How to Start and Run an Alternative Campus Newspaper Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

How to Start and Run an Alternative Campus Newspaper

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When a university's populace becomes dissatisfied with its current print media - perhaps it's publishing from the wrong side of issues or not covering what needs to be covered or maybe it's just edited poorly - the time may be right for a new printslinger to enter the town. It may be time to start an alternative newspaper.

There are many benefits that come with starting your own paper instead of working for a university-sponsored one. Most of these exist because you can tailor your publication to fit your personality. Within the legal limits of libel and treason, you can write whatever you want. In this you have the benefit over writing for you school newspaper because you aren't ultimately tied to the administration by policy. You can enjoy the fun of thinking up jazzy headlines and designing cool graphics. It's a good bonding experience if you let some friends in on it, and they'll add their own flairs and talents to the mix. Best of all, if your university allows unlimited printing and computer access, you can do it all for very little cost. All in all, it's fairly easy to get started, and since you're in charge you can stop whenever you want.

Section A: Building a Foundation

The first thing to do is decide what kind of paper you want to have. An alternative newspaper can be anything you want it to be: sarcastic and funny, scathingly editorial, focused on a particular group, conservative, liberal, hard-hitting, anything. If you want to show up a campus newspaper staff, come out a day earlier with better articles on the same topics they cover. If you want policies to change, entice the student body to action; give times and directions for a meeting or demonstration. If you just want to let everyone in on your favourite music, books and movies, write up reviews. Individual articles can be thought up later, but it's good to have a direction.

Page A2: Naming the Baby

Choose a name. This should be something unique and clever that shows how unique and clever you and your publication are going to be. If you want your paper to get out to a specific group, you'll probably want to include something indicating your readership. If you're going to be more serious in your approach, you could choose a more newspaperly title like 'The Farfetched Weekly' or 'The Tinderbox Tribune'1. Otherwise you could always just choose a couple of random adjectives and nouns, like 'The Galvanic Mutineer' or 'The Prophylactic Hair of Doubt'; these always draw attention by virtue of being weird.

Page A3: Employment

If you're having trouble deciding on a name or a format, this might be the time to invite some friends to get in on the action. Since you might want to keep your publication somewhat secret, especially if you're going to be printing editorials harshly criticising university administration and policies, make sure the invitees are trustworthy. They should also be good writers, as you don't want to spend horrendous amounts of time every issue editing their articles and changing all the its to it's and vice versa. If you don't have one and think you might like to, it might also be good to invite someone with a digital camera; they're very useful for taking pictures for print2. Also, if you're planning on having a very focused ideological paper, it's wise to create a staff that agrees. In short, to avoid building unnecessary strife, choose people who work well together and whose talents are complementary.

Section B: The First Meeting

Once you have a format, a name and a staff, you can start figuring out how your publication will look. Since most people don't have a printing press or access to one, the easiest way to produce a paper is by computer. Any number of programs exist that will allow you to manipulate text and pictures well enough. Then it's just as simple to print everything out. Standard printer paper is 8.5 by 11 inches, but legal-size paper at 8.5 by 14 inches is easy to find at any office supply store. Can you print on both sides of the paper without too much trouble? Do you want to add a second or third page? Bigger paper and multiple pages are nice, but remember that you have to fill that much more space whenever you publish and this is a major consideration if you're paying for copies. Similarly, colour printing makes everything look better, but printing a few hundred copies in colour takes significantly longer than those in black and white. University computers and printers almost always work best if they're available, especially if the printing is free. Microsoft Word or Publisher and Adobe PageMaker are excellent, but select something that you're comfortable with.

Page B2: The Basics of Word

Microsoft Word is fairly easy for beginners to use, so some explanations will be made to get absolute novices on the road. A title box can be created using its Word Art feature and a large selection of fonts. If you want a real newspaper look, you can set up columns under the Format menu. To counteract the print area lost to column-spacing, expand the margins using the Page Setup selection under the File menu. Word can also expand or shrink, crop and recolour image files using the Picture toolbar, which can be turned on under the View menu. Best of all, if you like what you see on your computer screen in Word, that's about what you'll get when you print it out, so you can experiment all you like with the look without wasting paper. Once you've settled on your basic look, you can save that setup and use it as a template for future editions.

Section C: Writing

By the time you have the framework of your paper figured out, it's probably time to choose or assign the contents. People should write about what they know, or at least what they're willing to look up. Though you should feel free to take creative licence and be funny in an apocryphal way, it's probably best not to blatantly make things up. At the very least, your readers should be able to clearly tell what's real and what's fake.

Page C2: Writing Without Writing

Pictures are an excellent way to accentuate a story, so feel free to include any you deem worthy. Even if you think the photo or illustration depicts something that all your readers will know, the contrast between photo and text will draw attention to your publication, especially on the front page. Make certain, though, that you either cite pictures you don't own the rights to, or that you're prepared to face the consequences for copyright infringement. This another reason why having people on staff who can take photos or draw illustrations can come in handy. More importantly, as a picture is worth a thousand words, a well-drawn, topical comic can convey more information in a more significant way than an article of the same length.

If, when all your articles and pictures are in place, you still have a little extra room, it's nice to have something to fill that space. Examine how professionally-done newspapers and magazines handle that problem. Try pulling out an important quote from an article and highlighting it. Or find a famous, historic or funny quote that fits the overall theme or ideals of your paper and set that off in a box or with a different font. Anyway, the paper will look better the less white space it has.

Page C3: The Common Mistake

Please, please don't forget to proofread! You don't need to be perfect since even the best newspapers make mistakes, but your readers will respect and appreciate immensely the extra time it takes.

Section D: Meet the Presses

Once everything is typeset and illustrated as you like it, consider how to get it down on paper and out to your readership. Essentially, this involves deciding how many copies you'll need, whether you have the ability to produce that easily and where you'll want to put those copies once they exist.

There's no easy way to determine how many papers your readers will want. With free distribution, the entire quantity of papers may go in a few hours, especially if you have a reputation. Charging a fee or subscription means that fewer papers will be needed, but that shouldn't matter since more people will be sharing. The length of the copy also enters into the equation. If your paper is short, people will be able to read the first copy they see and pass it on to another person quickly. With longer publications, readers will tend to hold onto things longer and this process will be slower. As a decent rule of thumb, printing one paper for every ten people in your target population will get you enough of a start until interest grows and you need to start printing more. Not all of those ten people will be interested in reading your paper, but a good percentage of those who are interested will manage to find a copy.

Of course, you may not have the resources to publish in that quantity. As mentioned on page B2, you can maximise your resources by using available materials such as standard size paper and printing in faster black and white rather than colour. Nice touches such as folding and stapling take time too, so you might want to keep it simple and do one- or two-sided printing on one sheet of paper for the first few editions. Remember that you can always print more at a later time if you need to.

Page D2: They Have That on Computers Now

To avoid the whole hassle of printing fees and getting up before the sun to set out papers and worrying about papers disappearing without reason, you could just put the whole thing on the Internet. To make money, you could set up a subscription service or have banner advertisements, but no doubt readers would find it much easier and friendlier if you had everything open to everyone. Whether you have advertisements or not depends on how tied to another corporation you're willing to be, and most users are so blind to them now that it won't make much difference to them.

Many universities provide a limited amount of webspace for their students, but alternatively there are numerous sites such as Angelfire, which will give you a few free megabytes to work with. After that, setting up a simple website is not hard. Lots of programs walk you through the basic steps until you become comfortable enough to do things on your own. Microsoft's Frontpage and Publisher, by virtue of being Microsoft products, work very similarly to Microsoft Word and make available the tools to adjust pictures and text. Editing and retracting articles is even easier online, and best of all, issues can be archived by simply moving them into another directory. Furthermore, instead of having full-text articles on the webpage, you could your Word files available for download and printing, just for those readers who love a hard copy.

All ease of use aside, though, having paper copies to distribute is just cooler in general and more down to earth. It should be recommended if at all feasible.

Section E: Distribution

When everything is printed off, put your papers in high-traffic areas where your target audience is likely to see them and pick up a copy. Places like student lounges, dining halls and computer labs are excellent. Remember though, if you're focusing on a specific group of people, not to put your copies of 'The Computer Monitor' in the English department, for example. Also, choose a location that you frequent, even just to walk through, so you can check how your supply is doing. You might even catch a glimpse of a reader and his or her reaction, which is always a helpful gauge of how you're being received.

Page E2: Freedom of the Press

Charging for copies is extremely difficult if you want to remain anonymous. How do you advertise something that doesn't exist? It is recommended that you avoid it. You could set up a donation can next to your distribution spot, but the risk is that any offerings get stolen. If you aren't worried about people knowing your identity, go ahead and set up a table somewhere allowed by university policy. Or wear a sandwich board; people love sandwich boards! You might want to give out a few free copies earlier though to entice people to buy a trusted product.

Page E3: Alternative Locations

If you really don't have any way to print more than a few tens of copies, you might want to find a more permanent place for your papers. For this, the bathroom comes highly recommended. Tape a copy of your paper to the inside of the toilet stall door so that anyone who comes to s**t and stink may also stay to sit and think, as the graffiti goes. If your printing covers multiple sides or pages, you could alternatively tape a folder to the inside of the door and put a whole copy in the folder. If you politely request that readers not remove the papers from the restroom, you'll be surprised how great the staying power is.

Section F: Issue the Second

Unless all of your message got out in the first edition, or unless everyone hated you and they know where you live and university administration shut you down and the government is charging you with sedition, you will probably be inclined to produce more. Go for it!

Hopefully you saved a template so you can plug articles and pictures into it without having to redo everything. With a template, publishing becomes more like an assembly line than craftsmanship, but it still looks handmade. Try to publish on a regular schedule; every week or two weeks is fairly doable. Longer than two weeks and you risk people forgetting about you; shorter than a week and you'll drive yourself crazy trying to fit everything in on time.

Page F2: The Legions of Fans

Eventually you may gain a following and people will be looking forward to your release every week. In later issues, try to get your readership involved in the paper. Invite them to submit their own articles or ideas for articles. Have a poetry contest or sponsor a written debate. By getting a greater portion of the student population involved, you further solidify your own position on campus while giving others the freedom of speech you allow yourself.

Page F3: Level Up

If, after a while, people know you by name or reputation and have made a regular practice of publishing on time and with reliable news and if you haven't tried to hard to annoy the administration, you could always try to get your paper to be recognised as legitimate by your university. With that acceptance comes money, which will help you create a better product, which will in turn help you attract more skilled people as they will see it as a boon to their resumes/CVs and the cycle will repeat. You'll probably have to find a faculty advisor and elect positions like president and treasurer to help organise finances and meetings but it could very well be worth it, even if just to know that you've made a difference on campus.

Of course, you won't really be an 'alternative' campus newspaper if you're actually supported by the campus. You will have to answer for any transgressions carried out by you or in your name, which could be bad if you consistently report on tuition and housing and cafeteria grievances. Look into it, but don't be afraid to try to make it on your own. Because, really, how much do you need to print weekly or put a website up?

The Sunday Insert: Titbits and Trivia

  • If you're not going to print in colour, change your photos to black and white on the computer. It will make the file smaller and speed up printing somewhat.

  • To save your files in order for posterity, which helps you see what you've done in the past and is nostalgically nice, use a common file name with the date attached as yymmdd. Most computers will organise the files in order then.

  • If you feel like you're in competition with your official campus newspaper, either publish a day earlier than it does and try to scoop it or publish a day later and write 'the real story' behind its contents.

  • Try talking to a local copy shop or office supply shop about trading advertising space for free copies and collating.

  • When one double-sided page becomes too little for your creative genius, it's easier to go to a double-sided legal page than to multiple pages.

  • Pictures of local events generally will be of more interest and use to your readers than random pictures of dignitaries and celebrities.

  • Since space is at a premium, save it by not using full tabs and only spacing once between sentences. The font can be fairly small before it becomes unreadably painful.

  • Having a staff that comprises different years is not only good for relating better to those years, but is also handy when graduation comes and the paper needs to be passed onto a younger generation.

  • If your staff gets unruly, try appeasing them with donuts and beer. Better yet, hold periodic meetings to get everyone's input on where the paper should be going.

  • Ask friends and faculty who aren't on staff how your publication is doing; they'll be unbiased and helpful.

  • When your paper gets archived in the school library, you'll know you've made it big.

1Obviously avoid these names because they're no longer unique or clever.2The camera, not the friend.

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