Saving the Student Press Action

Gannett’s attempt to acquire the Collegian threatens the world of college journalism

Colorado State University (CSU) is known for natural beauty, proximity to ski resorts, and a blazing four-word editorial published by the school paper last fall, attacking the President with an expletive. But if CSU’s president gets his way, the university could be known as the school that sold its newspaper to a national corporation against the will of its students, its alumni, and journalism professors nationwide.

That this deal is being negotiated without the consultation of the paper’s editors is a travesty, and it should be stopped. Student writers and editors know best in deciding a paper’s future, and their wish to remain a student-run, non-profit paper must be respected.

Earlier this year, reporters at Colorado State’s Rocky Mountain Collegian learned that the university president had been secretly meeting with representatives from a local paper, The Coloradoan, to discuss what school officials have billed as a “partnership” between the two papers. But what they call a partnership is really an acquisition of the non-profit Collegian by Gannett, the for-profit publisher of The Coloradoan. Gannett, best known for USA Today, is America’s largest newspaper publisher and already owns two student newspapers in Florida, though those were for-profit and independent from their college prior to Gannett’s acquisition.

Why would the publisher of USA Today be interested in a college paper? While the professional news industry faces its leanest years yet, college papers, with their volunteer labor force and captive audience, continue to thrive. Advertising revenue for college papers is growing, because unlike most dailies, they are read—not only frequently, but in print rather than online—by young people with pockets stuffed full of their parents’ cash.

There is rampant speculation within the pages of the Collegian that the university president’s attempts to sell the paper are connected to the public uproar over the Bush editorial last fall, when the editor-in-chief, David McSwane, was disciplined but allowed to keep his position. Nevertheless, the incident is hardly grounds to hand over responsibility for the paper to an outside company. In the words of Sean Reed, the Collegian’s editorials editor, “a petty dispute with a small group of students is no reason to hand a CSU tradition to a corporate giant.”

Regardless of the motive, the corporate acquisition of the Collegian bodes poorly for its future. The student press loses its characteristic vitality and pedagogical power when it is regarded merely as a limb of a profit-minded corporate leviathan.

The few supporters of the sale have argued that serving under corporate overlords as undergraduates will help prepare budding journalists for the cutthroat, bottom line-driven environment of the battered news industry.

More likely, however, this change will restrict the Collegian’s editorial independence and limit valuable leadership opportunities for CSU students. Gannett’s prior acquisition of two student papers in Florida admittedly caused little changes to the leadership structure, but those papers were already for-profit. The Collegian, on the other hand, would be more vulnerable to change: It’s hard to imagine that Gannett, beholden to its shareholders, could afford to allow independence to a newspaper whose editorials have pushed the limits of the First Amendment’s protections.

Worse, a student newspaper beholden to shareholders will have a hard time justifying expenses for certain services, programs, and social activities that make working for a college paper rewarding. Programs such as financial aid, social events, or career workshops with professional journalists would be a tough sell. The Collegian will cease to be a true student group and function more like an on-campus job opportunity—except that writers would likely continue to work without pay.

Like rats jumping off the sinking ship of the professional print business, it seems inevitable that more media publishers will hunt for profit at college papers in the near future. But we, current and future leaders in student journalism, must stand our ground and ward off corporate vultures to keep the student press as it was intended to be—run by students.