Stanford Daily editor reflects on paper's future
Senior Miles Bennett-Smith is the editor-in-chief of the Stanford Daily and the chief executive officer of the nonprofit corporation that publishes the 121-year-old publication.
The Stanford Daily Publishing Corporation's nine-person board of directors includes students, alumni, student staff and faculty members, as well as experts in business, journalism and the law.
Next year, Smith becomes the corporation's chief operating officer. In a recent conversation with the Stanford News Service, Smith reflected on how changes in the newspaper industry are affecting the Daily and where the paper is heading.
You estimate that about 65 percent of faculty, staff and students read the Stanford Daily. How widespread is the reach of the Daily beyond campus?
Our online readership can vary day to day, but at a minimum, we see 10,000 to 15,000 unique visitors daily. Online readership is up over 40 percent from last year. When we see a lot of traffic, it is 20,000 to 30,000. A lot of people like our Facebook posts and shares on Twitter. Outlets like ESPN will link to our stories. We get a lot of interest from alums in big urban areas like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Are there stories that outside media outlets have picked up from the Daily?
The Manti Te'o story is a good example. We didn't break that story, but the media cared about our response. TV stations came to campus to interview our staffers. The Mercury News wrote a story about what we thought. If you search Stanford on Google News, very often it will be a Daily story that pops up. Ten years ago, beat reporters from the major newspapers in the Bay Area covered Stanford. One by one, they have dropped off. So the Daily is one of the few papers left covering Stanford news on a regular basis.
Given the financial pressures on the newspaper industry because of diminished advertising revenue, how is the Daily doing?
The Daily is in a very good spot to grow, actually. We've seen advertisers go and come back. We've seen dips and flows. We're not just a paper. We are a media company. College newspapers need to rethink the models they use, mostly concerning online platforms. That's where we see most of the expansion in our market. The Daily wants to span both print and online spectrums and turn out a professional product in both arenas. We are looking for ways to do more innovative, online journalism. The New York Times and Washington Post have been leading the way in showing what you can do when programmers and writers team up. But we hope people continue to respect what journalists can do in 500 to 700 words. We hope our culture doesn't turn into something where 160 characters is good enough.
Your board of directors and student staff have been discussing the future of the Daily. What do those discussions entail?
Because of our high turnover – editors are here for six months, COOs for one year – creating institutional memory is a challenge. That is one of the reasons why our board is so helpful. Some were here five, 10 and 30 years ago. They are also very helpful in asking what we should be going forward. How are we going to improve our product? We have capital. We have enough revenue to keep us at our current production value for quite a while. But we don't want to do that. We have a great opportunity to expand, press forward and constantly improve. A lot of that is online and, maybe also, special issues. But it could also be a rebranding of the Stanford Daily and a reexamination and revaluation of what we offer to students, faculty, staff and the community at large. All of this, of course, is in the larger context of what we feel fits in with our mission to educate journalists and inform the Stanford community with timely and quality writing.
Can you imagine a day when the Daily is no longer printed?
That's hard to tell. There is a definite value in a print version. I grew up with the Sacramento Bee, my hometown newspaper. My dad read the paper in the morning, so I read the paper in the morning. But we are students, and the production schedule is extremely taxing. We are in the office Sunday through Thursday. Production starts around 7 p.m. and we are sending it to print anywhere from 1 to 2 a.m. For the core staff of editors, that's pretty tough. There are advantages to having it online. Do I think people would read it only online? Sure, if you improve your online product. But right now, I think people will still read the print paper because of the access.
The editor-in-chief is also president of the Stanford Daily Corporation. That must be taxing, as well.
Each editor makes the job his or her own. I really like strategic planning, and I've taken as my role to look to the future with our COO, Margaret Rawson, and vice president of sales, Caroline Caselli. We are trying to improve through analytics and research. Where do we want the Daily to be in five years? Those are conversations that haven't necessarily happened in the past because editors had to be concerned purely with just putting out the product.
Are there aspects of Daily operations that you think readers may not understand?
People most often misunderstand the opinion section. Opinion pieces are not objective. They have a viewpoint. We love to use the opinions section as a forum for discussion. I am constantly soliciting everyone to write me an op-ed or letter to the editor about the subjects they are passionate about. Very often, I'll be asked, "Why did you publish this piece? I don't agree with it." I say, "Well, this is a viewpoint on campus. There are all sorts of opinions on campus. I want to represent them, but I can't publish what I don't receive." Some of the best conversations are generated when someone disagrees with an opinion piece and writes their own. We have had meetings with administrators who ask us how to become more involved in the forums. It is hard to get a handle on divisive issues, like Suites dining, when you only hear one side. When administrators respond, I think students really appreciate it.
What are you proudest of during the past year, and what do you think the Daily could have done better?
We've tried to turn the Daily into a place to start discussions. For instance, the Suites dining story got both positive and negative feedback from faculty, staff and students. That coverage sparked conversations about what the Daily stands for. I am proud of the discussions it started on campus. No matter what criticism it received – rightly or wrongly – people agreed that the coverage made a difference. Students appreciated that the Daily got the issue out into the open. I hope the article doesn't lead administrators to think the Daily is just out looking for hit pieces to attack administrators with. But no matter what, we'll learn from what we did wrong and what we did right, along with knowing we made an impact on the community.