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Coming Soon: The Gannett Daily Sun?

It was reported last week that Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, had made its first purchase of a college paper -- one with the awkward, vestigial name of FSView & Florida Flambeau. More precisely, it was the local Tallahassee paper, the Democrat, which officially made the purchase, although, like many local papers, it is owned by Gannett.

The original report in Inside Higher Ed noted that the student newspaper was in a unique position to be acquired:

The Flambeau has been independent since 1971. The then-floundering newspaper merged with FSView in 1998, and the publication has a circulation of about 25,000 readers during the academic year. FSView & Florida Flambeau is unlike most college newspapers, which are generally nonprofit or affiliated with a university journalism school.

Actually, this also describes another college newspaper. It's called The Cornell Daily Sun.

The Cornell paper, which I was editor-in-chief of from 2004-05, has always prided itself on being independent (since 1880), student-run and for students first -- a for-profit, private, off-campus company in a world of mostly nonprofits and university-affiliated papers. Not only does this allow complete editorial independence; it teaches students how to run a business, one that relies heavily on advertising. There is one other major similarity between the situations at Cornell and at Florida State: both college towns have Gannett-owned local newspapers.

The implications are troubling. The Florida State paper only publishes regularly twice a week at a school that's hardly in a major market like, say, UCLA or Columbia. Could Ithaca be next? Might we soon be reading The Gannett Daily Sun?

The short answer is no. While there has been a flurry of emotion from upset college editors (notably, at the Michigan Daily), I tend to think the reaction to this acquisition has been overblown. The main reason, of course, is that the publisher of the Flambeau made the choice to be acquired. At a privately held college newspaper, there are no hostile takeovers. And if a paper's board of directors has significant student control, like many do (or should), then who'd vote to be bought out if there isn't a big profit motive to begin with?

Sure, the Democrat has pledged to leave full editorial control to the students and to take an essentially hands-off approach. But even if the Gannett folks start exercising more control over the paper, so what? It might be time to start up a rival newspaper, one that has greater credibility as a news outlet not beholden to corporate interests. Something similar happened at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where there are two competing daily papers, the dominant of which began as a conservative, anti-counterculture publication much like today's Cornell Review. Today, the Badger Herald is one of the best student papers in the country, it's profitable, it's daily, and now it's mainstream and (gasp!) most of its editors are liberal.

Of course I'm for student autonomy in college journalism. But if the students at Florida State's newspaper don't agree, they probably don't deserve it in the first place. Who knows, if The Sun starts getting really profitable, Gannett might look next door for a willing buyer to offload the stinking Ithaca Journal. ...

Andy Guess | Posted on August 09, 2006 (#)

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