Woman reporter amid a field of question marks

Today is Save Student Newsrooms Day. It’s kind of stupid.

The concept isn’t. College newspapers are bleeding to death. “The student media landscape has been shaken in the last two years by plummeting revenues and changing reading patterns,” The New York Times reported – in 2013.

Five years later, it’s only gotten worse. So bad that 90 college newspapers have united to create Save Student Newsrooms Day. Problem is, they have no clue what they’re doing, which tells you something about the future of their newsrooms and maybe their generation.

I first learned about Save Student Newsrooms Day three weeks ago. I serve on the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists, and one of the two student directors emailed the rest of us…

As we’re seeing across the country, when student media suffers, the industry suffers as a whole. While it isn’t big right now, students in Florida, Ohio, Arizona and other states are getting involved in this with the hope of getting the attention of people and organizations who could help with funding. As of right now, the planned day for a social media push from students across the country is April 25.

I was confused…

1. How will a “social media push” succeed in “getting the attention of people and organizations who could help with funding”? I’ve won many thousands of grant dollars. Every time, I had to formally apply. “People and organizations” didn’t see my Twitter feed and just hand me cash.

But say I’m wrong…

2. Even if it works, what are these “people and organizations” supposed to do next? There seems to be no corresponding fundraising campaign – not even a GoFundMe page. You can’t raise money if there’s nowhere to put it.

But say I’m wrong…

3. What if today raises $1 million? Will it be split among the 90 “participating newsrooms“? That’s $11,111 per newsroom – hardly enough to delay the inevitable demise of print newspapers that can’t sell enough ads to survive.

Here’s what happened when I pointed out today is pointless.

First, let’s get this out of the way: Yes, I’m an asshole. I excoriate college students for screwing up. I have no shame.

So when I criticized Save Student Newsrooms Day a couple weeks ago, one organizer replied – probably just to shut me up – “It’s also about awareness.”

In fact, she convinced my fellow SPJ directors to write a press release that says SPJ will “formally acknowledge the issue and help bring general awareness to the problem.” But we didn’t donate a dollar – because we weren’t asked to, and we wouldn’t know who to hand it to.

God, I hate “general awareness.”

It’s been well-documented that social media campaigns can deceive you into believing you’re doing something. And who’s documented this? Journalists.

Many journalists, in fact – including those at some of the 90 newsrooms participating in Save Student Newsrooms Day. The Michigan Daily once interviewed a professor who defined the term slacktivism as: “It’s easy to sit there and make a key stroke and feel like you did something when, really, it may or may not add up to anything at all tangible.”

I don’t believe today adds up to very much.

How will Save Student Newsrooms Day raise “general awareness”? According to the Save Student Newsrooms Day Facebook page

On April 25, we’re calling on student-run news organizations to publish editorials highlighting the need for student media and the importance of supporting it.

…and nine college newspapers have done that so far. Which means they’ve raised general awareness about their newspaper among people who generally read their newspaper.

That awareness is supposed to convert to cash at some point. As The Duquesne Duke wrote…

We ask you to #SaveStudentNewsrooms. Look up the campaign; defend your right to read fair, unbiased journalism. Donations are always welcome and will help us deal with rising printing and technology costs.

…except there’s no link to donate. Only two newspapers have solicited donations – the Branding Iron at the University of Wyoming and The Daily Wildcat at the University of Arizona – with actual links to donate. But both asked in the very last sentence.

So I’ve concluded: Save Student Newsrooms Day is a waste of 24 hours. Here’s how to salvage it next time.

While editorials are easier to write than grant requests, and while social media is more fun to fiddle with than business models, the only way to Save Student Newsrooms is to work well with others.

Just two examples…

There are organizations for everything and everyone – even those who sell ads in college newspapers. It’s called CMBAM, short for College Media Business and Advertising Managers.

I’m guessing organizers of Save Student Newsrooms Day haven’t consulted CMBAM. If they did, they might’ve decided to raise money so every college newsroom could join. Why donate a few dollars to a newspaper when you can teach it to sell more ads?

Maybe Save Student Newsrooms Day could ask CMBAM for a discount rate, since they’d be recruiting so many new members. Maybe a chunk of any donation could pay for a CMBAM “crisis team” to swoop into newsrooms about to go broke.

I’ve known CMBAM board members who wonder: Why don’t more struggling newsrooms join us and learn from us? The answer: Journalists suck at self-promotion, so few folks even know about CMBAM. Too bad, because they’ve studied and curated the best methods for making money in college media.

Then there’s convincing students to pay for their campus newspaper.

One editorial on the Save Student Newsrooms website nailed it. The Independent Collegian at the University of Toledo did some actual reporting and learned that several of their peers are funded directly from student fees…

The Daily Targum at Rutgers, for example, supports its operation through student fees since the university doesn’t fund them. Every three years, the school holds a referendum in which students vote whether to keep the Targum fee on their term bills or not, business manager of the Targum Rachel DeSimone said.

Basically, the Rutgers newspaper gets a sliver of the fees tacked onto each student’s tuition bill. Every school has these pesky fees, ranging from an athletic fee to a technology fee to a library fee. You’re forced to pay them, although at Rutgers, the newspaper fee is reimbursable…

The fee is $11.25 per student per semester and is adjusted every year in relation to printing and delivery expenses. At the beginning of each semester students can email the business manager for a refund of the Targum fee if they don’t wish to support the paper. This is a very long tedious process that takes weeks and on average, they receive at least 800 to 900 refund requests a semester.

Other schools have embraced similar approaches to keeping their newspapers alive, if not exactly kicking. Save Student Newsrooms Day could encourage others to lobby for the same. It could share tactics that succeeded elsewhere, provide the exact wording for the ballot initiatives, and raise money for campaign literature.

Then Save Student Newsrooms Day would have a clear mission. Right now, it has a hashtag.

Pro newspapers have been suffering for so long, their editors and publishers share some blame for the pain. That’s not my opinion. Journalists much smarter than me have said so. Like the Harvard Business Review

If the newspaper companies had been nimble, well-managed organizations (news alert: monopolies usually aren’t) … they would have set up separate ventures aimed at exploiting new digital advertising opportunities.

And Neiman Labs

No newspaper, newspaper group or industry consortium has articulated a realistic strategy in response to this. Almost uniformly, they proclaim that while their online operations are growing and are important, print is still the foundation of their business.

And lots of others, too.

Ever since the mediapocalypse a decade ago, many of these same media experts have made hopeful predictions of Biblical proportions: “And a little child shall lead them.”

Essentially, they’re praying young journalists who “grok the Internet” will grow up and save the news industry, transforming what their elders couldn’t comprehend.

That has yet to happen, of course. And if Save Student Newsrooms Day is any indication, it won’t any time soon. If today’s college journalists can’t save their campus newsrooms, what can we expect when they grow up? More tronc videos?

Many college newspapers are on the brink of extinction, one Save Student Newsrooms organizer has told me. When I suggested postponing this big day until we could gather powerful allies and practical objectives, I got this reply…

Waiting means no more student media at all. (We’re much closer to that at my paper than we’re publicly willing to let on, and as I’m sure you understand quite well, it’s scary.) It’s not happening when it is to rush into it, it’s happening because for many, there isn’t any extra time.

If that’s true, Save Student Newsrooms Day isn’t a first step, it’s a last gasp. Sadly, I can’t figure out how today buys them even another 24 hours. And I can’t fathom how these young journalists will grow up to save the old journalism.

What a depressing day this has been already.