Earlier this year, I judged a prestigious national contest that chose the best college newspaper website in the country. It was a tough decision.
Usually, when a judge says he had trouble selecting a winner, all the entries were so damn good it was hard to tell the difference.
But in this case, nearly all the entries were so damn boring it was hard to tell the difference.
The contest I judged is SPJ's Mark of Excellence. It receives more than 3,600 entries in nearly 80 categories -- everything from editorial cartooning to radio news reporting to TV sports photography. A more recent addition has been "Best Affiliated Website," and I was asked to pick a first, second, and third place from 2009.
Besides the winner -- which is truly inspired, you really gotta see it -- the runners-up and the nine other finalists featured very similar designs and nearly identical content. (Check out The Miscellany News and the Daily Tar Heel and the Central Florida Future, just to name a few.)
Most of the stories on these sites are mere "shovelware," meaning print articles are tossed online without much thought. Or pictures, graphics, or video.
What's so weirdly depressing is that I've seen many of these newspapers in print -- and they kick ass. From the design to the writing to the photography, you can tell talented students sweat and bled for their paper dreams.
Their print editions have verve. Their online editions have templates.
Smarter people than me have noticed this. Ask most college newspaper advisers, and they'll grumble, "I'm old and telling them to work harder online. They're young and telling me print is their priority."
Educated explanations for this irony focus on the technical: Students don't have the desire or the time to learn the complicated programs to create truly edgy websites. But I believe the real reasons can be best explained by psychology, not technology.
Here's what I've seen at the South Florida college newspaper I advise...
Dead Trees Make Me Feel Alive
Today's college freshmen created their MySpace pages in middle school and their Facebook pages in high school. They've been posting prose and pictures since puberty. So writing and shooting for their college newspaper websites doesn't impress them. Or their friends and family.
Everyone has a Facebook page. But not everyone has a newspaper page.
College students don't seek status the way adults do. Adults compare cars and careers and their kids' schools -- it's all about raw purchasing power. But college students are too cool to be capitalistic. Scarcity is their currency.
Over the years, I've seen them brag about acquiring the latest iPhone -- not because it was expensive, but because they got it first. Once everyone owns one (especially their parents) the boasting is over.
Print is special to college journalists precisely because it's old tech: Hey, I must be important because they killed trees to publish my words. A living thing died for my genius -- and not yours.
If Facebook was available only in print, college journalists would flock to the web.
The Velvet Page
The easiest way to insult a college journalist? Tell him his story will run as an "online exclusive."
Since websites have an infinite amount of space that costs nothing, and since newsprint has a limited amount of space that costs a lot, and since all print stories run online anyway, college journalists interpret "online exclusive" as "you think I suck."
As print editions shrink with the recession, that real estate only becomes more valuable. It reminds me of the way college students decide which nightclubs to go to.
What's the most popular nightclub in a college town? The one you can't get into because there's a velvet rope and a line out the door.
If you want to force a reporter to quit your staff, run his stories only online while running everyone else's in print.
The In-Your-Face Factor
On our campus, newsprint is still the most mobile and immediate form of media.
Nowhere else in South Florida are newspaper racks so closely bunched. Even if our students don't read the school paper -- and most never do -- they'll probably walk by at least two of our bright-red bins on their way to class.
Nothing motivates a student journalist like seeing his front-page story splashed all over campus. And he can easily impress his friends by tossing them a copy and nonchalantly saying, "Here, look at this."
But if that same journalist is assigned a dreaded "online exclusive," his hard work is interred on the Internet. To resurrect it, he has to whip out his iPhone or Droid, wait for the page to load on a very small screen, then pinch and landscape. That's way too much effort to show off.
Ugly Ain't Easy
College students are all about appearances, but they'll never admit it. What other demographic spends as much time on their clothes so it looks like they spent no time on their clothes?
Many college newspaper websites look like ours -- not as clean as Facebook and only a tad less cluttered than MySpace. Alas, it takes a lot of time to maintain even a homely newspaper website. It requires a lot less time to design a fetching print edition.
(For tech-heads who will argue this point, try simultaneously teaching a student Drupal and InDesign. Which will he master first?)
Contrast our website with our print edition. The latter looks better. We've won several national design awards, but only for print. That creates its own momentum, so each new art director is lured by the hours-to-awards ratio their predecessor enjoyed.
The web is the future. Print is the past.
The web is the combustion engine. Print is a buggy whip.
Web, renewable energy. Print, fossil fuel.
Journalism advisers use these analogies to convince students to spurn print and embrace the Internet. Doesn't work.
Why? Because the most intriguing jobs are still in print. There aren't a lot of them, and they're dwindling every day. But college students rarely contemplate the odds when considering their careers. It's the same reason college rock bands and rap groups think they'll hit it big: Those other musical acts suck, but we're going to make it.
Whenever I meet new recruits at our student newspaper, I ask them, "What do you wanna be when you grow up?" The answers almost always involve traditional print or broadcast: editor of Elle, music reviewer for Rolling Stone, investigative reporter for The New York Times, anchor for CNN, foreign correspondent for NPR.
I never hear, "Content producer for a cutting-edge multimedia website."
Then again, I also never hear, "I wanna be a college newspaper adviser."