By: Mark Fitzgerald
Gerry Hamilton, the general manager of the Daily Collegian at Pennsylvania State University, has some advice for student papers at schools that are thinking of adopting the newspaper readership programs offered by USA Today, The New York Times, and other dailies: Be afraid — be very afraid.
“I tell [other student papers] if they’re being told the readership program has not had a negative effect on us, they are being misinformed, or worse — because it has in fact had a negative effect on us,” says Hamilton. Lately, he adds, that negative effect has begun to accelerate.
The Daily Collegian’s net average circulation is down 7% compared to last year — and 11.5% from the spring of 1999. “Right now, this [spring] semester, our circulation is as low as I’ve ever seen it,” Hamilton says. Advertising is increasingly threatened, he adds, now that the local Knight Ridder daily, the Centre Daily Times, is using the campus program to distribute its youth-oriented publication Blue as a wraparound to the main paper.
Because of alarms raised by the Daily Collegian and other student papers, resistance to the newspaper readership program is stiffening on some colleges. The professional association for newspaper advisers, College Media Advisers (CMA), doesn’t have an official policy against the programs, but almost all members see them as a big problem, says its president, Kathy Lawrence. She is director of student media at the University of Texas, where several attempts to start a newspaper readership program have been rebuffed.
“I think [readership programs] have gotten lots of resistance from the start — and they should be resisted,” Lawrence says. CMA is not trying to keep a monopoly on the campus, and it recognizes the need to increase newspaper reading among young people, she says.
“But the problem we have is these outside, for-profit, commercial newspapers coming on campus and asking, in essence, for administrators to impose a blanket tax on college students for newspapers,” Lawrence says. “I mean, they don’t charge a blanket tax to subsidize other commercial products, for Dial soap or something. You provide your own.”
Like Hamilton, Lawrence cites the Daily Collegian as a warning for other papers.
Penn State is the birthplace and still the leading model for similar newspaper readership programs that have spread to hundreds of campuses. Back in 1997, university President Graham Spanier was worried about the declining newspaper reading habit among college kids. He had the idea of setting aside part of the activity fee to make stacks of newspapers freely available to students. Eight years later, students need only insert their student ID card into newspaper racks on Penn State’s University Park or regional campuses to get a free copy of USA Today, The New York Times, the campus paper, or one of 20 local dailies, from The Morning Call of Allentown to the York Daily Record.
For newspapers, the programs provide a nice bump to circulation averages, and, probably more important, get copies in front of a young audience that dailies have been losing for decades.
Penn State officials say the program has been an unqualified success at boosting readership. According to its surveys, the level of regular newspaper reading among Penn State students has gone from 15% just before the program was launched as a pilot in 1997 to 83% by February 2004.
While local papers around the country have initiated campus readership programs, the most aggressive players by far are the two biggest general-interest national dailies, USA Today and The New York Times.
USA Today started its Collegiate Readership Program on just two campuses in 1999. Spokesman Steve Anderson says for competitive reasons the paper won’t be specific about number of schools using the program now, but he characterizes it as “several hundred.”
The New York Times Knowledge Network includes programs like Penn State’s, in which papers are free for the taking, and arrangements with particular classes such as political science that are more like a traditional Newspaper In Education (NIE) programs. The Knowledge Network is on more than 1,000 colleges for a total circulation of about 100,000 copies, says Michael Patten, managing director of segment marketing for the Times.
Both papers say they’ve been welcomed by students. “You just have to look at the fact that 75% [of campuses] convert to a permanent program within a year of the pilot program — and when a program doesn’t convert, the reason almost every time is just a lack of funds, it’s not about [resistance from] the student paper,” says USA Today’s Anderson. The Times notes that at some campuses, such as the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, its program has been approved by a school-wide vote of students, and at others, such as Stanford, it’s approved by the student government body.
“The goal is to build the next generation of newspaper readers, and that includes the campus paper,” the Times’ Patten says. “At Yale, the primary advocates for the newspaper program were from the Yale Daily [News].”
Getting student government on board is not always enough to persuade a school to adopt a newspaper readership program. At Indiana University — where the well-regarded school of journalism is housed in Ernie Pyle Hall — the IU Student Association last year proposed a separate $2 fee to fund the program. It didn’t pass, primarily because of concerns that it would both hurt the Indiana Daily Student and create a litter problem.
At Purdue University, another Indiana school, the student government proposed a student activity fee, with 10%, or about $152,000, earmarked to pay for a readership program with USA Today and the Chicago Tribune, according to an article in the Purdue student paper The Exponent by senior writer Sarah Krisel. Under the plan, students would vote on the fee, but opponents of the readership program, including The Exponent, want a separate vote on the newspaper fee — which they predict would be rejected. No vote had been scheduled as the school year was ending.
CMA President Lawrence argues that the on-campus competition from professional papers will ultimately hurt the newspaper industry by undermining the publications that nurture future journalists and businesspeople. But she doesn’t expect this town-gown fight to end.
“As people get more worried about reaching young readers, I think we’re going to see more and more of these competitive situations,” Lawrence says. “If I were sitting in the position of these newspapers, I would do exactly what they are trying to do.”