I did not kill The Aquin. Or “Campus Scope.”
Blame their deaths on journalism and its swift transition toward the web, the increasing practice of multimedia reporting and a growing reliance on a 24-7 news cycle.
St. Thomas communication and journalism faculty didn’t see how students could master these characteristics of today’s journalism with a weekly student newspaper or a monthly television news magazine, so they replaced them with an innovative student-run website, TommieMedia.com.
The concept of TommieMedia wasn’t immediately embraced when it was introduced to student media leaders by faculty in April 2009. When, as its last editor, I reported The Aquin’s demise last May, I heard quite a bit of student opposition and alumni backlash toward the decision to scrap the 76-year-old campus newspaper.
For junior Adam Mallory, picking up a copy of The Aquin every Friday on the way to class was something he looked forward to.
“I was disappointed to see The Aquin go because I liked the tradition behind it and because it’s been around for so long,” Mallory said. “That’s what’s so nice about a physical newspaper: I can bring it anywhere. Yes, I can bring my computer everywhere but it’s just not the same.”
Even junior Mary Kenkel, who would be named TommieMedia assignment editor, was worried about the transition.
“I’ve known that the industry is headed toward multimedia but I didn’t want to face it, so when the advisers told us about TommieMedia I was not very excited,” Kenkel said. “But as we started developing the site, and I got my position and knew who I was working with, it just became an exciting challenge.”
On launch day – Sept. 9, 2009 – TommieMedia received a warm welcome to the tune of 1,000-plus unique visits in its first 24 hours.
Ever since, TommieMedia has been nothing short of a success.
“We’re successful because our students stepped up and wanted to become 21st century journalists,” said Communication and Journalism Department chair and senior TommieMedia adviser Kris Bunton. “We’ve pushed them harder than they’ve ever been pushed, and they keep rising to the challenge.”
We believe TommieMedia is the sole online-only student-run multimedia news website among U.S. colleges, and we know it provides a great experience for its student journalists. TommieMedia makes student journalists better prepared for the real-world journalism that awaits them, giving them the opportunity to report news daily using multimedia tools.
So, with the first year almost on the books, let me tell you what TommieMedia taught us.
How to be real-world journalists for the first time
We had to stop thinking about news stories in weekly or monthly increments, and instead think in hours, if not minutes. This was a seismic culture shift for student journalists at St. Thomas. Twelve-hour Tuesdays in The Aquin office putting the paper together have been replaced by continuous reporting and editing seven days a week. If it wasn’t for Web-based software that allowed TommieMedia staff to work on location or at home, I don’t think TommieMedia could have functioned nearly as efficiently.
In years past, reporters received a story assignment for the week, reported it and turned it in without spending more than a few minutes conversing with editors. Now, with daily newsroom shifts for reporters, editors and advisers, the newsroom functions with a pulse, like a newsroom should.
TommieMedia also functions like a newsroom should because it’s supported by advertising. We went from carrying no advertising in The Aquin or on “Campus Scope” to having an entire advertising and public relations staff. It certainly wasn’t easy at first. Getting businesses to purchase ads was harder to come by than a football win over St. John’s. But after countless hours of work, the advertising team started securing not just on-campus clients but off-campus businesses to advertise with St. Thomas student media for the first time in decades. As they sold a new advertising opportunity during an economic downturn, our advertising staff has learned important lessons about professional persistence – and made it possible for TommieMedia to support some of its own expenses.
The world, not just campus, is now our audience
If you weren’t on campus to see campus cable television, you never saw “Campus Scope.” If you weren’t on campus to pick one up, you probably didn’t read a copy of The Aquin. By going online TommieMedia can now share campus news with people around the world – literally. By TommieMedia’s six month anniversary in March, people from every U.S. state and 105 countries had typed www.TommieMedia.com into their web browsers. The site has attracted more than 400,000 page views, and visitors spend more than three-and-a-half minutes on our site – longer than readers spend on local newspaper websites with a similar size audience.
Social media drive more than 25 percent of traffic to our site
For everyone who still believes social media sites are fads, think again. At TommieMedia, knowing our target audience pays more attention to new Facebook photo albums than new photo slideshows on nytimes.com, we decided to push Facebook’s ability to drive traffic to our site.
Every story posted on TommieMedia.com is shared through our Facebook page, which quickly grew to more than 1,100 friends. With our Facebook page linked to our Twitter account, 26 percent of our traffic comes from students perusing their Facebook news feed and clicking on our shared posts.
But it doesn’t stop there. Our sports coverage rose to the next level once we figured out how crucial in-game updates through Facebook and Twitter were. Whether it’s an update about yet another Fritz Waldvogel touchdown or a half-time score notification, our sports reporters keep our followers in the loop for the entire game. In fact, when the Minnesota Sports Broadcasting Network’s coverage of the Tommie-Johnnie game last fall in Collegeville had technical difficulties, fans on our Facebook page began telling TommieMedia sports editor Jordan Osterman to keep posting updates because it was the only way they knew how the game was going.
Sports allowed us to flex our multimedia muscle
For the first time in the history of St. Thomas student media, Tommie sports fans could look forward to video packages, photo slideshows and full-text recaps immediately after key sports events. Our coverage of the football team’s first home game against St. Olaf received 1,000 clicks in one week and is still a top-10 most-read article.
Another first was our ability to send reporters on the road to cover postseason play. Thanks to reporters and photographers who were generous with their weekends – and advertising staff who raised the money to pay our mileage and buy our plane tickets – we sent reporting teams to Illinois, Wisconsin and Oregon to provide multimedia reporting during the NCAA football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball and men’s hockey playoffs.
The comments, oh, the comments
We’ve all seen at least one posted comment that made us laugh out loud or persuaded us to share with a friend. By TommieMedia’s sixth-month anniversary, we had published more than 1,000 comments on the site. That sure trumps the handful of letters to the editor The Aquin received once a week. Senior Shana Green reads TommieMedia stories but more often than not, she peruses the recent comments first
“I like to read the comments – people are outrageous,” Green said. “They’re so interesting because when you’re reading a newspaper you can’t hear other people’s reactions, so it’s fun to see how other people respond to what TommieMedia is posting.”
We’ve also learned that if any story even remotely touches on St. Thomas’ Catholic identity or on relationships between students and the neighborhood around campus, we’ll see an avalanche of comments. More than a handful of these hot-topic stories have generated more than 50 comments each. These comments are an important barometer of readers’ views about St. Thomas.
Short video lives, but the "Connected" newscast got the axe
We knew we didn’t want a 30-minute television magazine show on the website, so we didn’t set out to replicate the old “Campus Scope” program. Instead, we shot for three kinds of video production: video news packages that reported on issues or events; a daily “News in :90” video headline newscast recorded in the newsroom; and a weekly scripted 5-minute newscast called “Connected” that we produced in the TV studio. Video packages immediately attracted high viewership, and our “News in :90” headlines took off.
But with an average of just 200 clicks per weekly newscast, the “Connected” show was almost dead last in views compared to our other video content. We decided website visitors weren’t interested in clicking to watch a traditional newscast with anchors reading from behind a desk. Knowing TommieMedia staff still needed to get TV studio experience, we began putting together in-studio segments during the spring semester that featured in-depth interviews with wellknown campus faces. The result saw our TV studio-produced content jump to about 400 clicks per studio interview.
We couldn't have done it alone
Yes, we saved the nearly $20,000 expense of printing thousands of copies of The Aquin. But we had to buy extra video cameras, digital audio recorders and lots of new computer software. And we also are paying every student staff member a small stipend so we could be considered professionals. In other words, TommieMedia was not cheap, Bunton said. Our annual subscription to the Associated Press and its national and international news content was a significant, necessary expense, she said. And TommieMedia couldn’t have become a reality without the help of Dean Marisa Kelly of the College of Arts and Sciences.
“She’s been an unfailing supporter,” Bunton said. “She supports innovation and is not afraid of change. She’s helped us find resources and supported us when we wanted to get upward administrative support such as eliminating paper copies of the newspaper and getting advertising sales.”
As for next year and the future of TommieMedia
Kenkel thinks TommieMedia can be even more attractive to students in its content. “There’s a lot of things we don’t cover and a lot of fun things that we could do that students would be more attracted to, and that’s something we’re kind of missing out on right now. We’re trying to balance everything we’re covering.”
My two cents
As a freshman aiming to get on The Aquin staff, I only wanted to write sports stories. But by the end of my sophomore year, I realized I not only had to write outside of sports but be able to report with more than words on a page.
The Aquin was great. I loved putting together the paper for the campus community. But in terms of my skill set, it was TommieMedia that broadened me.
TommieMedia allowed me to put together a photo slideshow and a lengthy text profile on football coach Glenn Caruso.
TommieMedia gave me the opportunity to report a men’s basketball game with a video package and text.
TommieMedia enabled me to put together a news story and a quick photo about the solar panels going atop Brady Hall.
TommieMedia let me anchor a TV newscast and conduct an in-studio interview.
It’s this kind of real-world experience that gives me the confidence I will need to enter the job market.
TommieMedia.com success (as of March 9)
145,211 total visits
425,636 pages viewed
2.93 pages viewed per visit
3 minutes and 36 seconds time spent on site on average
Viewed in all 50 states and 105 countries
Top 5 countries
Top 5 states
Direct – 41 percent
Facebook.com – 26 percent
Google search – 10 percent
Tommiesports.com – 7 percent