Dorso Column: The Media And The University System

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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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