November 22, 2006

Bad News from the College Campus

College newspapers are such a hot commodity these days they’re disappearing off the newsstands. And that’s both good and bad news.

According to a study done by Student Monitor, which conducts market research on the college market, 76% of students report that they read one of the five previous editions of their campus paper during the spring semester of 2005. Those are impressive numbers. If their adult counterparts read newspapers in such numbers, the media world would be very different.

Advertisers, meanwhile, have noticed. A recent piece in the Baltimore Sun reported that given the on-campus clout of college papers, “big corporations and advertisers are latching onto student run publications.” The story noted, for example, that a subsidiary of MTV had recently bought a company that operates web sites for more than 400 college papers and that a daily paper in Florida had just purchased a student paper at Florida State University.

There is also emerging, however, a dark side to this hot market and the influence that college publications wield on campus. The papers usually are given away in stacks or free racks. And at a growing number of schools the papers are being pilfered, literally stolen from the racks by people—probably students—who are apparently angered by controversial or inflammatory content.

According to the Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC)—which advocates for student journalists on First Amendment issues—there have been a dozen such reported cases already this school year compared to 20 incidents in the entire 2005-2006 college year.

“I don’t know that there’s any particular thing that’s caused the jump in numbers,” Goodman told the PEJ. “Definitely the problem exits on an ongoing basis…because in large part, colleges don’t respond to college newspaper theft as an affront to the First Amendment, let alone a crime. That trend, I think, is beginning to change.”

Some of the recent cases reported to the SPLC include:

  • More than 4,500 stolen copies of the Kentucky Kernel at the University of Kentucky. The issue contained an article about the alcohol related deaths of several students.
  • About 1,000 missing copies of The Signpost at Weber State University. The issue featured a story about a professor being investigated for allegedly touching a student inappropriately.
  • Roughly 1,800 copies of the Arizona State University West Express’s Halloween “spoof” edition missing from newsstands. The issue included risqué and satirical photos, some of which cast student government members in a bad light.
  • About 700 copies of The Collegian at the University of Tulsa that were stolen were put back on newsstands with unauthorized inserts that included material aimed at the paper’s managing editor. The managing editor had written an article alleging problems with the student government’s allocation of funds.

What is going on here? “I think it’s a reflection perhaps of what a dismal job our schools have done teaching young people about freedom of expression,” Goodman said.

There are some real financial consequences when large numbers of papers are stolen since the student journalists may have to reprint copies or reimburse advertisers.

There is also a legal response emerging. California has recently joined Maryland and Colorado as states that have criminalized the theft of free newspapers – a description that applies to the overwhelming majority of school publications.

Goodman, however, isn’t optimistic when it comes to the issue of why students would resort to stealing newspapers in the first place. If students don’t understand the principles of free expression, something more fundamental may be wrong.