Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Should colleges buy newspapers?

Lee Smith, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, thinks so, starting with the New York Times:

The time has come for the nation's wealthiest colleges and universities to rescue its leading newspapers — resources almost as vital to higher education's purpose as libraries, laboratories, classrooms, and concert halls. ...

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that newspapers must be preserved in their historical newsprint form. Many younger readers in particular prefer getting their information electronically. The familiar bundle of paper in plastic landing on the doorstep may well disappear over time, as newspapers migrate to the Internet to meet the audience.

What must be preserved is the complex and expensive enterprise of collection that underlies a newspaper — the labor and brain-intensive work of reporting, writing, and editing the millions of fragments of information scattered across the planet every day.
Interesting proposition. Let me make an observation, however. Higher education, as it is now largely practiced in the U.S., is one of the ultimate middlemen. Despite all that's been written and said about decentralizing and asynchronizing education, much of the education "industry" and its endowments in this country are tied to edifice complexes (ask anyone going up for tenure how easy it is to get credit for the outsized amount of time putting a course online can take). And it gets more pronounced the higher up the chain you go (try mentioning a "professional" Ph.D., which some business leaders now want instead of the traditional three-year hair shirt and servitude variety, to a panel of academics -- then duck).

But the Internet time and time again has shown it kills middlemen. Case in point, newspapers (used in the ecumenical sense of the large, multipurpose newsroom). So while Smith's thought is interesting and provocative, perhaps it's best for higher education to stay focused on that light at the end of the tunnel. Hint: It's not the exit.

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