Published on 2013/10/23

Looking to the Newspaper Industry to Understand Higher Education’s Transformation

AUDIO | Looking to the Newspaper Industry to Understand Higher Education’s Transformation
It may be more beneficial for smaller colleges and universities to focus on equipping students to use the knowledge available to them rather than on purely disseminating ideas.
The following interview is with Byron White, vice-president of university engagement and chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University. White, a former journalist who served in a number of roles at the Chicago Tribune, watched from within as the newspaper industry transformed in the early 2000s. Now in a leadership position at a public university, he is seeing similar changes take hold of his new industry. In this interview, White discusses those similarities and shares lessons he thinks higher education leaders could learn from journalism.

1. What are some of the most significant similarities you see between the changes that rocked the newspaper industry and the change currently taking hold of higher education?

We’re talking about old industries for the most part; mature, civic-oriented industries, both of which are driven not really in traditional ways the market works.

Journalists, like faculty, do their jobs with a sense of civic mission, a focus on the wellbeing of the citizenry, of democracy; it’s rooted in all of those principles. One of the biggest similarities is the traditions and values that [are] underlying both industries. … When you have these really deeply held traditions and values that are rooted in civic principles, it makes it really difficult to adjust to change.

The other, I’ll say, is that in both industries, from my experience, there’s a real and intentional and legitimate wall between these producers of the work — knowledge, information, news; that is, the reporters, the faculty — and the business side of the house. And there’s good reason for that segregation but it also means it insulates the folks who are on the front lines doing the core work of both of these industries from many of the pressures and realities from the marketplace, from financial and fiscal strain and other kinds of pressures.

2. Operating budgets for higher education institutions are rapidly declining, as they did in the newspaper industry. Public institutions are seeing their state funding go down while private universities are being challenged by public unease over high tuition rates. What could higher education leaders learn from the newspaper industry when it comes to navigating declining budgets?

In the newspaper industry, a lot of folks, when they think about the change from a financial or budgetary standpoint, they think about readership. … The real major shift, though, was around advertising and advertisers really moving more toward targeted media, like the Internet, versus mass media. And, so, rather than paying $50,000 for a one-page ad that reaches a million people, they pay a fraction of that to reach the 100,000 people [who fit] the profile [they] are looking for. With higher education, the challenge really is to move toward the individual consumers … to replace some of the broader subsidies and public funding. As public resources decline, higher education is having to — especially publics like the one I work for — operate more like private institutions dependent on individual tuitions.

One of the lessons I do think can be learned is really tailoring a focus to individual students … and moving more toward a reader-driven kind of format, where you really are having to pay attention to individuals who are coming, each one, and having to customize and personalize what they are looking for.

The other thing I think [is] a lesson to learn is to really be focused on the outcomes those individual users … are looking for. I don’t think the newspaper industry ever really redefined the kind of outcome or value newspapers were providing to readers, other than providing them with the news of the day. You know, the New York Times, “All the news that’s fit to print.” In reality, what we should have been shifting toward was helping people make sense and navigate their lives and their worlds. And I think we started talking that way, but we never really developed the evidence we were really helping people do that.

Higher education can learn from that. If we can move from providing students [with] knowledge, information, even a credential, to seeing ourselves as being in the business of developing people to have lifelong success … I think we’ll start to see the ways we provide that might be different than just the traditional ways of sharing knowledge.

That’s a lesson we can learn from what newspapers, I think, weren’t able to transition to.

3. The move to free online content significantly changed journalism, both in terms of the value readers put into written news and their expectations for accessibility and speed of reporting. What kind of an impact do you see the growth of online learning having on students’ expectations of higher education?

This is very similar to the challenge newspapers faced, because those online learning avenues are available, and they are available in greater abundance. Being able to really charge for them is going to be much more difficult; and this was the problem with online content and newspapers. We tried in many, many ways to think about, “What revenue stream could there be?” And, except for a handful of national papers, like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times, that can really command an audience consistently, there’s really no way for local newspapers to do it.

So, the long-term here might be to concede that the learning — the knowledge as a commodity that you can sell, or that you can charge at a higher price — just may not be possible. The value here … might be that the knowledge production or knowledge sharing may not be the value we can bring in a way that produces revenue.

Maybe the work is helping people navigate the knowledge, make sense of the knowledge, apply the knowledge. And, so, it becomes a much more personalized kind of connection with students and with learners as they make sense of all of this. I don’t know exactly how that translates into revenue but I think, again, looking at my experience in newspapers, we’ve begun to shift that way toward being ambassadors or navigators of making sense of information versus trying to make money from the information itself.

4. Are there any other major lessons you think higher education could learn from the recent change and transformation of the newspaper industry?

For years I was a journalist and I thought that my reason for being a journalist was to go out and report the news. And then, as I continued, I found there were many, many more vehicles for reporting good news; many, many more ways people were getting the same thing I was charged with getting. But I would go back to the newsroom and I would go into meetings with colleagues and editors where we would talk about the news of the day … and those conversations always happened in private, away from the public.

And I think about this in higher education and I wonder if … what we should be doing in higher education is being much, much more transparent with broad audiences around dialogue and discussion of not just knowledge and not just information that we’re sharing, but what it means. … I wonder if … some of those things that, again, were just, “Inside Baseball,” maybe really are the kinds of things that the public would really value from us. So, I would just like to see us think creatively about those, connecting, deliberation, those kinds of roles among publics and among external audiences. I believe we have real contribution to make in that regard.

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Readers Comments

RF 2013/10/23 at 11:43 am

It’s interesting to consider that the wholesale philosophy change that higher education is currently considering could actually save the industry from irrelevancy.

Competency-based learning and credential transformation are top of mind for those of us looking at industry “disruptions” — ensuring students can use their knowledge rather than just having it — and that’s what Dr White is suggesting could have saved newspapers.

Jeff P 2013/10/23 at 4:11 pm

White’s point about knowledge as a commodity ties into the current, ongoing debate about the role of instructors. If our understanding of education is knowledge sharing, we might not have a strong value proposition, and we would certainly put our instructors’ roles at stake. However, if education is about equipping students to interpret knowledge, as White suggests, there would still be a significant role for instructors.

Madison Riley 2013/10/24 at 9:05 am

Very interesting piece. I hadn’t thought to compare the two industries, but White is clearly knowledgeable about both. As he describes the challenges they face, he also highlights some of the opportunities that exist for change.

A key difference — and one that works to higher education’s advantage — is there is still a separation between instructor/expert and student, and a corresponding demand for the former, whereas mainstream media has reached a crisis or opportunity (depends on how you see it) point where “everyone’s a journalist.” Thus, it may be easier for higher education than for journalism to develop a solid value proposition.

Frank Gowen 2013/10/24 at 1:25 pm

How’s this for a comparison between newspapers and universities: both have always taken their existence for granted and been slow to respond to changing circumstances. The rapid growth of the Internet presented both industries with an opportunity to capture an even wider audience, but both stubbornly insisted on keeping things just as they were because there would always be someone who wanted to read a printed paper or someone who wanted that $50,000-degree. Of course, the Internet eventually overtook them — or, democratized access to information (be it news or knowledge/education) — and now both industries are struggling to catch up. It may be too late and institutions may be headed the way of the newspaper — death.

Dave Clinefelter 2013/10/30 at 1:43 pm

Excellent article comparing the two industries. I worked for Kaplan University, which was owned by the Washington Post, from 2002 – 2010. It was painful to watch the good people at the Post struggle to maintain their market share and relevancy. I agree with Frank Gowen in the previous post that both industries are slow to respond to new technology with the correspondent opportunities and challenges. A major part of the problem is the governance system with faculty and reporters not having to be accountable for their performance. They are insulated from the financial realities.

One option not considered in the article is for universities to cut costs. There are good suggestions for how institutions could become more relevant, but few people in higher ed question the cost structure. There are cheaper ways to educate students, but the debate seems to be around how to justify the expense.

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