Five bucks per semester from every undergraduate student adds up to a hefty sum of money. So why are we throwing it away?
Reading a newspaper keeps us in touch with the world around us, it helps us make important decisions in our daily lives, and it brings our education to life. So who could argue against having freely available copies of The New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and USA Today around campus?
Actually, about 90 percent of us could — and should — argue.
Last year, students voted to require that all undergraduate students pay a five-dollar-per-semester fee to make newspapers available to undergrads. Our student government and the Department of Student Affairs opted to use the money to participate in the Collegiate Readership Program, which now distributes the three newspapers you see around campus. It all seems like a pretty good deal.
Look more closely and you’ll see that the Collegiate Readership Program, which is just a well-named sales campaign by USA Today, is actually ineffective and wasteful.
On any given weekday, about 550 newspapers are taken from the cases and bins of the Collegiate Readership Program. That means that less than 10 percent of undergrads pick up a newspaper on the average day.
Also keep in mind that all of the four bins in residence halls are open to anyone who walks in — they’re not even behind the security door — and the cases in the public locations don’t distinguish between fee-paying undergrads and freeloading graduate students. Undergrads are paying for more than just their own free newspapers.
Finally, taking a newspaper is not the same as reading a newspaper. I would bet that a good chunk of the newspapers get taken are never even read. Because they’re pre-paid, there’s no reason not to take a newspaper whether or not you’re going to read it.
If the goal was to promote newspaper readership in the hopes of having a more informed, more engaged undergraduate student body, this program is failing.
In effect, what we have is a system whereby all undergraduates pay for a minority of students to get the newspaper they might otherwise have read online for free or bought themselves. Also, there’s redundancy in the system. We already pay for our institutional access to LexisNexis.com, which gives us access to all the content in the newspapers we get.
If we want to promote newspaper readership, there’s a more effective, more efficient way to do it.
To make our newspaper readership program successful, we need to give people a reason to read the newspaper. The most important thing we can do is to enlist the faculty’s support in making newspapers part of the classroom experience. Also, we could bring journalists to campus as lecturers to inspire greater appreciation of journalism — USA Today promised they would do this, but has yet to deliver.
Of course, getting newspapers to students is key. But rather than asking everyone to pay for the newspapers that just a few people take, a successful readership program would help students buy their own subscriptions, giving them greater ownership in the newspaper experience. It could be as simple as giving people the option to buy their own subscriptions at a discounted and subsidized rate, or it could let them pay a small fee on an annual or semesterly basis for access to newspaper display cases. A free trial period each semester could win subscribers.
The benefit of this approach is that only students who value and plan to use the service will choose to get subscriptions. It reduces the burden on the student body as a whole and will have a greater effect on the people who choose to participate.
But to make any of this happen, student government has to step up to the plate and make some changes.