By: Elaine Williams
In the face of a poor economy and dwindling endowments, universities across the nation are finding creative ways to cut back on spending, slashing everything from perks for major donors to planned construction projects. Many campuses are also trimming their budgets by eliminating or cutting back on the free or reduced-cost campus distribution of such major newspapers as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
California Polytechnic State University is just one of the schools that has recently eliminated its free distribution program, which had been costing the school $25,000 per year. “It was difficult to find funding because of the current budget situation,” says Kelly Griggs, president of Associated Students Incorporated, Cal Poly’s student government. “If the school has to decide between cutting an additional section of a class or the paper, it’s an easy choice.”
Nearly 500 schools participate in the USA Today Collegiate Readership Program, which partners with local papers. The similar New York Times program, which Cal Poly had used, provides papers to more than 225 campuses. These distribution programs often cost colleges tens of thousands of dollars.
Often, the student government will work in tandem with the administration to fund the newspaper subscriptions. Cal Poly had previously pooled funding from the university library, president’s office, student funding and various academic departments to support its newspaper program.
Some schools, such as Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., have managed to keep their newspapers even after administrative support faded. The student government decided to renew its campus distribution program this year on a smaller scale, despite losing $20,000 in support from the university. Now the papers are funded entirely by $20,000 from the student activities fund.
“We believe it is very important for college students to know what’s going on in our world today,” says Garrett Love, Washburn’s student government association president. “Offering free newspapers to students is a very effective way to play a part in that education.”
Those schools that do drop their programs, however, often “come back after a year of so as their funding or leadership changes,” says Diane Barrett, vice president/education sales and services at USA Today’s Collegiate Readership Program.
Pennsylvania State University, which founded the first campus readership program in 1997, has chosen to keep distributing newspapers on its 24 campuses even in the face of shrinking budgets. “We’ve found it to be a good education tool, and not just for students in our college of communications,” says university spokeswoman Jill Shockey. “We encourage faculty members to incorporate it into their syllabus so that students are engaged with current events, that they relate to their classes and their majors, and that information from those newspapers enhances the learning environment.”
Shockey added that encouraging a younger generation to “develop a lifelong reading habit” is a bonus effect of on-campus newspaper distribution. In fact, providing newspapers on campuses is often part of an effort by publishers to increase readership among young people, a highly prized demographic.
But is the loss of major newspaper distribution truly a hardship for students who still have access to news on the papers’ Web sites, plus on campus publications and myriad blogs and Twitter feeds? “Anything not provided to students is definitely a loss,” says Griggs. “The Mustang Daily (Cal Poly’s student publication) is a good news source, but it doesn’t cover the issues that the New York Times does.”
The officials behind the readership programs point out that print editions haven’t been completely abandoned by a younger generation, making campus newspaper distribution an essential and wanted service to students. “Many students love the printed newspaper,” says Barrett. “Students today use multiple platforms for various information-gathering activities. Print is one of many places they get news and information.”
Even those students at Penn State who don’t pick up the print edition can now receive the news in a free e-edition of USA Today on their computers or phones, an initiative that the newspaper’s readership program launched on campus on Nov. 9. The e-edition also features interactive features such as puzzles, videos and infographics, and enables students to search and share the newspaper’s database.
For now, though, it does not seem like campus newspaper programs are going to disappear. In fact, Barrett argues that the number of campuses establishing programs may actually be rising thanks to increased college enrollment (which translates into more tuition dollars). However, Griggs remains realistic about the place of readership programs on campus. “It’s an excess,” she says. “It’s a nice service to students, but not a necessity.”