Big Business

IOWA — For possibly the first time in history, college newspaper editors from around the country have collaborated in an effort to support a fellow college newspaper in its ongoing disagreement with a local commercial newspaper over their competitive relationship.Editors and managing editors from 46 college newspapers from across the United States signed a letter to Michael Gartner, the editor and co-owner of the Ames Daily Tribune, condemning what they say is an attack on Iowa State’s student newspaper, the Iowa State Daily.The Ames Daily Tribune has two complaints against the Iowa State Daily, the heart of each being that by accepting state funds, the student newspaper is competing illegally with the professional newspaper.The local daily contends that by accepting a subsidy from a state university and selling advertisements and distributing in the commercial marketplace, under Iowa state law the student newspaper is engaging in illegal competition.This claim has student journalists around the country concerned about whether their newspapers will fall subject to these kinds of allegations from professional news organizations in their communities.”This case has important impact on the student press as a whole,” said Jonathan Berlin, editor in chief of the student newspaper, The Daily Illini, at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana and one of the 46 editors that signed the letter to Gartner. “If [the commercial press] wins, it could set a dangerous precedent for the entire student press.”Gartner said he thinks this concern is not necessary. As long as a student newspaper is completely independent from a university, then it could accept advertisements from off-campus retailers and be distributed in the commercial marketplace.If a student newspaper does receive funding through a state university, then its distribution and advertising should be limited to campus, Gartner said. He believes that as long as a student newspaper sticks to one system or the other, there should be no danger of an unfair competition claim.However, according to college media experts, the majority of state universities’ student newspapers operate in a similar manner to that of the Iowa State Daily, which may be one reason this case has caused such an uproar among the university student press.According to a study by journalism professors, Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver and Ron Spielberger, published in the summer 1996 edition of the College Media Review, almost half, 43.3 percent, of campus papers are funded through student activity fees. One fifth of student newspapers are funded through general university funds.Two thirds, 64 percent, of college newspapers receive more than half of their revenue from advertising, including advertising dollars from on and off-campus retailers.For example, The Daily O’Collegian, the student newspaper at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, receives student funding through the university, sells advertising space to off-campus retailers and distributes in the community as well as on campus.”[If the Ames Daily Tribune wins], the professional press would have a legitimate reason to do that to us here, and it would have the same crippling effect on us that it could have on the Iowa State Daily,” said Jim Luetkemeyer, editor in chief of The Daily O’Collegian. “This case is very important to us and could have a direct impact on us.”However, illegal competition laws vary from state to state. Whether a commercial newspaper could claim a student newspaper was engaging in illegal competition would depend on individual state law.College media experts are hopeful this conflict between the professional and student press will not have the far reaching effects some of the college media anticipate.Tom Rolnicki, executive director of the Associated Collegiate Press, said he does not expect other professional newspapers around the country to follow the Ames Daily Tribune1s lead.”In most instances, city commercial papers are not interested in competing head to head on college campuses,” Rolnicki said. “They respect the notion that it is OK for the student press to have preferred distribution on college campuses. It is a long-standing tradition.”Michael Lazerow, the founder of University Wire, a national college news service, who organized the letter to Gartner, also said he hopes this case will not have repercussions on the student press as a whole.”I don’t see there being a big effect because it is such a unbelievable case that a professional newspaper would sue a student newspaper,” Lazerow said.However, he said “If a precedent is set with this case then the student newspaper is free game. You’re possibly going to have the smaller city papers, purely for greed and money, going after the student papers.”The letter to Gartner states “By limiting the Daily’s ability to compete fairly in Ames, you may ultimately force it out of business. We fear that it would not be the only paper to fall victim to professional local newspapers seeking to dampen the voice — and advertising clout — of college newspapers.”The illegal competition claim may raise other issues in the university community. Other school-funded organizations such as athletic teams or campus book stores may wonder if they could fall subject to this same claim from their commercial counterparts.