Dorso Column: The Media And The University System


In my last column I accuse newspapers and faculties of protecting their self interests when it comes to reform of the higher education system.

I don’t think I need to go in to detail as to why faculties react the way they do. If your job might be at risk you would maybe react the same way.

Newspapers are another story. I see two possible motives for the way the editors and publishers of the papers react. The first and probably most latent reason is the fact that most of the staff at the publications has Journalism degrees. As such most have matriculated under a system that values freedom of expression. Recipients of liberal arts degrees they become imbued with the values of their liberal professors. As such they have empathy for the position the faculties take on controversial issues.

The second and probably most troublesome is economic. When you open a Forum communications publication tomorrow check to see how many columnar inches are taken up by ads or stories related to the university in their area. After perusing the paper listen to WDAY television and radio in Fargo. Next try WDAZ in Grand Forks. I have no idea how much each institution spends on paid advertising with the media in their area. I do know that if the publications didn’t have the universities to write about there would be a lack of copy for editors to go over. That is especially true of the sports pages.

Why are the activities of the separate campuses so important to the media? If they didn’t have them as a news source how much advertising would sell? There is no doubt that interest in sporting events at the institutions is an economic boon to the regional newspapers and media outlets. When I was president of Team Makers at NDSU the contract to cover Bison athletics was a hotly contested issue. Part of each contract was the amount of gratis promotion each media outlet would provide. Why would a media outlet provide free advertising, as an example, for NDSU athletics? Quite simply if the ratings (number of listeners) were sufficiently large the cost of advertising during those broadcasts was quite large. I became aware of how expensive it was to advertise on the Bison network when I ran for congress in 1999.

What we need to think about is how much paid advertising is generated because of the universities. Would the symbiotic relationships be as strong if those revenue dollars weren’t in play?

Why do the papers protect the university system as it is now configured? Quite simply they believe the relative independence of the universities is good for their business. I don’t think anyone tracks how much money the broadcast contracts contribute to the individual institutions operating budgets. I can’t think that Forum Communications really wants the Chancellor checking into that part of each operation. Further on they certainly don’t need a system wide policy on how those contracts are awarded.

Actually the relationship of the media to the university in their advertising area is quite intricate. Whether it is paid advertising for concerts sponsored by the arts department or the sale of advertising connected to sporting events it is a lot of money. On game day the advertising generated by the bar and restaurant business is substantial. You can’t fault retailers such as Scheels for piggy backing on the success of the Bison or Sioux as they advertise and sell memorabilia.

I am interested in what Dale Wetzel or Carter Wood could contribute to this discussion. Both of these men were very good reporters while I was in the legislature. Free of the constraints they worked under then, their perspective would be interesting.

If the publishers and owners of the media outlets in each university market area were to put their economic interests behind them would they change their tune? Would editorial writers become more concerned about the cost of getting a degree? It is probably to altruistic to think economic interest would be subservient to good management of the university system.

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  • Roy_Bean

    This relationship between the media and the universities is really an argument for not having publicly owned universities. The University of Mary is a shining example of providing a market based educational opportunity. It is possible to get a degree from them without ever having set foot in North Dakota. The real purpose of the university system is to educate, not to provide a market for t-shirts. North Dakota is not a big enough market to support professional sports so we seem to have latched on to the Bison and the TFKATS (Team Formerly Known As The Sioux) to fill a market need.

  • ec99

    On this Mr. Dorso and I fully agree: there is no wall between the ad department and the newsroom. You will never read an article critical of any advertiser. When the Mexican bribery story about Walmart came out, it was missing from the Herald, which distributes the store’s Sunday circulars. The Herald has other similar sacred cows, including UND. A person once told me, if you really want to know what’s going on in Grand Forks, listen to what the guys in the YMCA men’s locker room have to say.

  • ND Observer

    It is true that the Fargo Forum is NEVER critical of NDSU, but that is not true of the Grand Forks Herald. They have done many articles covering controversies at UND, and there were articles ad nauseum on the Fighting Sioux nickname controversy which will cause significant financial losses to both UND and area retailers. The Herald had 3 article on the controversies around the Chancellor today. Once again Dorso just has strong opinions without facts.

    • Captjohn

      I certainly didn’t say the papers aren’t printing stories on the universities. That was part of my point. The story on students against Shirvani is the only on line story today. Is it for or against more control? Was Mike Jacob’s op/Ed in support of SBHE or the university? Depends on your bias I suppose.
      I believe my opinion has been shaped by the media over the last thirty years.

    • ec99

      There’s a difference between running stories on controversies, and running critical stories. The Herald never once objected to UND’s 18 million parking ramp, it’s multi-million dollar hockey coach contract, Kelley’s proposal for a 20-million indoor practice facility, all the while reaming students for more cash. You won’t see the grad rates or the wash outs printed there either. No comment on Kelley’s salary after 5 years being twice that of Clifford’s after 24. No questioning of allowing Hakstol to determine punishment for his players, while real students would have been suspended for the same offense. Why? Tally up the ad dollars UND represents for the Herald.

  • RCND

    This isn’t just about UnInForumed Communications and UND and NDSU. The University System has a nice stranglehold on the media pretty much statewide. When a Chancellor can walk into a TV station in Bismarck and TELL THEM to quit running embarrassing stories about the real problems at DSU, it just shows how unholy the alliance is between higher ed and the ND media.