Commercial papers set sights on college campuses; Canadian student media threaten lawsuit; U.S. student media debate their response

When thousands of Canadian college students returned to school this fall they found presents waiting for them on their campuses: free copies of the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper.

TorStar, the company that owns the Toronto Star, launched its free newspaper program to increase readership among students, a reading habit that the company hopes will continue beyond graduation.

But representatives of the Canadian student press are anything but grateful and claim that TorStar’s action will lead to the extinction of campus publications.

“They are dumping free papers into the student market to prop up their falling circulation,” said Tariq Hassan-Gordon, president of Canadian University Press, an organization that represents 67 student newspapers across Canada.

“This could destroy the student press. Once the Star builds up distribution on campuses, they’ll be able to do split-runs of advertising inserts into the student market,” says Hassan-Gordon.

Hassan-Gordon claims that the Toronto Star is replacing student newspaper distribution racks on campus with “community boxes,” which, he says, have plenty of space for the Toronto Star but very limited room for student publications.

Here in the United States, more than 100 universities have signed up to participate in the Newspaper Readership Program, a joint venture of The Washington Post, The Baltimore Sun, The New York Times and USA Today. Unlike in Canada, however, the newspapers are not provided free. The cost of the program — at some schools, reportedly about $5 per student — is typically shared among students in an increase to room and board fees.

Unlike in Canada, the American student media’s response to the readership program has been more “wait and see.”

Recent debate on the College Media Adviser’s e-mail discussion list, for example, suggests that while many in the student media are generally open to the idea of more newspapers on campus, they hope that commercial newspapers will work with the student media to ensure that student papers are not harmed in the process.

“The key is to find ways we can become partners with the newspapers and can become partners with the administration in determining these issues,” wrote Kathy Lawrence, director of Texas Student Publications.

The issue has been put on the agenda for discussion at the upcoming ACP/CMA student media convention in Atlanta. The session will be from 9-9:50 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 29.