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Magazines: Gone Digital, Going Paperless?

Making decisions in the transition from print to digital for campus publications
University Business, Jun 2008

IN 1980, THE MEDIA BARON Rupert Murdoch made the bold prediction that all news-and advertising-would someday be delivered digitally and that there would really be no need for paper or ink. Almost 30 years later, newspapers and magazines are indeed facing profound challenges with the explosion (or even the overload) of news and rich content available on the web.

While paper and ink are still used profusely, the entire industry has realized its future will be digital-and maybe even paperless. A <em>PR Week</em>/PR Newswire survey of 1,152 newspaper and magazine journalists conducted in January 2008 found that more than half anticipate a decline in print circulation and an increased focus on the website of their publication.

At the other end of the news food chain, another survey confirms the shift from print to online among younger adults: 55 percent of those age 18 to 29 say they get most of their news and information online, compared to 35 percent of those age 65 and older. In this last case, 1,979 adults were surveyed nationwide in February 2008 by Zogby Interactive for the fourth-annual We Media Forum and Festival, hosted by the <b>University of Miami</b> School of Communication.

'One thing we realized early on is that our core function remained the same: We were telling stories.' -John Lofy, Michigan Today

Obviously, this change in the way news and information are consumed doesn't stop at the campus gates and will have a huge impact on the news-oriented print publications produced by universities and colleges. In fact, it already has, as demonstrated last summer in my survey about the state of print and electronic publications (see my October 2007 <em>University Business</em> column, "Demand Print or Print on Demand?" for detailed results). In the majority of cases, higher education communication professionals reported that their magazines (57 percent) and newsletters (79 percent) had gone digital in some capacity. While 67 percent thought that magazines could not be offered only in an electronic format, 77 percent indicated that newsletters could go the paperless way.

If you are a publication officer in higher education, the digital question is not an elective anymore.

At the <b>University of Michigan</b>, the 40-year-old magazine for alumni, <em>Michigan Today,</em> started as a print quarterly. The electronic version, featuring the same content as the print publication, was launched in 1993. A decade after, in 2004, a monthly e-newsletter including articles produced by the UM News Service and columns by faculty was added to the mix.

Last fall, the final leap to a paperless magazine was made.

"We had been mailing the print version to more than 400,000 alums, and the costs were just killing us, even after we cut out one issue a year. So we moved the entire venture online," says John Lofy, editor of <em>Michigan Today.</em> The shorter newsletter version is e-mailed monthly to a readership of about 230,000. "I personally was sad to lose the print version, but one thing we realized early on is that our core function remained the same: We were telling stories. And the web, of course, offers all kinds of new opportunities for storytelling," explains Lofy.

<b>Duke University</b> followed a similar route with its research publication Duke Research. What used to be a 64-page all-gray (with the exception of the cover) annual publication has recently morphed into an online magazine full of colors, photos, videos, and more. "We're having a lot of fun telling stories in multiple ways that get beyond text and still photos, and we've got excellent buzz from the people who have seen it," says Karl Leif Bates, manager of research communications for Duke's Office of News & Communications. For Bates, web video surpasses what the best copy will ever deliver: "a you-are-there encounter with a working scientist."

At the <b>Missouri University of Science and Technology</b> (formerly known as the University of Missouri-Rolla), the alumni magazine is still printed and mailed, but it has been consistently made available online with the help of a blogging platform since last summer. "As more people began to rely on the internet for information, we believed it was critical for the magazine to have a stable online presence," says Mindy Limback, communications specialist at the Missouri S&T Office of Public Relations. That's the reason why both new issues as well as archives dating back as far as 2005 are now available online.

For <b>Montana State University,</b> the digital choice was also backed up by budget considerations. <em>Mountains and Minds</em> was launched a year ago as a print and web magazine to expand its reach. "We decided to go digital with our magazine due to the limited distribution of our print version," says Julie Kipfer, director of marketing and creative services at MSU. The magazine is only mailed to dues-paying members of the Alumni Association, but its web version has allowed it to reach a broader audience.

Surprisingly, new magazines targeted to prospective students-the so-called digital natives-are still launched in a print format to complement admissions web portals.

"Because we eliminated the college viewbook, it was important to have a print publication, both to give students a sense of the college and to provide essential information," says Ruth N. Jacobs, associate director of communications at <b>Colby College</b> (Maine). Launched in March 2007, the <em>InsideColby</em> magazine and website serve the same goal in a complementary way: engaging prospective students via rich content produced by their older peers currently attending Colby. The magazine comes out only three times a year, but the website featuring audio and video podcasts, blogs, and photo galleries changes every week, keeping things fresh, interesting, and more interactive.

Launched in spring 2007 by <b>Ithaca College</b> (N.Y.), <em>Fuse</em> is another example of this new breed of print and online magazine targeted to and authored by students. Each print story drives students to more content available online and pushes them to resources on the main admissions website. "Students tell us they are blown away by the amount of unique content, and traffic stats show us that photo galleries and other interactive 'web extras' are the most visited content," says Bonny Georgia Griffith, executive editor and associate director of recruitment marketing. In the case of <em>Fuse,</em> the readership of the web version has grown over time with the help of its print sibling.

So, after all, going paperless might not be the only path-even for magazines-in our digital age.

<em>Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college as well as a consultant on web projects for other institutions.</em>