Collegiate Readership Program: Competition or Complement to Student Media?

The controversial Collegiate Readership Program recently debuted at the University of Arizona, causing concerns among the leadership of The Daily Wildcat, the school’s student newspaper.  The barebones gist: The UA students union is paying for a few thousand copies of USA Today and The Arizona Star to be available free to students across campus.  The Wildcat‘s worry: The increased on-campus competition for student readers might make already-antsy advertisers officially jump ship.

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It is a program that has been implemented at a number of other campuses nationwide, and one that poses an interesting college journalism dilemma.  The Wildcat covers campus news, the Star state news (at heart), and USA Today boasts national-ish appeal.  So are they competition for student readers’ eyeballs and time or complements?

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The guts of the Wildcat squeamishness, similar to that of other student newspaper eds, is two-fold: 1) Newspaper readership is not inevitable or long-lasting on a daily basis.  The casual student readers who in the past picked up the Wildcat because it was the only convenient, free game in town might now simply opt for a Star or USA Today instead.  2) Perception is reality, with advertisers *believing* the added outside news presence will lead #1 to happen, causing them to ask for lower rates or advertise in the Star instead (regardless of whether any readership decline actually occurs).

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Then, there’s the curveball: The Wildcat operates completely independent of the uni, even paying rent for its on-campus media offices.  And yet now the school is in effect ‘funding’ outside media (at least its distribution).  Is this the reality of true student press independence or a slight slap in the face on the part of the school?

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The director of student media at the University of Texas: “If the student newspaper has to exist only on what it can generate on advertising revenue, why should an outside professionally run newspaper with professional marketing and sales people be subsidized?” Director of Student Media at the University of Arizona: “The biggest issue that college newspapers have with the Collegiate Readership Program is that it uses Student Fee Money or university funds, to support the largest newspaper corporation in the United States while none of those funds go to the university paper.”

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What do you think?

Comments
6 Responses to “Collegiate Readership Program: Competition or Complement to Student Media?”
  1. We’ve had the readership program on our campus (Washington University in St. Louis) for a number of years. We had many of the same fears as those you outlined, but haven’t really seen them come to fruition. In most cases, there are only a few hundred copies of the commercial papers around (compared to the thousands of the student newspaper).

    I think it’s a chance for student newspapers to examine their own operations and make sure they are relevant to their readers. Student newspapers can provide content that the national or local daily simply can’t.

    I like to walk through our university center during lunch and see what people are doing. And there are certainly people reading USA Today and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, but there are many more reading our newspaper.

  2. Will Sommer says:

    I agree with Andrew. We got the readership program about a year ago at Georgetown, and while our paper was concerned, those concerns were unfounded.

    People still read our paper, and there are too few copies of the outside papers to threaten us. Or, in USA Today’s case, no one wants a copy.

  3. Dan Reimold says:

    Andrew, Will- A few other eds. have contacted me directly to say the same things! Here’s what I find interesting: The Wildcat piece mentions that the director of student media at U of Texas “said that other college newspapers . . . found that the program hurt both their circulation and revenue.” I’m starting to wonder who that director actually talked to.

  4. Bryan Murley says:

    Other schools have experienced some drop off. I won’t name names here, but there have been some where the readership program has hurt readership. A lot will depend on the size of the school, fwiw.

  5. mark woodhams says:

    At Arizona the issue of competition for advertisers is not central to the Wildcat’s concerns. I don’t know where that came from, but not from me (I’m the director of student media). Obviously if the Daily Star (the local paper being distributed with USA Today) decided to launch some kind of college edition, that might be a problem. But the Star already distributes its free weekly entertainment guide around the campus area, and the free local alt weekly — by far a stronger competitor for ads and readers than the staid local daily — has dozens of stands around campus. The Wildcat’s readership holds fairly steady at about 80% of the campus community, though it’s certainly not growing. If you walked across campus today, you’d find near-empty stands of Wildcats and near-full stands of free USA Todays.

    For us — at least for me — the main problem with the readership program is the solicitation of student fee money. It’s different at every campus, but that’s kind of the main hangup here. It’s dicey, I think, that the program will eventually be approved (it’s only in the trial stage now) because there is a lot of pressure on that fee money to go elsewhere. Yeah, the Wildcat receives nothing in fees (and heretofore has not sought any) and pays more than $150,000 *back to the university* in facilities, utilities and administrative service fees (a kind of tax on our revenue). USA Today should give back something — a scholarship or two to the Wildcat maybe, or a gift to our fundraising campaign. It’s in all our interest to promote readership, and it should definitely be in Gannett’s interest to support college papers.

  6. The real story says:

    If your school is approached by the Gannett/USA Today Collegiate Readership Program or the NY Times, I hope that you will consider this: They will use their newspapers on your campus to financially beat your college newspaper into submission. They can sell ads to your advertisers at a ridiculously low rate for a while to alienate your advertisers. They can sell local advertising with local advertiser inserts. They can even create customized coupon books that are inserted in the local and national papers they provide for your campus readers- Just another clever way to steal your college newspaper advertisers.
    Read what is happening now at The Penn State to their school newspaper- the school that started the college readership program 10 years ago! Other schools seem to be catching on:
    http://media.www.cw.ua.edu/media/storage/paper959/news/2004/02/13/News/Free-Newspaper.Program.Here.For.Semester.Maybe.Longer-2860679.shtml
    The large newspaper conglomerates want to get you hooked on reading their publications. They have the same mindset as the tobacco companies- that is to say they must replace older customers with a new generation that does not read the metro papers if they are to survive as a business. The only way they can get college student readers to read national newspapers is by giving them away (actually they are subsidized by your school administration or student government association).

    USA Today and the New York Times Collegiate Readership Programs have flatly denied in print articles that they want to take away your college newspaper readers. If that is the case, why are they lobbying almost every college and university in the United States, sometimes for years, to get their papers on your campus? Every free paper on your campus takes readers and advertisers away from your college newspaper. One can only read so many newspapers.
    The USA Today and New York Times Collegiate Readership Programs have been cleverly marketed to colleges and universities across the country as a way to enlighten our students and improve the journalism skills of the campus newspaper writers. On Feb. 15, 2008 a joint initiative called Quadrantone was announced by Gannett, The Tribune Newspapers, Hearst Corp and the New York Times. This program creates an unprecedented on line advertising platform that will allow this newly formed oligopoly to offer localized on line advertising on their member online newspaper websites to local advertisers who have relied on the college newspaper to reach students. With Quadrantone, even the on line editorial content can be customized to reach different demographic groups.
    Here is the bottom line- This USA Today and the New York Times readership programs are nothing more than a surreptitious way to curry favor with students and administrators under the guise of providing a valuable educational service to our community. Make no mistake about it. The goal of these readership programs is not to enlighten our students and broaden their perspectives as they would have you believe. Their plan involves bringing USA Today and usually the New York Times on campus along with the local metropolitan newspaper (usually a Gannett publication)- They get your school to cover the cost of the papers- not the real cost- just a fraction of the cost- just enough to count each paper as paid circulation that will pass muster with the ABC (Audit Bureau of Circulation). That way the large newspaper corporations can justify ad rate increases to their national advertisers.
    Once the Readership program gets the local metropolitan and national newspapers on the college campuses, their goal is to steal college newspaper advertisers by offering below market ad rates to local advertisers and below market on line ad rates through the Quadrantone platform. Gannett and the other large newspaper conglomerates share a common goal- encourage the college newspapers to sell out for a fraction of what they are worth.
    This is just the beginning. The alarming fact is that the USA Today and NY Times Readership Program marketers have duped students and their administrators into thinking that their motives are purely altruistic. That should insult the collective intelligence of our future leaders.

    The student newspaper is in danger of being destroyed by a modern day Citizen Kane.