College Papers Grow Up

David Burrick edits a daily newspaper in Philadelphia. When big news breaks he deploys a staff of 200 reporters and photographers, flying them across the country if necessary, keeping an eye toward his $1 million budget. And then he goes to class. Burrick's paper? The Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper at the University of Pennsylvania. "We're a bunch of 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds," he says, "but we operate like a major business and a professional paper."

Even as the commercial press is hammered by shrinking profits, layoffs and falling circulation, college newspapers are thriving. Today's premier college dailies--big, colorful and aggressive--are often indistinguishable from professional broadsheets, and the resemblance goes beyond the front page. The UCLA Daily Bruin's offices, with more than 100 top-of-the-line Apple workstations, rival those of a medium-size professional paper. The Indiana Daily Student has an annual payroll of $380,000. The Harvard Crimson recently spent $400,000 on color presses and design consultants.

Financially independent elite papers like these are reaching heights that dwarf more traditional campus publications, typically university-subsidized weeklies with faculty advisers. The difference was stark enough to persuade Z.L.R. Stavis, 21, an aspiring journalist, to transfer from Colorado College to Barnard, where she works for the Columbia Daily Spectator. "It was the factor," she says. "Academically, CC was actually ranked higher than Barnard, and I really enjoyed the student body. But the newspaper was lacking."

Putting out huge editions--the Nov. 18 Spec had four sections and 26 pages--gets easier when advertisers unreservedly lust after your readers. The college demographic is as sweet as it gets: by definition young and educated, they're savvy, brand-conscious and wield $41 billion in discretionary spending power. While professional papers are losing readers, an estimated 95 percent of college students still read the campus paper. "We work with 1,800 papers, reaching 11.4 million students. It's not a little niche thing," says Samantha Skey, a senior VP for Alloy Media + Marketing, a firm that links college papers with national advertisers. A full-page color ad can cost more than $2,500 for a one-time appearance--a lot of money to a college publication, but a fraction of the cost of a similar spot in a metropolitan daily. That dynamic also applies to another river of revenue for college papers: recruitment ads from investment banks and technology companies. "The return on investment on just one great student is so large. Compare that to the cost of an ad in a college newspaper, and you say, 'Wow, that's a great deal for the company'," says Alan Eustace, Google's VP of engineering.

Those spots, plus national campaigns by the likes of Amazon.com, Verizon Wireless and major movie studios, pump millions of dollars into student dailies each year. And because the papers are registered nonprofits, what's left over after expenses gets added to the papers' endowments, or reinvested in equipment, like professional-grade digital cameras. The result can be jarring: newsrooms that look and feel like college (pizza boxes, beat-up sofas) but house super-high-end technology. At least half-a-dozen student papers now use sophisticated editorial workflow software known as K4, which can carry a price tag of more than $50,000 after it is customized for each newsroom. It was intended for professional magazines, but its U.S. distributor says as much as a quarter of its business now comes from student publications.

Critics point out that big-budget college newsrooms don't necessarily produce better journalism. "You can find good-quality reporting at the smallest college, just like you might find it at a big paper," says Tom Rolnicki, executive director of the Associated Collegiate Press, who singled out the weekly Advocate at two-year Contra Costa College in San Pablo, Calif., as an exceptional college paper. But the scent of money is in the air. This fall, entrepreneurs debuted U Weekly at Ohio State, a for-profit tabloid that competes with the traditional student daily, the nonprofit Lantern; its backers, estimating profit margins of 30 to 40 percent, hope to expand to 37 more campuses in the next five years. As Deep Throat might have said: Follow the money.