Given the recent trend toward corporate ownership of daily newspapers across America, we probably should have seen this coming. Last week, the Tallahassee Democrat, a daily newspaper owned by Gannett Co., announced its acquisition of the FSView, the student-run newspaper of Florida State University.
While the move is hailed by some as an indication of corporate newspapers more directly addressing student readers, the acquisition should raise some alarm. Plainly, is this the start of a trend which will leave more and more college newspapers in corporate hands? And what does that mean for the traditionally maverick role student papers have played in debate and dialogue over the issues of the day?
The Democrat insists that it will take a completely hands-off approach in its management of the FSView – indeed, the former owner of the paper has said the staff will notice no change. But even if the Democrat and Gannett Co. do not exercise editorial control over the View, there’s something wrong with the simple fact that they could.
Student newspapers have long held an unbridled charm, a nature that may alarm the old guard but is simply a manifestation of generational growth. When this page argued for the legalization of marijuana in the late 1960s, many readers were shocked and the Daily became the focus of national media attention. Yet, nearly 40 years later, many national commentators have questioned the economic merits of an enforcement-based drug policy – a discussion born from thinking that was once too extreme for mainstream dailies.
There was a time when the country’s local dailies used to rustle some feathers, too. But that willingness to take risks in calling attention to worthy issues has faded as bottom lines resulting form corporate ownership begin to override the spirit of investigative journalism. Indeed, we now live in a time when the New York Times, one of the few remaining family-owned newspapers, has its patriotism questioned for sticking to its traditional, hard-hitting approach to investigative reporting. Could the future hold the similar trouble for college newspapers?
There are things a college paper would do and say that simply would not be acceptable in any of Gannett’s other publications. But many of these things do need to be said. Unfiltered, college newspapers serve an important function in writing honestly about the issues, without having to worry about advertising revenues and sales. But as part of a profit-driven corporation like Gannett, we wonder if the FSView will remain so unburdened.
With local daily newspapers marching ever more shamelessly toward trivial stories and fluff as opposed to worthy news reporting, college journalism remains one of the last places to hear about issues as they are and get true viewpoints unaltered by pressures a profit-based publication is sure to face. If Gannett leaves the FSView alone, that’s great, but will the next corporation that buys a college newspaper be so benevolent?