The Campus Lantern and the Future of Print News

Posted by Mike Merritt in The Campus Lantern on

This is an article I wrote to my campus newspaper, The Campus Lantern, in response to a current situation going on between them and the Student Government Association. In brief, the newspaper, which has been in print for about 45 years, recently made the decision to switch from a traditional print paper to an entirely online version. This article tries not to take a political position in the matter, but instead explains my views on the future of print news.

Ever since I became aware of the ongoing battle between The Campus Lantern and SGA, I’ve been trying to figure out how I wanted to respond to the matter, because I knew I had to write something about it. Had I responded right after the first articles appeared in the Lantern, it probably would have ended up being something about my political views over who has the right to decide the Lantern’s direction. However, since I now have the whole story from both sides (I think), I have decided not to take a particular position on who is right and who is wrong in that matter. I’ll leave that up to those who know best about what’s going on, The Lantern and SGA. Rather, I want to explain where I feel the genre of print news is headed, and how my feelings apply to the Lantern. I will take a position on this subject, so feel free to agree or disagree.

It is hard to deny that the Internet age has arrived. Whether the activity is research for a paper, or simply checking Facebook, if you’re reading this article, you probably use the Internet to some extent everyday. With the rise in Internet usage over the past few years, it’s hardly surprising that more and more people would use it as their primary source of news. Don’t take my word for it, just look at the numbers. According to a study by the Newspaper Association of America (via Reuters), the number of unique visitors to newspaper websites for the first half of 2006 was 55.5 million, compared to 42.2 million a year earlier, about 52%. In the same period, some of the top newspapers have seen some pretty impressive drops in readership. The New York Times went down 5.8% to 4.7 million readers and USA Today is now down 3% to about 6.9 million readers. You can check the figures out at the Reuters website. While there is still a significant number of newspaper readers, it would seem that more and more people are using the abundantly available websites on the Internet to get their daily news, rather than the newspapers. I think the continuing rise of visitors to these websites represents a trend that will continue as more people gain access to the Internet.

In my own personal experience, I know my day isn’t complete without my usual rounds to the news websites: CNN, BBC News, and occasionally Fox News and some of the others as well. That isn’t to say that I don’t read printed newspapers anymore, quite the contrary. The thing I do most in Hurley Hall, besides eating, is read the Hartford Courant. I feel that the printed media, among others mediums like television, it still the best way to catch up on local news. On the other hand, I can’t deny that most of my news no longer comes from the traditional printed newspaper. I’m more likely to get it from one of the sources mentioned earlier. Hey, what can I say? I like my news when it first becomes news. I like to know what’s going on in the world when it happens, and not the next day. Sure, there are some issues with such instantaneous news, but that’s another topic.

The fact is that getting your news from the Internet can provide more interactivity with that news, so to speak. With a printed newspaper, you get text and some pictures, and that’s about it. On the other hand, a website can give you both of those, and in addition, can provide video and/or audio from just about anywhere. Also, commentary has been made easier as a reader no longer has to submit a letter to the editor to say something about an article. Instead, they can leave a short blurb of one or two sentences to express their feelings. With some systems, you can discuss an article or issue in a forum-like setting. Finally, all of this can be updated twenty-four hours a day, so there is no delay, no waiting to see what has developed since the last time you’ve read the paper. I think I’m right in saying that most people like seeing so many ways they can interact with the news, which is probably one of the reasons newspaper websites have risen so quickly.

So, what does any of this have to do with The Campus Lantern? Well, by going online, the Lantern is able to reach a wider audience than they ever have. Not only will Eastern students and staff be able to get the news and other content, but anybody who knows the web address, say, Willimantic or Windham residents, will also be able to see what is happening at Eastern. This means that people who may not usually read the Lantern will now have access to do so. Earlier, I provided some figures on the changing landscape of news reading for some of the national papers. While thecampuslantern.com has only been up for a few weeks, it will be interesting to see what happens to readership once the word has spread a bit more. Therefore, I hope they’ll continue to provide periodical updates on how many people are visiting the website. So, this is one reason I like the change, since I’m all for more people able to gain access to the paper. After all, I know I’m more likely to read the Lantern if it’s on the Internet, something I already use a lot, anyway.

The other reason I like the switch to an online format is content, or rather, the amount of content. I noticed last semester that the Lantern didn’t always have as many articles as it did in previous semesters. Now, I’m not sure the exact reasoning behind this (perhaps just a lack of staff), and while switching to a website is not a reason to update infrequently, I think it is a better use of funds to do it this way. That way, the editor is not worrying about having a lot of whitespace come printing time, because there is no set printing time. Then the writers can use their funds to do something of better quality, like this magazine idea they have. Should they be able to do it, they can focus some of their time on printing a piece of work that will definitely be worth the wait. Next, having an online format allows for some of the interactivity I spoke of earlier. The Lantern has implemented some of these things, such as the commenting system they use. They have also already started to upload videos to accompany the text articles. Finally, having the website allows them to archive articles, so should you need to look up old news, you can do it easily and quickly.

I have heard varying opinions regarding the switch of the Lantern to a website, and I must say I’m somewhat amazed. While I’m not saying that everybody is opposed to the changes, or that those who do have some reservations are outright against the idea of an entirely online newspaper, for the generation of students that have quickly embraced the Internet, I would have thought I’d see more positive response to all of this. Maybe I just haven’t been discussing it with enough people, so let me know if I’m wrong. From personal experience, I know that people don’t like dramatic change to something familar, at least right away. It can take time for them to get used to the change. Also, maybe I’m just more likely than some people to read through the entire paper, rather than just wanting a paper copy so I can read the Humor section while I’m on in the bathroom. I probably wouldn’t try and read the whole thing while I’m in there. With that said, I also wouldn’t try and read an entire daily copy of the Hartford Courant via their website, so even I would have my reservations if a Courtant-sized Campus Lantern told us that they were going to go completely online. Not even I can read that much off a screen. Believe me, I’m trying to do it with the 9/11 Commission Report, but I don’t think it’s going to happen. On the other hand, I just think people need to give this idea a chance for a while. That way, the Lantern staff can accurately judge whether or not this was a good idea. I think that once people get to the idea of an online Campus Lantern, things will settle down and they’ll come to accept it. I don’t think the Lantern’s new format should hold out for universal popularity, but I’m optimistic for the future of this website.

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