more staff to deliver the increased content. The CT, published by about a dozen unpaid staffers headed by mass communications senior Robinson, has production costs of $25,000 per year (funded by student activity fees), and advertising revenue of around $85,000 per year.
"But as far as anybody I encountered knew, we're the only ones going this direction," Weatherford says. Other campus publications nationwide are following the trend of transitioning to a tabloid or a skinnier broadsheet format. "It's interesting to be considered a wild rebel for refusing to sell less stuff for more money," he says. If it works, he adds, the convention wants him to return next year to talk about his experiences.
Weatherford contends the print industry's direction in recent years has been dictated, largely, not by journalism but more by stockholder returns, with papers printing smaller, charging more and even devaluing one of their greatest entry points for younger readers: "The Times-Dispatch, like other papers, has shoved the comics on one page like it's an embarrassing fungus. It's like they don't want an audience to replace the one that's going away."
Robinson worked with production manager Mark Jefferies, designers Miranda Leung and Sagal Hasan and business manager Lauren Katchuk to reboot the paper. He realizes that the CT is something of a laboratory, without the fiscal concerns of the outside world. "It plays to our strengths as a print medium," Robinson says. "We have great designers at one of the country's best art schools, excellent photographers, and one thing print is good at doing is printing big. So let's go with that."
The changes seem to be paying off. Robinson, who has worked on the paper for four years, says he's never seen the CT received with this much enthusiasm. He often walks the campus to inspect the most trafficked drop-off sites for the paper, and has watched the stacks shift faster than ever before. "[The redesign] seems to have broken the wall of student apathy toward the campus newspaper. Costs are down, and ad sales are up by 20 percent from last year," Weatherford says ― adding: "That, of course, can go off track any minute."
The paper also added a social media component and revamped its web presence, and has enjoyed greater visibility. The Facebook account doubled its "friends" during the fall, and one of its Twitter accounts has exceeded 1,000 users. But the CT isn't trying to recreate itself on the web: The two media are distinct, but complementary.
In October, the CT ran a story of the tragic accidental death of 19-year-old art foundation freshman Emma Munson. The story went online 24 hours after the event, with online editor Liz Butterfield getting the details and making certain the parents had been notified. A staffer happened to be at the party where the death occurred. "We got some flak for that," Robinson says. "We don't like reporting on when students die, but when they do, it's our job to report the facts to the community." The Oct. 14 print edition gave the story more coverage and reported on a celebration of Munson's life that had taken place a few days earlier.
A recent issue capitalized on VCU's basketball preeminence and ran a full-front-page photograph of a shouting player by the headline, "IT'S BACK." The two-section issue profiled the pep band, cheerleading squad and mascot Rodney the Ram.
The shift to the larger format required some convincing of advertisers, but Weatherford reports that they seem pleased with the end result. "Seeing is believing," he says.