The Arizona Desert Lamp

Subsidize my sudoku!

Posted in Campus, Media, Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 7 January 2009

Yep, that's a "Black Power" sticker.Evan’s been gungho about USA Today‘s Collegiate Readership Program since ASUA Sen. Emily Fritze proposed it to the Wildcat editorial board last year. Back then, I thought it was a good idea, too. A free copy of the Times crossword goes a long way in a 3pm lecture, and it was a low cost, pragmatic idea that stood out among other candidates’ alternately hackneyed and outrageous platforms. Plus, a little more competition in the campus media market sounded like a good thing. But the more I think about this program, the harder it is to see it as anything but  corporate welfare.

First off, we all ought to admit that the program isn’t about “helping students gain a broader sense of current affairs, establishing reading habits, and encouraging extracurricular learning,” at least as far as USA Today is concerned. It’s about increasing paid circulation and selling ads. There’s nothing wrong with that, but us cold-hearted capitalists shouldn’t have any illusions that Gannett is motivated by a cause greater than self-interest. Of course, the other side of the exchange might have some interest in seeing students read more newspapers, but I tend to think student Senators are primarily interested in re-election. No surprises here.

I might be able to support this program if there was no student fee attached. But as long as it’s paid for by a five-dollar student fee, some UA students will be paying for newspapers they don’t want. That’s a subsidy…and subsidies are baad, mmkay? 37,000 students at five dollars a pop is the equivalent of 2,569 one-semester subscriptions to USA Today. I don’t doubt that more than seven percent of campus would grab a daily paper, if only for an extra sudoku, but that’s a hefty subsidy, especially when ad revenue could more than cover the cost of the papers.

In his earlier post, Evan said he’d be “perfectly willing to exchange increased advertising dollars for a free paper with my coffee before class.” I’m willing to do that, too. In fact, that’s exactly what I do when I sit down with a cup of coffee and read The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times online. They get a little ad revenue, I get to stare at Tom Friedman’s power ‘stache, and nobody shakes me down for five dollars.

But I don’t want to be forced to pay for some other guy’s paper. Nor do I want to pay for some other guy’s cup of coffee or public radio station or post office or Department of Energy. A daily newspaper is no different—except for the fact that I might be willing to pay five dollars a semester to banish USA Today from campus. The last thing Wildcats need is more insipid news coverage written with easy words for sixth-graders.

At the very least, the fee attached to this program should be refundable, like the one dollar fees for the Arizona Students Association and KAMP student radio. Or, if implemented correctly with a portion of the Student Affairs fee, as Evan suggested, the program could be budget neutral. But either way, it would still be a sneaky subsidy for a newspaper that doesn’t need the help.

As it is now, USA Today has every right to sell newspapers on the UA campus (they do: there’s a kiosk in the Student Union), or to give copies away for free. But they don’t, because when the Audit Bureau of Circulations comes calling, free papers don’t count in circulation statistics. This is a common defense of the Program from USA Today itself—that the auditing rules somehow prohibit them from giving papers gratis. But that’s just not true. Beyond the the need to get permission from each university, there’s nothing to stop Gannett from surrounding the campus with kiosks or dropping copies from a dirigible. Plus, plenty of papers manage to get by gratis around UA.

Finally, isn’t a little condescending to think that the reason college students aren’t reading the news is because they can’t find newspapers? There’s no pressing need for access to more information on a campus that already has The Google, the library, and a whole bunch of unsubsidized pay-a-dollar-get-a-newspaper kiosks.

I’m cool with more media on campus. But I can’t get behind corporate welfare, and it’s hard to pass of this program as anything else.

(photo via flickr user Divine Harvester)


6 Responses

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  1. Connor Mendenhall said, on 7 January 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Zounds—I’ve been found out! That figure is from the Nebraska program you mentioned in your first post. UA is a bit smaller, but I doubt that the per-student cost is actually based on distribution costs or student interest—it’s just got to be high enough to make each copy count as a paid subscription for ad purposes.

  2. Evan Lisull said, on 7 January 2009 at 4:00 pm

    Yeah, I deleted the comment because I realized that I, in fact, am the source of the mysterious $5-paper-long; my bad.

    According to the site, “The total cost of the program is determined by the number of newspapers consumed each day, and each newspaper will have a discounted education rate. All display, delivery, recycling, and related services are provided as part of the The Collegiate Readership Program.”

  3. Emily said, on 8 January 2009 at 12:57 am

    You seem to be making the argument that some students should not have to pay for the services that only certain students will use. Fair enough, but lets take a look at the fee itself. The fee appropriates 40 dollars per semester to a wide variety of activities regarding student life. Many of these services only affect certain demographics or specific students on campus. For example, the Tuesday two dollar meal is given out as a result of the student fee. However, many students are unaware or do not choose to partake in this program. My point is this; everything appropriated from a student affairs fee will only affect certain students on campus. The individual services are most important to the individual students that are affected by them. In my opinion, it would be nice to see tangible examples of the fee on campus. However, it is true that many students are apathetic to this program or to any service or program offered to them as a result of the fees they are paying for. The Student Affairs Fee is still in the process of setting up the appropriations process, but a refundable fee could be discussed. The only problem I see with a refundable fee is that, unlike the Rec Center, it is impossible to track if a student actually is using the services provided from the fee and not paying for it.

    I can see your concern for “corporate welfare.” I am not naive enough to think that in a business transaction there is no self interest from either party. However, the program in itself is not only supporting Gannet or specifically USA Today. In fact, the associates that I have worked with are very open to getting other newspapers on campus. So, in essence, this is “corporate welfare” for many different media outlets. Then again, isn’t the service offered a great investment from the student perspective as well? A capped and managed budget of three dollars a year (the price being considered) is roughly the cost of three newspapers. I assume that you can do the math to see that the investment made for a student is worthwhile compared to any discount offered to them in a special student package. Currently I pay roughly 10 dollars a month for the NY Times with a student deal.

    Yes, the internet is free and easy. You forget that a lot of students do not bring laptops to school, making the use of online media resources inaccessible. On a campus, print is most efficient and accessible especially in one of those “3 pm lectures.” The program is not just a corporate scam to make money and increase readership. It is a long term investment in print, culturing young people to read newspapers in an effort to prolong the newspaper industry.

    So, I will continue to argue with its cynics, but I stand by the Readership Program. I do see it as a service that benefits students despite the corporate undertones. The pilot program will start at the end of January! After you have tested it out, I am curious to reactions. Any questions are still welcome.

  4. […] more than aware of the Collegiate Readership Program, whether it be as student-media-destroying corporate welfare or campus-enlightening manna from the media skies. The pilot program begins tomorrow morning, and […]

  5. […] read an argument for the proposed Readership Program, go here. For an argument against it, read here. I’ve soured enough since originally writing my piece that I’d be satisfied with either […]

  6. […] we’ve been here before. The proposal contains the numbers on the pilot program, which should be taken with a […]

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