\nCALIFORNIA — More than 100 colleges and universities around\nthe country have signed up to participate in a pilot readership\nprogram that would provide USA Today and other commercial\nnewspapers to campus residents for a small yearly fee.

College officials and USA Today representatives say the\nprogram will boost newspaper readership and raise awareness of\ncurrent events among an age group that includes only a small percentage\nof regular newspaper readers.

But the plan has worried some student newspapers, which fear\nthat their advertising revenue and readership could plummet if\nstudents have a choice between a large, commercial daily and a\nsmall, student-run campus newspaper.

“I think the impact of this program on the college student\npress if continued in its original form could be profoundly negative,”\nsaid Chris Carroll, the president of College Media Advisers, a\nnational organization dedicated to serving the needs of collegiate\nstudent media programs and their advisers. “As proposed on\ncampuses earlier this fall, [this program] has the potential to\ncreate a decline in the readership of student newspapers while\nsimultaneously creating a decline in both local and national advertising\nrevenue for those papers.”

The program to distribute commercial newspapers on college\ncampuses is sponsored by USA Today, a national newspaper\nowned by the Gannett Corporation, which also owns more than 70\nlocal newspapers nationwide.

On-campus students at colleges that subscribe to the program\nwould receive USA Today and two newspapers of the college’s\nchoosing — typically The New York Times and a local daily\n– for an annual fee of about $20 per student. When compared to\nthe $120 subscription cost of USA Today alone, this program\nis a bargain.

But student newspapers, especially those that do not receive\nany university funding, question why their colleges are willing\nto pay a large corporation $100,000 a year to provide commercial\nnewspapers to campus residents, but contribute no money to student-run\npapers that are already distributed for free on campus.

Carroll, who is also the media adviser to Vanderbilt Communications,\nan independent corporation that publishes Vanderbilt University’s\nstudent newspaper, The Vanderbilt Hustler, said he raised\nthe funding issue at a meeting with representatives from USA\nToday’s readership program, Vanderbilt administrators and several\nstudents.

Carroll said he asked the dean of students where the money\nto pay for the program would come from, and the dean suggested\nstudent activity fees.

“I [told the dean] that I had an enormous problem with\nstudent activity fees going to subsidize a giant corporation when\nnot a single dime of those fees went to support the students’\nown newspaper,” he said.

Carroll said he also questioned whether the Hustler’s two-student\nadvertising sales staff would be able to compete with the local\nnewspaper, The Tennessean, for advertising revenue. He\nalso asked the USA Today representatives how many campuses\nit would need to add to its program before national advertisers\nbegan placing ads in USA Today instead of with brokers that\nservice student newspapers.

Vanderbilt did not join the pilot program.

Carroll said he is not against bringing commercial newspapers\nto campus but is afraid that the USA Today program, in its\ncurrent form, could permanently damage student papers. He said\nhe would like to be able to work toward a compromise with USA\nToday, such as allowing it to distribute on campus in exchange\nfor printing the student newspaper for free or at a discount.\n

Heidi Henderson, supervisor of media relations at USA Today,\ndeclined to comment on the impact of the USA Today program on\nthe college press.

In 1998, Pennsylvania State University began its own plan to\ndistribute commercial newspapers on its campus and asked USA\nToday to be a part of it. Penn State joined USA Today’s program\nonce it was established.

Gerry Lynn Hamilton, the general manager of Penn State’s student\nnewspaper, said there has been a slight decrease in readership\nof The Daily Collegian in the university’s residence halls\nsince Penn State joined the program. But he said there has been\nno decline in advertising revenue during that time.

Hamilton, who has worked at The Collegian for 22 years,\nsaid he is more worried about competition for readership and advertising\nfrom the local newspaper, The Centre Daily Times, than\nfrom USA Today or The New York Times.

“I believe in the value of newspapers in our society.”\nHamilton said. “I believe in the role of a college newspaper\non a college campus. I think it’s a good idea to increase newspaper\nreadership. I think it’s a bad idea to damage a good student newspaper\nin the process.”

For students worried about the effects of such programs on\ntheir student newspapers, Carroll suggests contacting campus administrators\nand housing officials to discuss concerns before the university\nis approached with offers from commercial papers.

“There is no question that these types of programs will\nincrease on college campuses,” Carroll said. “[The student\nmedia] should assess the potential impact the program could have\non their operations and be prepared to suggest offers that could\nmitigate any damages.”