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The Decline of College Newspapers (theatlantic.com)
68 points by pseudolus 52 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 25 comments

Another college medium under some financial/PR pressures is student-operated college radio stations. About 10 years back, multiple stations on the air since radio began were shut down, sold to NPR affiliates or religious interests, or automated. However intentional, student voices (if not choices) have been subdued or eliminated.

Some of the survivors went online-only; some remained on the air as well but with a more ... managed sound. One site keeping on eye on this: https://www.radiosurvivor.com/learn-more/about-college-radio...

I was editor of my daily college newspaper, which had $1m annual budget in 2006 funded entirely by student-sold advertising to local businesses. The paper today is a shell of its former self, basically a weekly pamphlet. Its demise happened on a delay vs professional newspapers due to a captive audience in classrooms, but I think ubiquitous smartphones finally did it in in the early 2010s.

Shrug - I've seen the other side of this.

The key point to remember is that college newspapers are generally not independent. It even mentions it in the article. Campus newspapers are funded by the college. It's also college staff who serve as the mentors/oversight, the college provides the space, offices, printing facilities, and equipment. The newspaper may use the college name, motto, crest, or other identifying information. Students may even earn course credit, so there is overhead with academic reports, metrics, and associated staff.

When campus newspapers are pressured by the college, it's not a first amendment issue. Just like HN has the legal right to moderate it's forum, so does the administration have the right to moderate a campus newspaper.

None of this matters if they are reporting on what's for for lunch, but what about when the paper starts to report on more sensitive issues? Topics like sexual assault, criminal activity, HR actions, etc. all carry significant liability and risk. Are they newsworthy, maybe, but even large institutional papers like the Washington Post or the New York Times makes mistakes on what or how something is reported. And, when one of those big institutional papers does get something wrong, they can be sued. Bad/irresponsible reporting has serious consequences both for the institution and the individuals involved.

Colleges treat campus papers as a learning opportunity. That said, If you screw up a coding assignment, it's a learning moment that doesn't really have any external impact. Journalism by definition has an external impact, and of course a college is going to be more risk adverse.

Im all for a robust and well executed campus newspaper, but if they want to be independent, they should be run as independent institutions with their own funding and resources.

I know it rubbed the student the wrong way, but ... welcome to the real world. No one is stopping the reporting of news. Anyone can fire up a blog, website or a podcast. Surprise, people don't like paying for things that make them look bad, or are potentially risky endeavors with little upside.

It's a bit more murky than that.

HN is a commercial web site.

Colleges are funded by taxpayer dollars, charitable donations, and student tuition. Colleges claim to grant academic freedom, part of which is free speech.

Would you be comfortable paying taxes for an NSF who than funds universities who use that money to fabricate research and cover it up? Lying is not a crime, and as you pointed out, there are many forms of hiding information which aren't illegal.

What if the university is directly run by the state, as many are?

Not a lawyer, but my understanding after lots of reviews with people who are lawyers, is the law pretty clear here.

First, there is no such thing as academic freedom in the US Constitution.

As for the NSF example, lying IS a crime depending on the circumstances. So is fraud. In the case of an NSF Grant, it can be a federal crime.

One of my key frustrations when talking about this is the complete lack of understanding of free speech issues in the US by people who claim to be the defenders of free speech (not you the poster, but certainly folks in the article).

Free speech as a legal concept doesn't apply. Even if you wanted to tie it back to State Constitutions (because some schools are State schools), in this case it is the State institution that is limiting its own speech. The paper belongs to the school, not a private entity. The government is allowed to moderate it's own speech.

That's the point about needing an independent and free press. State run news is the opposite of free speech.

I understand the bounds of laws as written, but I think this is confusing several different issues:

* "Free speech" is a broad human right e.g. written into the UN Declaration of Human Rights

* "The First Amendment" is a short piece of text written a couple hundred years ago

* That text places a minimum bar on what the government may and may not do based on two hundred years of interpretation, some of which may be correct and some not. We can refer to this as "prevailing legal interpretation of the first amendment"

* Finally, even private universities receive a tax exemption as 501(c)3 not-for-profit, and federal subsidizes through research funding and tuition subsidies. Citizens donate to universities in the belief that there are sufficient checks-and-balances for concepts like academic freedom to make them forces for good. This gives the government broad rights and responsibilities to regulate them. We can define what the government ought to do as "good public policy."

For news.ycombinator.com, the government, with relatively narrow exceptions, has neither the right nor the responsibility to restrict the site operator. If Paul Graham wants to limit content to nerds discussions, albeit filtering out anything over-critical of Google, that's his right under the 1st amendment.

On the other hand, the government can and should have comprehensive checks-and-balances around universities. There is a growing number of scandals, representing a growing level of corruption (yes, I understand that I did not justify this statement -- it'd be going down a long rabbit hole). As good public policy, the government has a responsibility to manage that. If a universities wants to exist where millions of dollars of alumni donations are funneled into administrator pockets, research is fabricated, and administrators go to barely-legal Epstinesque parties, that's okay too -- just not with 501(c)3 status, Pell Grants, and NSF funding.

By the way, the government often does NOT have rights to limit its own speech in the same way a private corporation does. Government employees are generally NOT under NDA, generally cannot be punished for e.g. writing newspaper articles or whistle-blowing, and I can get many types of internal discussions under FOIA. There are complex legal boundaries here, and I'm not trying to convey any sort of absolute rights or protections, but those contours are quite different than HN as well.


>Im all for a robust and well executed campus newspaper, but if they want to be independent, they should be run as independent institutions with their own funding and resources.

Some schools are better than others, at different times, staying hands off but you're absolutely right that running as independent institutions is preferable.

Unfortunately, this is probably impractical for the typical college daily/whatever frequency which has grown up with an expectation of student activity offices/funding/promotion/etc.

Some independent campus newspapers exist but they're hard to maintain over long periods of time and probably depend on unique circumstances. It is possible but it's the exception. (Source: I've been on the board of one.)

> so does the administration have the right to moderate a campus newspaper.

Nobody disputes that. At the end of the day, the university has the right to do as it wishes with its college newspaper. It can discipline or threaten student reporters, it can close the paper, it can do as it likes.

In my mind, the issue is: should universities exercise those legal rights? Would it be right, according to the standards they claim to uphold?

Liebson was reporting on a faculty senate meeting. Since I've served on my own university's faculty senate, I can tell you what they're like: they're boring, there are lots of people there (who usually aren't paying close attention), the doors will be unlocked and no one is paying attention to who is going in or out. In other words, what Liebson learned was more or less public information.

Now, to Stony Brook's credit, it doesn't seem like they went nuclear. Someone in charge of PR tried to silence her, but failed, and apparently didn't follow up in any serious way. Indeed, Liebson reported not only on the senate meeting, but also on her own experience with Stony Brook's PR:


They could have coerced her silence, and didn't. (It may be that Media Relations tried, and didn't get the backing of others in the university.) So hats off to them -- at least in part.

I apologize for being so negative. But, at the end of the day, I confess to having very little sympathy for universities fretting so much about "liability and risk". A lawsuit is very unlikely, and if one does occur, then Stony Brook has a nine figure endowment in the bank. (And big university lawsuits generally involve grossly unethical and/or wantonly stupid behavior on the part of somebody powerful. The recent Oberlin lawsuits, as well as the Sandusky and Nassar cases, seem to be representative examples.)

Stony Brook runs a journalism school. They should have the courage to allow their students to practice journalism.

I got curious and googled Rebecca Liebson's name. Seems like she's off to an extremely promising start in her journalism career.

It seems like an interesting variant of the Streisand effect is at work here: nowadays, if you piss off powerful administrators simply by reporting facts, this can earn you nationwide attention. Which gives would-be journalists have a powerful incentive to do exactly that.

I think this is missing the big picture. For every Liebson, there are thousands who are threatened and intimidated. Colleges control your grades, your housing, your graduation, and in most cases, most of your digital information (most students naively trust college information systems). The Streisand effect works once, and barely that. Front page news fades after a few weeks.

Universities are funded by a mixture of taxpayer dollars, tuition, and charitable donations. Journalism acts as a check-and-balance against crime, corruption, embezzlement, sexual harassment, discrimination, data fabrication, and a slew of other issues.

When transparency disappears, all of those increase.

> I think this is missing the big picture.

I'm not disputing the threat and intimidation factor, I'm just saying there is also a countervailing force. In particular, any "media relations officer" who tries to pull this kind of shit is also taking a big risk.

I have nothing to add but a nostalgic, elegaic sigh.

I got my first real job in design at Illini Media, the then-independent and now it’s-complicated publisher at the University of Illinois. Working on a deadline, communicating with client, solving bonkers print issues, in the end I think it taught me a lot more than school itself did. (You know what I’m not nostalgic for? Newsprint dot gain. Like printing on toilet paper.)

The decline also comes from the shrinking of ad revenue, just as with all newspapers.

In my experience managing a college newspaper, ad revenue was a big plus when it was coming in, but the baseline budget was funded by the university, even as an "independent" paper. This is the case at many college papers.

No, it really doesn't. Ad revenue is not typically a significant part of the budget of college newspapers.

My knowledge of the general case is pretty old. But in my experience it depends. For most campus newspapers, if it's not advertising (or subscriptions?--is that a thing any longer?) then that means they're supported by the university which creates its own issues. Some are supported through donations but I'm pretty sure that's not the norm.

At The Daily Cougar at the University of Houston, ad revenue was a significant part of the budget. (Don’t know about now, I was an editor there 20 years ago.)

My impression is that many college newspapers lost a lot of ad revenue when it became common for universities to ban them from advertising bars and alcohol.

Would have thought recruiters/employers could have made for a lot of revenue.

> ban them from advertising bars and alcohol.

Why would they be banned from advertising bars? They're just local businesses.

Because the "freedom-loving" laws in America require that college students aged 18, 19 and 20 are legally prohibited from drinking.

One could look at Canadian ones to see if they fared any better, especially those diametrically opposite Albertans and Quebeckers that have an 18 drinking age.

How hard/expensive would it be to print 10k copies per week of a simple broadside?

I am wondering how hard it would be to disentangle at least the distribution part of the student press from administrative concerns.

I just checked Staples. 14 cents a page for black and white. There are discounts for bulk. So about 140 bucks a month needed. Not too bad.

That's the beauty of technology. 15 years ago doing this without the schools help would have been difficult. Between the internet, smartphones, and modern software tools building an actual free press is within reach of lots of people.

In hindsight, it would be nice to see academic institutions help set up these kinds of projects rather then fund their own. Teach the tooling and the process rather than produce the product.


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