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College Media’s Peter Pan Syndrome

College Media's Peter Pan Syndrome

Zach Brooke

college media main

Being a college media outlet means facing an identity crisis when readership graduates and moves on. Digitization of the media landscape compounds the challenge. What’s a student rag to do, and why should marketers care?

This fall, 20 million students enrolled in America’s universities, representing roughly 65% of the estimated 30.8 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24.

In college they are thrust, like generations before them, into uniquely enclosed environments where, regardless of their educational path, they’ll forge behavioral patterns that shape their consumption habits for the rest of their lives.

The evolving personae are largely the result of media diet. Though they carry to campus many content preferences first realized during high school, the next four years are a time of discovery, owing to the influence of new peers and a healthy dose of targeted marketing.


It makes sense that marketers want to reach these young adults just as they are beginning to manage their own spending and develop allegiance to brands. One of the best ways to reach them, until recently, was by placing ads or holding events directly on campus, as well as showing up in the media outlets they consume. 

College Media Then and Now

College-directed media has long swirled inside the milieu that is university culture. At least eight present-day student newspapers jockey for the title of America’s oldest campus outlet, the eldest of which claims a lineage dating back to 1799. 

The most cutting-edge outlets not only exist without paper, but without websites. One startup, FlockU, has replaced its homepage with a meme reading, “Websites suck. Hit us on social.” In between the ancient and modern bookends lies the advent of satirical publications, and it’s here we see the creation of the college-student marketing model. These early outlets were student-run, single-campus affairs, but they eventually gave rise to professional intercollegiate publications. Beginning in the 1960s, Harvard’s then-90-year-old hybrid humor publication/social club, the Harvard Lampoon, embarked on an impressive run of nationwide success when it produced full-issue spoofs of popular print media of the day, including Mademoiselle, Esquire, Playboy, Time and Life. The Lampoon went national in 1969 when two staff writers decamped from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to set up shop in New York, backed by $350,000 in start-up capital ($2.3 million in today’s dollar), following the success of their novella-length J.R.R. Tolkien satire, Bored of the Rings. Five years later the National Lampoon was averaging a monthly circulation figure of 830,000 with one issue, October 1974’s “Pubescence,” moving more than a million copies. 

The next generation of satirists took the baton from baby boomers and positioned it in the realm of straight-laced, biting media parody with the debut of The Onion in 1988. Now it’s a digital property controlled by Univision. A look at an issue from the publication’s first year exposes its funky low-fi college roots. One top story features a Nessie-type monster roaming a lake near the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, where the publication was launched, above coupon space for local readers.

Since then, thousands of media startups sought to replicate the success of student publications. Most have failed, fizzling shortly after inception if they were lucky enough to catch any buzz at all. Even the two aforementioned giants of college humor have changed in astounding ways. The National Lampoon ceased operations in 1998 following years of decline. And in 2013, The Onion ended publication of its free print edition, which had once circulated half a million copies in 20 cities across North America.

Clearly, technology is a prime driver of media evolution. The rapid digitization of print media has remade the industry many times over, and the death of college print publications mimics tectonic shifts occurring in the field at large. 

But is there something else going on? Could it be that the reason many erstwhile college media outfits fall out of fashion with student bodies is that the readers grow up? Professional life requires a radical departure from student life, and after a few years of corporate climbing, the campus experience is viewed through a lens of novelty and nostalgia. This raises uncomfortable questions for any student-centered publication fortunate enough to cultivate a loyal readership. Should it say goodbye to readers upon their graduation and recalibrate appeal in a bid to lure the next crop of freshmen? Or should college media companies grow with their readers and reconfigure for adults? Is it possible to appeal to both groups?

A Brand That Expands

“Our target age range is roughly the same as it’s always been: We’re an 18- to 34-year-old brand,” says Joseph Fullman of The Onion, where he is vice president of marketing. “The upper bounds of who we’re going after creeps up because we’ve retained some people who started with us as young readers. On The Onion site, our strongest demographic is 25 to 34, if we’re just talking about total penetration in audience size.”

Fullman understands well whom the site is targeting. He says college students remain part of the mix, but they’re not the whole enchilada. This unsurprising admission nevertheless represents a departure from The Onion’s traditional path-to-discovery marketing.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, print copies of The Onion blanketed campuses across North America. The papers were a dorm room rite of passage. Now The Onion only exists online, no longer central to collegiate mise-en-scène. 

“Being on campus is difficult to justify,” Fullman says. “The value of a reader who doesn’t have some kind of financial relationship with us is not high enough to have a physical touch point. For our physical event strategy, we are focused on a slightly older audience, let’s say 21 and older, because a lot of our event strategy ties in with alcohol partnerships.”

Fullman says The Onion segments its audience similarly to the divide among undergrads at four-year schools. At 33, his own history interacting with The Onion might be totally different from readers a scant five years younger than him.

“If you’re looking [at the 18- to 44-year-old demographic], you now have three distinct generational splits,” he says. “You’ve got your Gen X, who act very different than older millennials, then younger millennials that act differently than older millennials. It’s become a spectrum across all these audiences. We try to think about all these different groups of people and our financial opportunities not as separate strategies necessarily, but distinct objectives.”

Fullman says the most visible cleavage among The Onion’s readers is not between undergrads and professionals. Rather, it’s between people who are still reading content on site and those whose attention is captured by social media. “There’s a whole generation of people we never reached in print who are coming of age and learning what The Onion is based on their experiences exclusively with our Instagram or Facebook presence,” Fullman says.

How Students Consume Media

Despite the long history of student publications, college students’ overall news consumption has been on the decline. A 2016 study conducted by OnCampus Advertising at 25 large universities shows how far media consumption has shifted in a generation. Sixty percent of respondents reported spending between two and 10 hours per week on social media, and another 17.1% said they use social networks even more than that. Compare those findings to more than three-quarters of respondents who said they watch fewer than two hours of live television per week and 88.5% who report listening to fewer than two hours of broadcast radio per week. 

A longitudinal study evaluating media habits of the graduating class of 2015 conducted by Dr. Sylvia Chan-Olmsted in partnership with Nielsen provides further insights. Tracking the participants over four years using surveys, interviews and reality show-style video diaries, Chan-Olmsted noticed that college students tended to be ahead of the curve in their media habits, if not outright driving trends in media consumption.

“When they talked about what’s in and what’s not cool, we typically saw that [reflected] six to eight months later in trade reports,” she says. 

A big difference between these students and their predecessors is the way they consume news. The participants reported consuming news on demand or when it turned up as the solution to a query. “For this generation, [media is] more like part of their daily lives in solving a problem,” Chan-Olmsted says.

Chan-Olmsted’s research appears to be borne out in application, attested to by long-time college marketing experts such as Tom Borgerding, CEO and president of Campus Media, which specializes in targeting college-aged adults for marketing campaigns. Borgerding is hyper-aware of the changes in the college media landscape over the previous generation. There are two main ways that college students are engaging these days, he says: digital and face-to-face interactions. The new reality presents significantly more opportunities to target students than when Borgerding attended college in the mid-’90s. He says advances to backend martech are an important driver of enhanced college demographic tracking. Ultimately, improved data-gathering and analysis are just as important as improvements to the user interface. But what’s better for the marketer isn’t necessarily better for the college media outlet, and the improvements helped usher in the collapse of a generation worth of college-specific sites. 

“Now you can target subsets of content based on traffic patterns, registration information and IP addresses,” he says. “You can go to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and subset who’s coming from a college campus.” 

 “The programmatic share of total display ad revenue will continue to grow until direct is a relatively minor factor,” Fullman says. “The long-term trend is towards premium programmatic. I don’t think that’s confined to the college audience. You see a lot more direct advertising in regulated industries like alcohol or event-oriented [industries].”

This shift has necessitated the evolution of publishing platforms, but also the nature of media companies’ relationships with marketers. That was partially the impetus behind Onion Labs (the company’s in-house ad agency). “We saw the need to grow that branded content business because while the market is likely to shift to programmatic overall for display, the opportunity to work with brands or agencies directly on content is only going to get bigger over time,” Fullman says.

The Supremacy of Social

It’s easy to forget that there was a time when the world’s largest social media company, Facebook, traded on its exclusivity. For the first three years of its existence, if you wanted to set up a Facebook profile, you needed a university e-mail address.

Perhaps Facebook had the right idea by expanding to everyone. A few years after it opened the platform to the world, another group of entrepreneurs tried to reclaim the college-only social network space and failed. Josh Weinstein, fresh out of Princeton, launched CollegeOnly in 2010, financed by $1 million in capital from investors including Peter Theil, the doyen of Silicon Valley who bet on Facebook early. CollegeOnly was primarily a social network, but the fledgling company’s portfolio also included a video chat site, RandomDorm, and a college dating site, GoodCrush. 

After a glitzy public relations rollout, the company had 25,000 signups. It folded within three months. Although it appears that the door has closed on a just-for-college social network, college students aren’t showing up across all platforms in equal numbers. If they were, marketers would still host panels on how to reach Gen Z through MySpace. Instead, students are establishing a presence across several social media sites, but using each selectively to cater to specific motivations.

Take Facebook: There has been a well-documented loss of appeal among teens and young adults, who view the site as something akin to the white pages. “It’s not cool to be on Facebook,” Chan-Olmstead says, but adds she saw many study groups and social clubs still find utility in it as a free and accessible place to congregate digitally during her study of college student media habits.

Instead, Chan-Olmsted says, Snapchat and Instagram are becoming the preferred venues for young adults to indulge in unguarded communication. Snapchat’s topline value proposition of temporary messages and videos is coveted by a cohort of young adults with one eye on their long-term career prospects while they enjoy the freedom of being away from home for the first time. 

The company seems to know this, too. Snap Inc. announced in September it was partnering with student newspapers around the country to create campus editions in the app. The stories appear in users’ feeds when they are on or near campus and can be found using the search bar. 

A top story on the Snapchat account of the UW-Madison Badger Herald, for example, showed a large headline, “Amazon HQ Comes to Madison?,” across a sliding photograph of the Wisconsin Capitol building. Swiping up brought up a Badger Herald story on the city’s push to secure the facility. Tapping the screen’s right side flipped to separate stories about UW athletics, dining hall hacks, Madison’s best hangover recovery brunch and a video announcement from the “Pod Save America” team hyping its upcoming show in the Madison area. Snap plans to monetize these college editions by inserting video ads in between stories.

The Onion is also getting ready to establish a major presence using Snapchat. Whereas the site’s properties have huge reach on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, penetrating Snapchat has proven elusive. Fullman says the company’s not ready to divulge details, but he does concede Snapchat has been an enigma for the brand.

“It’s been a learning experience over the past year working closely with the Snapchat team to figure out how to create a product that is both The Onion and also fits with the voice of Snapchat,” he says. “It’s a place that is especially challenging because we are, in some ways, a satire of The New York Times or The Washington Post news style, and [that] style is thrown out the window as news organizations get into the world of Snapchat and Instagram.”

A New Model Student Army

The flipside to social media becoming the gathering place for college-aged adults is that they can like and share relevant content within their network of peers, which, if it’s consistent enough, might provide enough revenue to support a college-focused media company.

Jack Rivlin runs one such company, The Tab —short for “tabloid”—which he and two classmates founded in 2009. Focused on student life and controversies happening at their school, the University of Cambridge, The Tab’s punchy and provocative reporting quickly caught the attention of the U.K. press, which referenced the campus outlet many times during its first year of operation.

Three years later, the trio finished their studies, but they weren’t ready to leave The Tab behind. Instead, they set up editions on 12 other British universities and courted investors to further expand their operations. At the start of the 2017-18 academic year, The Tab operates on 80 total campuses in the U.S. and the U.K., and in early September, Rivlin announced a $6 million round of funding, led by Rupert Murdoch.

“We took The Tab to other universities because we felt student newspapers were poorly serving their audience,” Rivlin says. “This is particularly true in the U.K. They would be covering Middle Eastern politics or Premier League Soccer—topics that the journalists really wanted to write about, but the audience didn’t necessarily want to read. As we spread across the U.K and later U.S., we saw there was real demand for that.”

Rivlin, 28, claims The Tab’s monthly audience averages 51 million young people, sought by dozens of advertisers. Following the lead of The Onion and others, The Tab works closely with sponsors to create branded content that runs on the site and social channels. Brand stories feature real students acting out life with the sponsored product. About 15 of these branded stories run each month, and in the past, The Tab has guaranteed 25,000 pageviews per story, the majority of which Rivlin says are organic.  

Branded content accounts for approximately two-thirds of the site’s revenue, with the last third coming from display advertising. Forty million visitors watched Tab videos through social in August 2017, and 10 million visit the site directly. ComScore stats shared by Rivlin show that The Tab is the second-biggest publisher for the 18- to 24-year-old audience in the U.K. behind BuzzFeed, and U.S. data reveal that 53% of The Tab’s stateside audience are between the ages of 18 and 24, compared to 22% for BuzzFeed and 12% for all digital media on average.

“We found a lot of these big millennial media companies, like BuzzFeed, Vice or Vox, don’t actually have a high concentration of audience in that demographic. For most of them, the majority of their audience is over 30,” Rivlin says. 

Unlike direct competitors aggressively targeting college-aged youth, such as Her Campus and The Odyssey (which gifted the world the infamous “Dad Bod​” essay in 2015), The Tab invests heavily in hard-nosed, original reporting to break news rather than curate blog posts or lifestyle essays. Audiences get the first-reported lowdown on campus happenings often before the news trickles out to the student newspaper and well in advance of nationally curated college sites. 

The Tab’s student-reporters prowl their campuses, working solely for experience—an experiment offering cash to authors of viral stories was discontinued after Rivlin decided it wasn’t incentivizing the best journalistic outcomes—while The Tab’s national homepages employ a paid staff with an average age of 23. The youth of the writers and their readers has allowed the site to break stories hidden from the mainstream media. “I don’t think that any other media company can really build a connection with people under 25 unless they are willing to hand over a lot of the editorial to people that age,” says Rivlin.

Rivlin doesn’t intend for The Tab to operate a chapter on every campus in America, but he forecasts expanding to as many as 150 U.S. universities. One thing he doesn’t see, however, is maturing the site’s content with its readers as they age.

“There are two ways a media company can go: You can either be generational in the way Vice has been— … that audience is generally in their early 30s—or you could be a media brand that is tied to a period in people’s lives, and be prepared to let them go at the end of that. We’re in that latter category,” Rivlin says.

It might be heresy to abandon readers after they’ve converted, but brands often have to pick who they will serve first and best. Rivlin has no problem saying goodbye to readers no longer young enough to relate to the college experience.

“We’re happy that once people exit their 20s, we’re not going to be their media brand of choice,” he says. “Maybe I will change my mind in the future because it’s always tempting to keep going, especially as it raises questions about my ability to run the company when I’m much older.”

Until that day, Rivlin and his youthful cotemporaries jockey for position in the college media landscape, hoping to swoop in beneath aging millennial brands and catch fire as the voice of Gen Z.

Zach Brooke is a former AMA staff writer turned freelance journalist. His work has been featured in Chicago magazine, Milwaukee Magazine, A.V. Club and VICE, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Zach_Brooke.