The Rising Trend of Social Journalism

Anyone who has logged onto Facebook or other forms of social media in the past few months has probably seen countless links to articles from websites like The Odyssey Online, Her Campus, or—more recently in the U.S.—The Tab.  These sites distinguish themselves for their student-written and driven content, which they felt was not properly represented in traditional local media sources, such as school newspapers.  Each site’s founding says a great deal about its intended purpose, whether or not this purpose is directly met by the content creators and readers today.

Her Campus, a female-geared publication that calls itself “a collegiette’s guide to life”, was founded in 2009 by three women at Harvard who felt that national magazines like Cosmopolitan and Vogue were missing a college-age component.  By spinning off of a Harvard-specific publication that filled this gap in 2008, Stephanie Kaplan Lewis, Windsor Hangar Western, and Annie Wang planned to expand from the magazine and move nationally.  Funded by their success at a Harvard undergraduate business competition, the company grew far more than the three initially thought it ever would.

Especially through corporate sponsors who see her Campus’ readership as a key demographic, the company has been profitable in every quarter since its inception, has over 20 full-time employees, 250 university chapters with local contributors, and a readership of over 3.5 million.

Calling itself a ‘lifestyle brand’ rather than specifically a blog or website (the site’s success has led to apparel, many on-campus events and media conferences, and even a College Fashion Week), Her Campus has had measurable success in an untapped market.  Its founders were listed among Inc. Magazine’s 30 Top Entrepreneurs Under 30 in 2010 even before graduating Harvard, which cites them as having a Facebook-like growth trajectory in terms of spreading between schools.

Less college-focused but similar in terms of student writing and readership is The Odyssey Online, tagged to feature ‘the perspectives of the new generation.’  Created at Indiana University from a weekly newspaper, The Odyssey was created to focus on the social scene of IU’s Greek life.

Now working with what they call their ‘grassroots approach to content,’ The Odyssey Online uses open submission as well as national and campus teams to write for their site.  This is a large amount of content considering the cited average of 10,000 reads per article, but The Odyssey has led the pack in terms of visitor growth – the site moved from zero to 10 million monthly visitors from its launch in June 2014 to a year later.

This growth has been supported by their aggressive targeting and social engagement technology called MUSE.  MUSE works by gauging article quality and engagement to decide where to promote content and find its best audience.  CEO Evan Burns said of MUSE to PR Newswire, “We identified a gap and addressed it by revolutionizing the creation, distribution and financial model for content.”  This has also been a major draw for advertisers and investors, who see The Odyssey’s strong targeting ability to a young audience as a sign of large growth potential.

Founded with very different goals in mind, The Tab is a British-based website that has not tried to be more than a campus-centric news source.  Started at Cambridge in 2009 by three students, the tabloid-inspired site gained fame through provocative stories, contests like ‘Rear of the Year,’ and gossip about students.

This is not to say that the site is a joke; the site gained major attention early on for its provocative stories, first in a British national tabloid The Sun, and soon in mainstream media including The Daily Telegraph for more serious and investigative pieces about Cambridge’s policies and for the site’s campaign across the UK to ban Robin Thicke’s anti-feminist “Blurred Lines.”

This success in Britain was praised by some journalists: The Tab now co-sponsors journalism workshops with The Telegraph and sponsors an annual scholarship to City University for an aspiring journalist.  The site has just recently moved to some campuses in the United States, and hopes to continue the same degree of on-campus active journalism and cheeky humor that it has in England.

While these sites rarely pay students other than high-ranked editors, they are meant to give the writers exposure, experience, and a way to share ideas specific to their campus or their personal experiences.

The campus pages are meant to induce readers to click on something that they know about and have opinions on around campus, especially if it is presented in a list or visual form that requires little work besides clicking a link through Facebook.  This ‘social journalism’ is meant to make media relevant and applicable to its audience and draw in young people.  It is yet to be determined if this proliferation of content will keep material original and novel, thus continuing to attract readers, investors, and advertisers.