A recent Fortune tell-all revealed many hypocrisies in The Odyssey’s goals and visions when it comes to their role in college media.
The article, titled “The Decline of a College Media Empire,” detailed the missteps that led to the firing of a third of staff from The Odyssey this year. Some of these missteps included a technology failure resulting in their readership dropping by over 50 percent, work culture that encouraged quantity over quality, and a misalignment of company vision and work realities.
The Odyssey made themselves sound like a promising idea for college media. Tweeted one early investor, per Fortune:
“The @TheOdyssey grand plan: 1) democratize content creation 2) personalize discovery 3) monetize the best engagement.”
These ideas are theoretically good for student media. Democratized content, which The Odyssey’s company code defines as “[providing] the opportunity for multiple voices to create a conversation around new perspectives and topics from intimate communities to worldwide audiences,” sounds similar to an AP, or a Gannett. Student papers at Doane University in Crete, NE and West Liberty University in Wheeling, West Virginia even covered The Odyssey’s new chapters on their campuses.
The problem with The Odyssey’s approach, however, is that it made no attempt to partner with existing writer communities at the colleges in which it planted itself. Instead of banding together the existing network, they tried to build a whole new one, turning the talent spigots away from the brand of the college and toward a self-serving megabrand. They pitted themselves directly against student media, stealing talent and engagement.
Jack Rivlin of The Tab, a similar business to The Odyssey, even outright insulted college media organizations just last year: “In the college media landscape, there are a lot of dinosaurs, there’s a lot of people who still focus on the print paper, they’re way too into styles which are now out of date, and they’re a bit elitist.”
Sure, there is some truth in Rivlin’s statement. But sites like The Tab and The Odyssey are not the solution. Student media organizations are already recognizing their flaws and becoming ever more relevant, branded, hyper-local, and modern, moving into new engagement spheres of which students and startups alike are recognizing the value.
“It’d be short-sighted and downright naive to think that these types of publications won’t have any effect,” offered journalism professor Gary Kayye of the University of North Carolina in an interview with the Huffington Post. “The plethora of campus newspapers that are owned by campuses need to seriously join the digital age and certainly the mobile age.”
While newspapers do need to be conscious of their audiences’ migration into new attention spheres - particularly social media - Rivlin’s statement implies a certain level of comparison between college papers and sites like The Odyssey that just cannot be made. For one, these “empires” don’t offer any sort of formal training for their writers.
“I thought both sites were using students for free content and providing nothing in return,” said Jody Beck, former director of the Scripps Howard Foundation’s Semester in Washington Program, who in recent years had seen students submit clips from The Odyssey and HerCampus with their applications. “The least the sites could do was to provide editing and coaching, and it appeared to me that neither provided either.”
“I thought both sites were using students for free content and providing nothing in return... The least the sites could do was to provide editing and coaching, and it appeared to me that neither provided either.” Jody Beck
Last April, Odyssey investor Michael Lazerow compiled reasons why students might opt to write for The Odyssey instead of their student paper, reasons that promised more than what actually existed. According to Fortune, “In order to handle the volume -- editors were expected to publish at least 240 articles in two days -- multiple former employees say there was no time for any real editing. Instead, the process consisted of scanning an article with online proofreading tool Grammar.ly, checking the headline for blatant errors, and publishing as quickly as possible.” Besides not matching his is an incomparable process to the learning experience that comes with deadline news writing and the editing chain.
The Odyssey was raised up by investors as a “college newspaper on steroids” (Business Insider). But as Sami West points out in The Spectator, UWashington’s-Eau Claire’s student paper, The Odyssey is “a hub for blog writing — not journalism. Journalism is not taking your life and opinions and stating them without any outside evidence or interaction with others.” Students who write for The Odyssey rather than their college paper are not performing journalistic work.
Not to mention, The Odyssey only paid writers who reached a certain level of measurable engagement with their article online. They possessed a network of unpaid college writers, fueling profits used not to share the wealth, but to purchase bougie offices and staff trips. The Odyssey lifted up the value of the student voice, while not believing in it enough to assist in its quality. The Odyssey’s true goal was not to support student writing, as college news orgs do, but to aggregate and harness its value for themselves.
Additionally, The Odyssey can’t replace student papers because of their inherent audience differences. Student media is meant to be written for and read by students, faculty, alumni, administration, parents, and any and all people wanting to keep up with the affairs of their school. Their bubbles of engagement are meant to be locally branded and locally run. The Odyssey encouraged publication of content that could go viral, being read by college-age students across the country. The goals of their content are inherently different.
“I said in an email at the time that there should be room for all kinds of campus media - hard news, fashion, dating, dorm decor,” said Beck. “And if Odyssey and HerCampus reported on dorm decor, the student newspaper could check to see if there was asbestos in the dorms (one of my former interns did this story on his campus), or security for financing, etc.”
So, the question of how student media should respond to “college media empires” like The Odyssey is a question of the role of student media. Do we cover the affairs of our campuses, or do we seek to write viral content for college students everywhere? We must build our unique brands, not surrender them to national ones. We need to continue creating unity out of our diversity. We are the real college media empire.