The NY Times on campus: subsidizing irrelevance

29 03 2011

Don’t let the University of Michigan’s new computer labs or cutting-edge research facilities fool you. Appearances aside, many of my instructors and fellow students seem to be stuck firmly in the past.

No, this isn’t about Ann Arbor’s upcoming Hash Bash, which is soon to celebrate its 40th year on campus. Instead, I’m referring to the recent proposal, based on the mistaken assumption that newspapers are still relevant to today’s hyperconnected college students, to distribute thousands of copies of the New York Times to campus newsstands everyday.

Since the NY Times is in no position to give anything away these days (including online content, given their soon to be implemented paywall), the “free” daily paper would in fact be subsidized by a $4/semester fee added to the tuition of all students–regardless of whether they care to read the paper or not. While an advisory vote in recent campus elections favored the proposal, no definitive action has yet been taken by the student government to further the initiative.

With an unfortunate number of individuals on and around campus viewing NY Times readership as an instant badge of erudition, it’s likely that we’ll be able to afford one less latte after receiving next semester’s tuition bill. But the $4 fee that is not the issue at stake; worrying about an amount that small in the era of skyrocketing tuition would be outrageous. Instead, I’m astounded by the pervasive and outdated mentality that students need to be provided with a traditional newspaper, let alone a newspaper with the biases of the NY Times, to remain informed in this modern age–particularly on a campus so proud of its rampant technophilia.

On its surface, the proposal to subsidize and distribute the NY Times may seem noble, or at least pragmatic; after all, there’s no better way to impress prospective students (and their parents) during campus tours than to have as many students as possible walking around with the Paper of Record tucked under their arms. Imagine the instant academic credibility U-M would gain if tuition fees were enacted to subsidize horn-rimmed glasses and all-season scarves as well!

Yet most of the students who pick up the NY Times will probably browse through the first few pages while parked in a lecture hall, make a halfhearted attempt at the crossword puzzle, and then pitch the whole thing. I suppose the more environmentally conscious students might recycle the paper if there’s an appropriate bin around, but even so, the entire enterprise is as much a waste of student resources as it is trees. To be brutally honest: the vast majority of students who read newspapers, whether national dailies or campus publications, do so for cheap or free entertainment, not information.

If only students were able to access the news on one of these computers...

It’s laughable for me to picture myself, or any of my peers, rushing to a newsstand to catch up on the late breaking stories from around the world; I could do so on my smartphone in less time than it would take me to find the international section of any newspaper. With the Internet’s innumerable competing sources of virtually free news and commentary, it is ridiculous to assert that free copies of the NY Times are all that set otherwise ignorant U-M students apart from globally informed enlightenment.

Of course, that U-M would contemplate using student tuition fees to support a publication with certain biases (I won’t go so far as to call the NY Times a “left-wing rag”) should give me pause, but after years in Ann Arbor, it hardly surprises me. A less jaded observer might ask whether U-M ought to provide some editorial balance by at least offering the option of, say, the Wall Street Journal; experience suggests, however, that those most fond of the idea of providing papers to the student body have no desire to offer opposition to the opinions of Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, or Paul Krugman.

If this paper-pushing scheme is implemented, I’ll hear all about the tremendous value it will offer (to NY Times-reading students, at least), and how the mere presence of the paper on campus will, in some small and intangible way, contribute to the world-class statute of U-M (as every pointless investment inevitably does). But behind the hearty praise, I’ll see the reality: a small, self-indulgent group of students using their peers’ tuition fees to subsidize their love for an increasingly irrelevant icon of the American intelligentsia.




One response

30 03 2011

I have a more cynical point of view. UM is asking students to subsidize a newspaper that desperately needs financial assistance to stay afloat.

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