The Daily Universe continues its legacy in an evolving media landscape

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The Daily Universe is printing its last monthly edition in newspaper form this month — the end of an era, but also an opportunity for innovation. As the publication transitions from a printed paper to a monthly magazine, alumni shared their thoughts on what it means to them. (The Daily Universe)

The Daily Universe has served as a campus news publication for BYU throughout the years, evolving with an ever-changing journalism industry. As the publication transitions from a printed paper to a monthly magazine, alumni shared their thoughts on what it means to them.

Student reporters began writing for daily editions of the paper back in 1956, switching to weekly editions in 2012. Over this past summer, the paper was only printed once a month.

The August 2021 paper is the last edition of The Daily Universe in traditional newspaper form — the end of an era, but also an opportunity for innovation. The new Daily Universe Magazine will replace the traditional newspaper and aim to provide in-depth, analytical pieces for the campus community each month starting this September.

BYU journalism professor Ed Carter has been part of the task force leading the transition. “We’re evolving as the journalism industry evolves and as the needs of news consumers evolve,” he said. 

The newspaper format made sense in the pre-internet age because it was the most updated news people could get, but now people are getting their news by the minute or hour, he added. Print news works well for more in-depth, analytical and explanatory coverage people can take understanding from.

BYU has had some form of student publication for almost 150 years, Carter said. It’s always been a place where a large audience can come together and share and learn about important topics. The shift to the magazine is just one of many changes over the years. 

Students, faculty and staff working with The Daily Universe have “stewardship” over the publication while they’re at BYU, Carter said. Those involved with it use their time to improve and contribute to something meaningful on campus, but should also realize there’s a bigger picture of historical context and future efforts.

Helpful mentors

Carter has been involved with The Daily Universe as both a student and faculty member and said he’s always loved it. The value of the publication wasn’t necessarily its newspaper format as much as the mentored environment with faculty, staff and students working together, he said, adding there’s a great culture within the organization that’s existed for decades.

Steve Fidel, general manager over the news division of KSL.com, has been an integral part of the culture of The Daily Universe. He worked as Director of The Daily Universe for nine years and said he has an “enduring admiration” for the structure of the paper and the place it’s had on campus. 

This admiration goes back to Fidel’s college days. He was a freshman at BYU in the fall of 1977 and spent four years on the paper’s staff. “It was so valuable as an emerging journalist because it was a wonderful outlet,” he said.

The paper has not only spotlighted the wonderful things that happen at the university, but also created a forum to discuss the challenges that are inevitably part of any community and also those unique to BYU, Fidel said. Informative and “watchdog” type stories have helped strengthen the university, engaging faculty and alumni with things they might not have seen other places.

Fidel recalled being giddy over social media analytics The Daily Universe staff would go over in meetings, as the paper’s growth and reach grew to global significance far beyond Provo.

But the best part of his job as director was his role as a mentor and being at crossroads with students at different stages in their lives, he said. As a mentor, he wanted to act as a talent scout and help students find their strengths and conquer challenges. “It was inherently personal.”

One student who found strengths at The Daily Universe was Camille Smith, who graduated in 2019 and now works as the homepage story editor for the Deseret News.

While at BYU, Smith worked a dual role as copy and opinion editor and later as editor in chief. “It was incredibly monumental,” she said.

But before her time at The Daily Universe, she was an English major and editing minor, with a dream to be a book editor. She said she didn’t really feel like English was her place, but still loved editing. She decided journalism could be a means to an end for her — the end being a writing-focused degree so she could have credibility as an editor. 

She recalled sitting down with Newsroom Manager Carrie Moore, who was her assigned mentor in COMMS 321, the introductory reporting class where students cover a beat and report to editors. Smith explained that journalism wasn’t really her thing and she just wanted to get a degree so she could become an editor. 

“She was so gracious,” Smith said, as Moore was totally OK with her response and said the staff wanted to help Smith achieve her goals. Two months later, Smith sat down with Moore again and asked, “When are you hiring?”

She had fallen in love with reporting and found it exciting. The kicker for her? Giving voices to people who feel like they don’t have one. 

“It’s because of my experiences with The Universe that I would even be working for a news organization at all,” Smith said. “That wasn’t the dream until it was, and that’s because of The Universe.”

Valuable experiences

One well-known journalist who got his start at The Daily Universe is Atlantic writer McKay Coppins, who’s been dubbed the “Mormon Wikipedia.”

He said his time at The Daily Universe taught him what he knows about basic journalistic ethics and how reporting is done. He applied this to his career and once he started writing about his faith, these skills informed his efforts.

Before working as editor in chief at The Daily Universe, Coppins actually wrote for the paper before his college days as a high school senior living in the Boston area. The Republican National Convention was in New York City in 2004 when President George W. Bush was running for reelection. Coppins attended one night of the speeches and emailed The Daily Universe to see if the editors were interested in a dispatch from the event — they were, and Coppins’ reporting appeared in the paper before even attending BYU.

“My political reporting career traces back to The Daily Universe,” he joked.

Coppins also shared an experience he had as editor of the paper when a student who worked at BYUSA leaked the staff a document showing university expenditures. Some of the money had been spent on go-karting, Jamba Juice and dry cleaning for BYUSA leadership. The Daily Universe staff ran a series of stories and faced some controversy over it, but Coppins recalls it as an instructive experience.

He said it gave him an opportunity to defend he and his co-workers’ reporting. “And frankly, a lot of being in journalism is getting in trouble, you know?”

While this was a small-scale example, Coppins said it gave him helpful experience for later on in his career when he was writing stories the White House didn’t like, for example.

Albuquerque Journal reporter Theresa Davis also said her experience at The Daily Universe has benefited her career today. “Reporting stories was really eye-opening for me,” she said.

Writing for The Daily Universe gave her the opportunity to bear witness to interesting times both in BYU and national history, she said. For example, Davis was web editor during the 2016 presidential election and said it was “pretty memorable” to have everyone in the newsroom on election night.

“I think it just expanded my horizons,” she said.

Brian West is another BYU grad who gained experience at The Daily Universe. West has worked as news director for KSL.com since April and was news director at the Deseret News for years before that. As news director, West coordinates with reporters in deciding what news to cover across Utah and edits stories. 

While working at The Daily Universe as a student in the late 80s, West said he was amazed at how it provided such real life experience. He got an internship at the Deseret News after graduation; the paper’s editors later hired him.

“I was surprised at how seamless the transition was,” West said, recalling how what he was doing at The Daily Universe was the same as what was going on at the Deseret News.

“It provided a very effective training for journalists — and still does, I hope.”

Evolving industry

“When I was at The Daily Universe, it also felt like a period of extreme uncertainty and evolution in the industry,” Coppins said.

Coppins returned from his Church mission right before the financial crash of 2008 and was studying journalism during the recession. There was an open question about whether journalism would be a viable career within 10 years.

“I was able to carve out this career,” Coppins said. “It always feels like a time of major disruption and evolution in journalism and media.”

The reality, Coppins said, is the need for news and journalism never goes away; it’s just always changing.

Smith argued that journalism is more prominent than ever, but just in a different format. Journalists have to adapt with different formats to stay relevant. “I think The Universe has done a pretty remarkable job at adapting with the news.”

One of the ways The Daily Universe has adapted is through the augmented reality aspect of the newspaper introduced when Smith was editor in chief. Readers could scan parts of the newspaper with the Universe Plus app and engage virtually.

“It’s really all about optimizing your stories for the online audience,” Smith said.

Hopes for the future

When West was at BYU, everyone seemed to read the paper. “You could see it all over campus.”

He said it helped bring the campus together, as everyone was on the same page and reading the same things. “It felt that way, anyway.”

While times have changed, West said he hopes The Daily Universe can still provide information about what’s happening on campus and in the community.

Coppins also hopes The Daily Universe continues to be “the publication of record” for BYU. He still follows the paper on social media. “I love it. I feel like it’s my way to be connected to my alma mater.”

Looking forward, Fidel said he hopes the university sees how important journalism is in a Latter-day Saint community and how important it is to have a strong training ground for journalists in the Church as they go out into the world.

This “strong training ground” is also a place where journalists can find their footing at BYU, gain reporting skills and still turn out a product they’re proud of, Davis said.

Experiencing journalism only in a classroom is much different than in a newsroom, Smith said. Without The Daily Universe, students who are interested in studying journalism don’t really have the chance to experience what it can mean for students. This opportunity is “incredibly invaluable,” she said.

Smith said she hopes the paper keeps evolving, as anything that stays the same is losing its purpose.  

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