“Should Universities and Newspapers Get Married?”

Forget micropayments and reader donations and non-profit foundations for a moment.  Instead, the question debated by three experts in a recent BU Today feature: To ensure newspapers’ survival, should universities step in, pay up, and take control?

Obviously, it is a pro-con situation so complex that it would take a dissertation, not just a brief Internet debate, to truly tackle.  But the three-way chat does raise some interesting points.  On the plus side:

1) Cultural argument: “Universities at some levels see themselves as stewards of culture. They operate museums, they run orchestras, they embrace libraries. So if we think the newspaper is making a cultural contribution that’s important to society, then perhaps universities have some stake in this.”

2) University Resources Angle: “[T]he other appealing part of university ownership, or sponsorship, is that the university has a lot of resources that could be brought to bear on the problem itself. We have a management school, for example, here at BU. We have a journalism program, we have a communications program, and perhaps there are opportunities to do research and innovation in a university setting that might not happen in some other setting.”

Two negatives cited:

1) University counterargument: “It is really difficult to get things done in an academic environment where everyone has their own daily routine, and trying to pull this off in a university setting would be incredibly challenging unless you had a separate management to do it. We all agree it’s a tough thing to do, but academia is not known for moving things quickly.”

2) Economic reality: “After having run a couple of newspapers, they’re very, very difficult and complex organizations, and I don’t know that there are enough rich people out there to sustain a long-term endowment solution. I think you really need to find an economic model that allows the newspaper industry to stand on its own two feet.”

My two cents: The cultural angle is blah.  You should not save newspapers only so they can exist like ancient relics on display in a museum hall.  They should be independently sustainable entities contributing to society, not historical curiosities.  There needs to be a natural evolution to news reporting and presentation.  Obviously, if the stars align like newspaper naysayers predict, the shifts in economy, technology, and public information intake will kill newspapers.  In its place will be something different, a Webified hybrid that will build on the best of the old media and infuse it with the most innovative aspects of the new media.  And, in the meantime, if universities want to do more to help the present and future of journalism, start by focusing on ways to improve, expand, and innovate their j-programs and student media outlets!

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  2. […] by j-students at Suffolk, Swarthmore, andUMASS, online outlets boasting 24-hour coverage, and chatter about schools possibly purchasing newspapers), 50 pantheons producing politics and quality journalism are being far too often forgotten.  Hint, […]