An inside look at reinventing The Wheel

By Kimber Williams | Emory Report | Nov. 17, 2015

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This semester, Emory's student-run newspaper transformed from a twice-weekly print publication to a "digital first" format supported by a redesigned print edition. Get to know the student editor leading the charge to reinvent The Wheel.

When Emory senior Dustin Slade was chosen as editor-in-chief of The Emory Wheel for this academic year, he knew there were some changes he wanted to make.

So Slade helped orchestrate what may arguably be the biggest transformation ever seen at one time in the history of the 96-year-old student-run newspaper.

In the end, Slade and his staff essentially reinvented The Wheel.

Instead of the traditional, twice-weekly publication, readers now pick up a flashy, redesigned once-weekly broadsheet. In addition, a revamped web presence highlights breaking news as it happens, as well as providing a platform for the newspaper's first forays into video storytelling.

Fueling the change was an online fundraising campaign launched through Emory's new Momentum crowdfunding website, a platform created this past summer by the Office of Annual Giving to provide opportunities to support Emory-based projects and activities tied to employees and students.

The online appeal to help usher The Wheel more fully into the digital age raised $11,857 in contributions from student, parent and alumni donors — nearly 80 percent of the newspaper's goal of $15,000.

Attracting a wide swath of student talent, The Wheel is produced each week with the help of 25 editorial board members, a dozen business team members, and more than 100 writers, who reflect a wide range of majors.

Emory Report caught up with Slade recently to discuss his vision for The Wheel, which remains the university's only independent, student-run newspaper:

Tell us about your background. What drew you to work for The Wheel?

I'm a BBA (bachelor of business administration) student from Miami now in my senior year. I gravitated toward The Wheel at the beginning of my freshman year because I had a passion for writing. So I joined the staff and started out doing a lot of reporting as a news writer, eventually working my way up the ladder. It wasn't necessarily a career goal for me as much as it was an interest. The journalism department closed my freshman year, but it (The Wheel) was something I thought was valuable; a place where you felt you were making an impact and doing something beneficial for the campus.

What interested you in taking the reins as editor-in-chief?

There were changes I wanted to make that I thought would be beneficial to the newspaper in in the long term. We knew the paper needed to become "digital first." We had traditionally been "print first" meaning the focus was on the print deadline. We would print the paper and then publish our content online. That's not how media should work today. As someone who truly cares about the paper, I wanted to help revitalize The Wheel, and being elected editor-in-chief allowed me to get that project started. 

What fueled your vision for change?

I think it was time. Coming in with a business background, I wanted to sort through the finances. Some years we were profitable, some years we weren't. The Wheel is self-funded, and I wanted to ensure that we were set up for the long-term to succeed. But I think the revelation really came as I was looking through copies of The Wheel from the late 1940s. Next to me was an issue from 2014, which looked exactly the same.

We've been doing this forever and it worked for a long time, but it was time to see if we could make a change. We were after something more visually appealing that faculty and students were interested in reading. The idea was to produce daily content on our website, with a summary of that news in our print edition. These days, most of our readership is online — that's how most students get their news. We wanted to focus on being timely, producing better content and making sure students had access to it.

What were your biggest challenges in choreographing the changes?

I want to say the whole thing. (laughs) This summer was the most I have ever worked on The Wheel. It was a long transition and we put a lot of planning into it. We had to totally redesign the paper and website — I need to give a shout out to (executive digital editor) Stephen Fowler for leading that. We also had long meetings with our staff about what they wanted to see, what we were capable of doing. And a lot of work went into rebranding social media, redesigning our internal structures, thinking about the editing process, and generally figuring out how we work. We knew going into this we would be tweaking things for the entire semester. To this day we're still making changes.

What kind of response have you received from your readers?

People think we're putting together much more vivid stories, telling better stories. A lot of feedback has been that people think we're producing higher-quality content. Printing once a week has given us the flexibility to try new things, and our readers are telling us they appreciate that. And the staff is excited that they have more opportunities to be creative, taking the great stories we've always had and painting a better picture.

What are your next goals for The Wheel?

We'd always like to see more active communication between our readership and the paper. We'll continue to ask the community to engage with us, give us tips and ideas. Read something you don't agree with? Don't just be mad. Write an opinion piece and engage in a conversation so we can all learn and move forward. In fact, the more engagement, the better.

Where do you see this experience leading you?

After graduation, I'll be doing consulting for Ernst and Young in New York. Long-term, I'd love to be involved in the business side of media. Journalism isn't going away, but it is going to change. I like the idea of taking a business or organization and figuring out how it can work more efficiently.