A 133-year-old staple of Illinois State University’s campus will soon disappear from the news racks.
The April 27 edition of The Vidette will be the final edition to print.
The student-run newspaper at Illinois State University has been published in some printed form since 1888. Following the publication of the final paper, content created by student-journalists will be delivered exclusively through The Vidette’s digital platforms — website, social media channels, newsletter and mobile app.
Economics was a primary driver in the decision to cease printing. Advertising revenue generated by printed newspapers has plummeted in recent years. The steep decline in advertising revenue, further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, is vexing campus and commercial newspapers across the country. Meanwhile, rapidly advancing technologies have fueled a wide readership shift from traditional printed forms to digital channels.
“I have to admit that I’m sad that we won’t be able to print papers anymore and that I won’t get to see my byline in a printed edition for the rest of my career at the Vidette,” incoming Editor-in-Chief Kellie Foy said. “but I’m excited to see what our staff will do and accomplish with the transition.”
As The Vidette looks to make a digital transition, it will also become more aligned with the School of Communication at Illinois State University. Additionally, The Vidette will partner with WGLT, ISU’s National Public Radio affiliate, to share business responsibilities and office space.
Current student editors and reporters have expressed concern and apprehension toward what shape The Vidette will take next semester, as much of the plan has been uncertain.
“I completely understand that nervousness. There is uncertainty,” Director of the School of Communication Steve Hunt said. “The uncertainty about The Vidette also happens at a time where we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, which is wonderful, right?”
“We have a very firm commitment from the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, from the Provost and from the president [of the university] that they are committed to extending the legacy of The Vidette,” Hunt continued. “This is something essential to what we do as an institution.”
Moving into the digital era
The Vidette has expanded aggressively on digital platforms in recent history. Its website, videtteonline.com, annually receives nearly 1 million page views and is on pace to do so again this year. The Vidette has also had a strong social media presence, with accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
A large part of the reporting experience at The Vidette already includes encouraging reporters to post live from the scene of sports or news events. The staff also has many multimedia ventures, including video production, photo galleries, podcasts and blogging.
“The Vidette showed everybody what a model student newspaper looks like in print,” Hunt said. “Now they can show everybody what a newspaper should look like in a digital era.”
The shift to online is not exclusive to The Vidette. Several student and professional newspapers across the country have found themselves shifting to digital efforts. By putting focus on the online product, The Vidette hopes to continue training student journalists for the changing industry.
“As the first editor in this digital era, I hope to continue expanding on what we can do with our website and content and building on what we already have,” Foy said. “I also hope we can continue taking advantage of the creative and compelling elements that make both our website and our content stand out/engaging for our audience while also strengthening the relationships we have with one another on staff and within the community.”
Combining with the curriculum
For much of its history, The Vidette was a standalone and self-supported organization at ISU, but in 2010, it became a part of the SOC. While Vidette staff members have been encouraged to take journalism courses and related internships, they were not required to do so.
In the first year, Hunt said that not much will look different for student editors and reporters at The Vidette.
The transition plan so far will take about five years, Hunt said. Within those five years, the SOC is looking to strengthen the connection between classes and how The Vidette operates. Classes will act as prerequisites to certain positions. Instead of producing Vidette content in class, courses will act as a supplement to current Vidette internship experience.
“At this point, I don’t envision that the coursework will be tied to positions at The Vidette,” Hunt said, emphasizing flexibility in course planning for students. “I do think it will be structured so there are introductory, mid-level and more senior level courses, but it’s not going to be the TV10 model ... It just can’t be structurally.”
“We may say OK, if you’re at The Vidette, you need to take COM-whatever.’ We’re still talking about what those courses might be,” Hunt continued.
None of the coursework or plans for changed curriculum are set in stone yet, Hunt said. He and a committee of professors and professionals working on The Vidette transition are examining already-existing courses that could be modified to work for The Vidette. The eventual goal would be to create a four-year plan.
“I’m thinking more of a gateway,” Hunt said. “If you’re working at The Vidette you should have this course or that course.”
The changes coming to The Vidette will dissolve the business side of the paper, which includes the advertising and marketing departments.
Core editorial student positions supervising news, sports, features, photo, social media and copy editing will be retained. Those will continue to be paid positions. General Manager of The Vidette John Plevka’s position will be redefined to that of editorial adviser. WGLT General Manager R.C. McBride will assume business and administrative oversight of the newly structured Vidette.
Despite the pending restructuring, The Vidette will retain editorial independence, as mandated by the Illinois College Press Act. The 2008 legislation guards the independence of student media outlets at public universities in Illinois. Among its protections, the law assures that content published by student media is “not subject to prior review by public officials of a state-sponsored institution of higher learning.”
There is also a commitment to retain a publication board, though it will be reduced in size. The newly defined board will be smaller than the original board because there is no longer the need for advertising, business and marketing department representation. The new panel will be composed of five Vidette alumni and will serve in an advisory capacity to the student editors and the editorial adviser.
Other models of learning labs in the SOC have students create work for publication and broadcast as a part of class. Work produced in prerequisite classes for The Vidette will not be necessarily published on The Vidette’s website. Story content, assignment and publication will continue to be directed by student editors, Hunt said.
“The instructor wouldn’t have the authority to say, ‘This can or can’t go on The Vidette,’” Hunt said.
Another wrinkle in the plan that the transitional committee is still figuring out is how to retain participation from students who are not specifically communication majors. A great number of copy editors, for example, come from the English Department as they pursue tracks in publishing studies. There are discussions underway to have a joint copy-editing class open to journalism and publishing studies majors, as well as providing internship opportunities at The Vidette for publishing studies students.
Sharing space with WGLT
One of the most notable changes with The Vidette’s daily operation will be the office located on West Locust Street. The building will ultimately be shared by WGLT and The Vidette. The building, which was built and paid for by The Vidette, has been home to the student newspaper since 1996.
“The plan is for Vidette operations to move in there, and split the building between The Vidette and WGLT,” Hunt said. “To have students in close proximity to the journalists working at WGLT could provide some unique and interesting and positive opportunities for collaboration.”
Plans are not finalized yet. However, Hunt said the university has given the green light to the renovations so long as the cost of the project stays under $500,000. Hunt is confident the cost will not exceed that limit.
General Manager of WGLT and WCBU R.C. McBride said that while a specific timeline is not yet known, he is hopeful the renovations may be completed by the fall.
The renovation will provide some technological and structural updates to accommodate the radio equipment for WGLT and office space for business administration. The shared-facility concept has generated some concern among some Vidette students and staff.
McBride believes we can do [the renovations] in a way that gives both entities what they need to excel in their missions. It will also open up opportunities for shared spaces and equipment. For example, I fully expect Vidette staff to have access to WGLT’s production studios, and it makes sense for both to share a ‘mini’ SMACC lab,” McBride said. The primary SMACC, or Social Media Analytics Command Center, will continue to be hosted at Fell Hall, the home of the SOC.
Preliminary wish list items include several recording studios, including modernized conference rooms and digital reporting spaces.
In April 2019, WGLT entered a partnership with Peoria NPR affiliate WCBU. McBride is optimistic to reap similar benefits from the partnership with The Vidette.
“As it turned out, the WCBU partnership was an incredible help in getting both stations through the economic downtown caused by the pandemic,” McBride said. “And it has served as a proof of concept: by effectively combining business, management and other operations, we’re able to maximize resources for content.”
For years, WGLT and The Vidette have either competed for or shared talented student journalists. The partnership between the two organizations might help share the wealth of student journalists rather than fragment them across campus.
Plevka, who has served as Vidette general manager since 2012, said he is not without some mixed emotions about the pending changes; however, he said he is confident the future of The Vidette is fortified by this new path.
“As a student-run organization, The Vidette has been invented and reinvented many times during the last 133 years,” Plevka said. “The retirement of a proud printed tradition represents another one of those reinventions. Moving exclusively and aggressively into a digital format and aligning it with School of Communication curriculum is a reinvention that should strengthen the overall student experience at The Vidette. And the ‘student experience’ is ultimately at the core of The Vidette’s 133-year-old mission.”
Brief recent history of The Vidette
The Vidette has generally been self-supported for most of its 132 years at Illinois State, but since Fiscal Year 2019 the organization has needed help from the university to meet its budget.
Dramatic declines in advertising revenues have shaken The Vidette as they have other campus and private-sector news organizations over the last decade. Considerable reductions in its operating expenses over the last seven fiscal years have not been enough to keep pace with the revenue declines, Vidette General Manager John Plevka said. From FY2014 through FY2018, The Vidette used its cash reserves to close the budget gaps, but during the next three fiscal years, help has been needed from the university in the form of Provost Enhancement Funds.
The last fiscal year in which The Vidette finished in the black was 2013, with revenues and expenses both around $800,000. Over the following seven fiscal years, revenues and expenses declined incrementally. For FY2021, expenses are projected to be around $294,000, with Vidette-generated revenues projected at about $74,000.
The Vidette organization is deeply ingrained in the university community, having been published in some form since 1888. It has taken on several incarnations over the years. For many years it was a daily paper, but in 1976 it evolved to a five-day-a-week paper. In 1996 it built and paid for its own building at the corner of Locust and University Street. In 2013, it dropped its Friday edition and in 2015 it became a twice-a-week paper. In August 2019 it became a weekly newspaper. In March 2020, the staff shifted to digital editions due to ISU’s campus shutting down because of COVID-19. They returned to printed weekly editions for the 2020-2021 school year. The student staff also maintains a daily website.