The Arizona Desert Lamp

Apparently, I’ll be “subsidizing” Chipotle soon

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 22 January 2009

There’s a lot to take issue with in this outrageously slanted article, but it does provide a useful quote:

“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?” Kathy Lawrence, director of student media at University of Texas said. “The universities don’t give funding to private companies, so why should they do it with newspapers?”

I have to profess wonder, then, looking through the breakdown of spending for the Student Affairs Fee here at Arizona. For example, $40,000 of your hard-earned cash went towards upgrading 45 computers in the Student Union. Unless we have a computer manufacturing plant on university property, that money went to some evil, computer-manufacturing corporation. Or what about the combined $80,000 that were spent to expand seating at the Union? Somehow, I suspect that these chairs weren’t made by the Engineering department. There’s also the $25,000 spent on plasma televisions in the TV Lounge, another $25,000 for an awning at the Park Student Union, and $8,500 for “video gaming” in the CSIL. This is just the SAF, too, which was designed specifically to provide for students — there are indubitably millions spent by other University entities that go directly to corporations. Perhaps they do things differently at Texas; but I suspect that Mrs. Lawrence overstates her case.

There are two approaches to dealing with this conundrum. One is to be absolutist, and to hold that all of these “subsidies” are bad, and that the Student Affairs Fee should be abolished and return to students to spend as they see fit. In theory, I stand with the beer vendors of Tucson in supporting this. Given dictatorial powers over the UA (a frightening thought), I would certainly abolish the fees  — along with ASUA, social justice programs, and most everything else.

Yet this is the pony-filled world of theory. In actuality, the fee will not be eliminated anytime soon, and in fact will double next academic year. Forced to operate within the fee, the best we can hope for is making sure that these fees are spent in ways that benefit as many students as possible, in a manner that is consistent with the university’s academic mission (i.e. not spending the entire SAF budget on kegs, even if that might sound enticing). Arguing over how to spend the fee, we must mold it to best fit within these parameters.

This brings us back, in an off-hand, to the argument that I am, with all due respect, exhausted with: the idea that this is a “corporate subsidy.” The key word is subsidy, a word that I use very specifically. My specific connotation of the word is that a subsidy is a fund provided outside of the basic cost of the good or service itself. For example, if we were to give USA Today $10,000 simply for distributing the papers, on top of the costs of the papers themselves, then that would be a subsidy. If you pay $50,000 for  X megawatts of solar energy, that’s a transaction. If the EPA gives Tucson Electric $50,000 for simply producing solar energy, on top of the cost of the energy itself, that’s a subsidy.

Now, if the Obama Administration opts to spend extra money to power the White House on biomass, is that a subsidy? I argue that it is not — it is a consumer choice, made for its intrinsic value. It might be wasteful spending, and spending directives of this kind are questionable — but it is not a subsidy.

What you have in the case of the Readership Program is not a “subsidy,” but a transaction. We are paying $X — at a very discounted rate — for Y newspapers. We are not paying USA Today for the privilege of distributing their papers — we are paying for the papers themselves. Using “subsidy” to describe this situation obscures rather than explains, which of course is a basic tenet of Orwell’s political language.

There is no such thing as a free lunch, or a free newspaper.

UPDATE: Mark Woodhams, Director of Arizona Student Media, responds in the comments. As they say, read the whole thing.


4 Responses

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  1. mark woodhams said, on 23 January 2009 at 12:28 pm

    So the Daily Wildcat isn’t free? Best as I can tell, there is no cost to the UA or students, not even a hidden cost, to produce and distribute about 2.5 million Wildcats a year. Litter? Recycling? Yes, no doubt there are clean up costs but the Wildcat pays the UA about $90,000 in administrative service charges (for undefined services). Surely some of that can cover newsstand clean up. Salaries, facilities, utilities? Nope. The Wildcat pays for its office space, pays all its own salaries (including non-student staff), pays for maintenance, etc. At many schools, the college daily is provided “fees” in the form of a bulk subscription. At Michigan State the paper gets $400,000 a year in fee money (ooops, call that a “subscription”) — and it’s a private 501c3 newspaper corporation to boot. Ditto at Iowa, at Texas and other large public universities. The Daily Wildcat is about as pure a financially independent student newspaper as exists in this country. Not a bad thing. But let’s face it — providing student fees to USA Today is no different than the subsidy for the Michigan State paper and other papers that consider such fees “subscriptions.” (Note: These papers also generate healthy ad revenues, often even more than the Wildcat’s $1.5 million or so).

    The readership program is inherently not a bad thing and its intent to keep students informed is a good one. Despite the obvious lack of transparency from Gannett in explaining how the program helps enable this powerful company to sidetep circulation auditing regulations, the goal of increasing newspaper readership is one we all should share, including the Wildcat. But they come to campuses and woo student governments and sugar coat the program. Before you know it, it’s in place without any measured look at impact on existing student media (especially newspapers) and what kind of arrangements and compromises can be make to make it fair. At most schools — and the readership program is in place across the country — this may not be as big an issue as it is here. Most college papers are small, run as a student activity or part of the curriculum, and receive subsidies. But the Wildcat is every bit a business, with obligations and commitments to the university (almost $200,000 paid to the UA last year!), to its readers and to the students and employees who make it happen every day. Imagine, say, a program whereby student fees were paid to a textbook seller to come on campus and compete with the UA Bookstore. Highly unlikely the UA would support fees going out for that purpose and jeopardize the bookstore operation. Kinda the same thing.

  2. […] Posted in Campus, Technology by Evan Lisull on January 23rd, 2009 In an earlier post, I alluded to my thoughts on getting rid of “most everything” that fees and other such […]

  3. […] Free exchange this is not. This payment is a subsidy, and it’s a particularly atrocious bit of pork–with distributed costs paid by every student forced to cough up $20 (soon to be $40) a semester, and concentrated benefits borne only by the Student Union itself and lovers of Café Sonora’s bean chimichangas who happen to be free for a quick bite between 10:30 and 1:30 on Wednesdays. It’s a little boggling, since the Student Union can’t cough up votes for student politicians in exchange for the kickback–but I’m sure the Grilled Chicken Caesar Wraps and circuses will be fondly remembered by a few come campaign time, while most of the campus (the same 95-odd percent who ignore student elections every year?) remain blissfully unaware that they’re buying another guy’s burger once a week. […]

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

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