Newspaper thefts level off

Liz Zelinksi could not ignore the strikingly high number: In just a few months, editorial staffs at more than a dozen college newspapers woke up to find distribution boxes inexplicably empty, just hours after they were circulated.

So in light of the fall 2006 semester’s unusually large number of college newspaper thefts, the editor in chief of The Whit, the student newspaper at New Jersey’s Rowan University, thought her paper should have some sort of insurance against such a theft.

Zelinksi established a policy in December 2006 that stated additional copies of the newspaper cost 40 cents. The policy was printed in each edition.

Just three months later, the new policy proved useful, when hundreds of copies of The Whit were stolen from newsstands by two students who later confessed.

But The Whit incident was just one of only six instances of newspaper thefts this semester – a sharp decline from the 15 newspaper thefts reported to the Student Press Law Center in fall 2006.

After an incredibly active fall semester, the number of newspaper thefts reported to the Student Press Law Center has leveled off, keeping the year’s totals in the median of thefts reported in the previous five years. Although it appeared the number was headed for a record year — the highest number since 2000 is 29 thefts in both 2000-2001 and 2001-2002 — it now appears the 2006-2007 school year will remain decidedly average when it ends after summer classes. The inconsistency between this and last semester shows how unpredictable newspaper thefts can be – and why it can be so difficult to prevent them.

“We’ve had as many as 40 in a school year; Some years we’ve had as few as 12,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman. “This reflects that the popularity of this tactic ebbs and flows, but it doesn’t go away.”

Only California, Maryland and Colorado have laws that explicitly outlaw stealing free newspapers. Still, editors are not without options when they disappear from stands. Goodman said general theft and destruction of property statutes have been used to prosecute newspaper thieves.

Four years ago, before California had a law that outlaws newspaper theft, the mayor of Berkeley was charged with petty theft after he was seen throwing copies of the The Daily Californian into the trash. The University of California at Berkeley student newspaper had endorsed an opposing candidate.

The mayor pleaded guilty to the charge and paid a $100 dollar fine, and, under public scrutiny, he said he would propose a city ordinance and support state legislation that would make it a crime to steal free newspapers.

Goodman said the best way to fight newspaper thefts is to take action before the crime occurs.

The first thing editors should do, he says, is include a statement in the newspaper assigning value to each issue. Such a statement might read: “The first copy of this publication is free, and subsequent copies can be purchased for 25 cents.

Also, Goodman said, editors should have a conversation with campus security and administrators before a theft to encourage an appropriate response if an incident occurs.

That conversation with administrators can be especially helpful, because schools can establish their own policies explicitly prohibiting newspaper theft. Other administrators could be urged to consider newspaper theft punishable under the school’s free speech or destruction of property policy.

Either way, Goodman said, the important thing is to hold the conversation early and in the abstract, before the controversy of an actual newspaper theft.

“The problem is once they’re two sides, they might be pulled in two different directions,” he said.

Last semester’s 15 thefts have proceeding along varying paths: some have been solved and the perpetrators disciplined, while others have languished without any sort of progress in the investigation.

For the most part, newspapers that saw any sort of resolution saw it soon after the theft. In the incidents in which there was no immediate action or suspect, editors have generally given up hope for a conclusion.

Almost eight months after 1,200 copies of the GuardDawg were stolen and distribution boxes vandalized at the University of Georgia, the newspaper has realized that it will likely never know who was involved.

“There was very little hope to begin with,” said publisher David Kirby.