Campus Journalism's Corporate Cousin

(Editor's Note: This story appeared originally on CampusProgress.org.)

Not for the first time, Gannett -- the largest newspaper publisher in America -- has just purchased a local newspaper. But for the first time, this pick-up was a college paper. On Aug. 1, The Tallahassee Democrat, a Gannett newspaper, purchased the Florida State University's independently owned (by two FSU alums), for-profit biweekly, the FSView & Florida Flambeau. This appears to be only the second time a major newspaper publisher has purchased a pre-existing campus newspaper.

Though there may be natural concern on the part of students about a corporate incursion into traditionally student-run media, all parties involved in the transaction -- Gannett Corporate, The Tallahassee Democrat (itself acquired by Gannett less than a year ago), and the FSView -- say that there will be no change in editorial content or daily operations. Jen Irwin, the FSView's former co-owner, who is continuing on as the paper's publisher under Gannett, explicitly stated to Campus Progress that "nothing will change. Everything will stay the same."

The publisher of the Democrat, Patrick Dorsey, concurred. "It's a student newspaper for students. That's the way it'll remain and the way it should be." Though the paper is still "for students," the purse strings are no longer held by hands connected to FSU. Now, like it does for all its other more than 90 dailies and more than 1,000 other publications, Gannett is overseeing the budget from its corporate headquarters in McLean, Va. Asked if the operational budget of the FSView & Florida Flambeau would be changing at all, the spokeswoman for Gannett, Tara Connell, said that it is premature to talk about numbers so soon after the purchase.

But before student newspapers across the country start scrambling to prepare for due diligence, it's important to note that the conditions for this purchase were relatively unique. As a for-profit company, the FSView stood apart from most independent college papers, which tend to be incorporated as non-profits, and thus are not easy candidates for sales. Connell said that purchasing the FSView was simply a good opportunity for Gannett, given that "it was in a town where we already owned a daily.... The purchase was an opportunity. It's not yet a philosophy," she said, but added that acquiring college papers "may one day be a business model."

Irwin and Robert Parker, the FSView's former owners, and both current Gannett employees, preferred not to disclose the amount of the purchase or even a ballpark figure. But the prime advantage of the Gannett deal may be be the financial stability that Gannett's ownership will lend to the student paper. With the tremendous bank roll now behind the previously independent paper, the future of the FSU bi-weekly is on firmer footing. Another perk of the purchase, says Irwin, is the "upward mobility" for student journalists, who might be able to enjoy training and internships at the Tallahassee Democrat.

But despite assurances to the contrary, some journalism experts are skeptical of whether corporate oversight is a good thing for student papers, citing concerns about the editing of student voices and content being sacrificed for profit.

Todd Gitlin, a professor at the Columbia School of Journalism, doesn't believe that Gannett's motives are quite so pure. Gannett is "traditionally interested in the bottom line and no other journalistic standard," Gitlin said in an interview with Campus Progress. As for the benefits the mega-publisher might get out of the deal, Gitlin said that helping young journalists was unlikely as a prime motivator. "[Gannett is in it] to make money," he said. "I don't think they have other interests. [The acquisition of the FSView] is a minor feather in their cap, something they can declare: a PR statement to stockholders, another little plus mark in the assets column."

Mark Goodman, the Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, says that while public university student newspapers are well-covered by the first amendment, corporately owned student newspapers may not be. "When you're part of a public university," Goodman said, "student journalists are protected from the university." When owned by a corporation though, "The private owner can censor.... It's called editing."

The Colorado Daily -- purchased last fall by The E.W. Scripps Company -- serves as an example of a once-campus newspaper now open to the influence of a large corporate owner. Though the Daily is the only newspaper serving the University of Colorado, it hasn't had an all-student staff since roughly 1972, when the administration kicked the Daily off campus because of its outspoken editorials against the Vietnam War. Today, the college students found in the Daily's offices are there as part of an internship program. The average age of a full-time staff member, according to 41-year old managing editor Bronson Hilliard, is roughly 25.

Hilliard said that since Scripps purchased the Daily from private owner Randy Miller last year, the paper "hasn't changed one bit. Not at all." The only real changes were in better health care for employees, he added. When the Daily was purchased, the largest outcry wasn't from students, but from the media and middle aged people "who believe that corporations control everything," Hillard remembered. "It's just fashionable to hate corporate media," he mused. "But saying that all of a sudden you'll be seeing all sorts of corporate guys walking through the newsroom is just nonsense. It doesn't happen."

With little precedence for corporate ownership of campus publications, student journalists across the country will read the FSView carefully this year. And, on the first day of classes, FSU students will be reading between the lines to find the real story.

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