Faced with falling advertising revenue at its award-winning student newspaper, Brigham Young University on Thursday announced it will shift the Daily Universe to a "digital first" format and publish it in print just once a week. But officials stressed that TheUniverse will remain a daily news organization, although eight jobs will initially be cut.
"The universe is an important part of our past and will continue to be a part of our future," said Susan Balcom Walton, an associate professor of public relations who is the communications department's associate chairwoman for student media. "We're making the change to train better journalists and deliver the news the way our readers want it."
The newspaper, a lab publication for BYU journalism courses, has been a crucial training ground for budding reporters, even though it doesn't enjoy the independence of many campus papers, such as the University of Utah's Daily Utah Chronicle.
"A lot of us are upset with the change from a daily to a weekly. We have worked at TheUniverse,and it has played an important role in our education," said student journalist Hunter Schwartz, editor-in-chief of Student Review, an independent magazine BYU students revived last semester. "A lot of journalism is moving to the Web, but the best part of what you wrote [in TheUniverse] was that it was public because a lot of students read it every day. One of my fears is that students won't get that experience because there isn't that readership [online]."
Many Review writers and editors are Universe alumni.
But faculty believe a weekly Universe will be a great platform for long-form journalism and the change will help ensure its staffers learn skills for digital newsrooms of the future.
"We will continue to focus on solid journalism and good storytelling, and this change will enable us to make more information available to readers more quickly," said journalism professor Joel Campbell, the paper's managing editor. (Campbell is a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune. And The Universe is printed in West Valley City under a contract with MediaOne, which is jointly owned by The Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News.)
About 55 students toil in the Universe newsroom as writers, editors, copy editors and photographers. Most are students in Campbell's intermediate news writing course, known as COMM 321. The staffers who hold jobs that will be cut can apply for anticipated openings in the revamped news lab.
Officials conceded that the daily print product is not financially sustainable, thanks to shifts in news-consuming behavior that are challenging the entire newspaper industry. Circulation, fed by a print run of 18,500 copies distributed free on campus, remains robust, but attracting readers hasn't been the problem.
Mirroring the experience of newspapers across the country, TheUniverse has operated at a loss since 2009 as advertising revenue contracted by a third since 2007. The Universe has published weekdays for at least 50 years and editions often exceeded 24 pages when times were flush, according to communications professor Ed Adams, who was co-chairman of the task force that studied the paper's future.
Adams visited the University of Georgia last year to check out the digital transition of The Red & Black, a student newspaper that is independent from the school and gets no subsidy. He came away impressed with the quality of its new weekly print edition and online offerings.
"Rather than publishing an eight-page paper every day, they were publishing 24 or 32 pages at the end of the week," Adams said. "When you are publishing eight pages a day, there is no way to reduce. You can't print six pages and at four, can you really call it a newspaper?"
Faculty said the new BYU news lab will train students in a variety of formats, including video, tablet, mobile, text, audio and applications that are only now emerging.
"The important part is were talking about the decline of newspapers, not the decline of journalism," Adams said. "Journalism is alive, and I think it will get more robust."
A changing universe
BYU's Daily Universe, which has been published weekdays since the 1950s, is a training ground for student journalists and an important voice for news associated with the university owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This semester it will transition to a "digital first" format and a weekly print schedule as a way to both save costs and improve journalism education, officials say. Read the paper at universe.byu.edu.