Best College Newspaper Stories of the Year: ‘How High is the Phone Bill?’ (Arizona Daily Wildcat)

In a recent email exchange, Bill Zapcic, universal desk editor at The Asbury Park Press, told me that quality story ideas can often spring from nothing more than a reporter stumbling across something out of the ordinary or “extraordinarily ordinary” and thinking, “Wow.  I wonder what that’s all about?”

This “wow” factor is at the heart of one of my favorite student press pieces published in fall 2010: an Arizona Daily Widlcat report on the emergency phones that shine under blue lights across the University of Arizona’s campus.  All schools have them of course, in some form.  They are often marked, well-lit, and situated in high-traffic and out-of-the-way areas.

Last November at UA, Daily Wildcat staff writer Jazmine Woodberry wondered about them.  How much do they cost the school?  How often are they used?  How are the calls made on them handled?  And what are the most common situations prompting people to push the buttons?

The answers are somewhat surprising.  These are expensive suckers.  They are hardly ever used to report actual trouble.  And the calls placed on them are not recorded by campus police.

As Woodberry writes: “With nearly half a million dollars spent on close to 200 blue light emergency phones and call buttons and no direct record of usage for each $7,800 phone, their function and purpose are more speculative than conclusive. . . . ‘We get a call from the blue phones just about every day,’ said UAPD Public Information Officer Sgt. Juan Alvarez.  Few of those calls though, Alvarez noted, were emergencies, as people will ask for directions, escorts or push them as a late-night joke.”

Ultimately, this blue light special report would not have been possible without Woodberry’s newsy instincts and her sense of wonder at something we all walk by daily without giving a second thought.  Well done. 

Separate but equal kudos to Northern Star staffer Meaghen Harms at Northern Illinois University for her short report on how the money made from campus vending machines is distributed.

3 Responses to “Best College Newspaper Stories of the Year: ‘How High is the Phone Bill?’ (Arizona Daily Wildcat)”
  1. John McCammon says:

    We have these phones you talk about at my school (UT Austin). Ours are the triangle shaped blue light emergency phones which are nice because they are also brightly colored. I’m writing this because last week I actually used one when a guy tried to force me to go to the ATM and get him money. Whey I ran over and pressed the button he ran off like Forrest Gump!. One thing that I think made the difference is that ours are installed with security cameras so potential thieves don’t won’t to have their face seen near the things. That is quite expensive though for the school!

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