Tuesday, October 15, 2013
I lead an institution of higher education. That means I am the equivalent of a newspaper publisher circa 1997. We all know now what only the most astute publishers knew then: The Internet has arrived.
Anyone could predict that content would migrate. But what even the most savvy owners of daily metropolitan broadsheets did not anticipate is how advertisers would migrate too -- or how quickly the move would occur. It wasn't websites that put up their own reporting that spelled the end for all but the mightiest papers; it was Craig's List and other alternative places for classifieds. It didn't even matter that websites had difficulty themselves monetizing what they were doing; they could still cut off the revenue for their print competitors.
Incidentally, if you didn't overpay to buy the operation, it's still possible to make money in the newspaper business. But instead of making money with fat profit margins in a socially prestigious profession or avocation, you make money with the leanest profit margins in an occupation along the lines of a gas station owner.
Thus it has become apparent what a newspaper is. A newspaper isn't the newspaper. It is not the physical medium, however appealing it remains to those who grew up riding a bicycle around the block to deliver it, with a monthly collection from each household of a few dollars, or for those who still prefer to open the pages at the breakfast table, with the cheap black ink smudging off on their fingers.
A newspaper is a concept. It can be operationalized, very effectively, in various instantiations.
In abstract terms, a newspaper is a nexus. It is an organized structure for bringing together the readers with the writers. An institution of higher education is also a nexus. It is a means of bringing together the students with the teachers.
Access to the newspaper's nexus is sold to the advertisers. That makes it affordable for the readers and subsidizes the writers. The advertisers are after the former and the latter are essentially the means to an end. Other than especially civic-minded advertisers, they would just as soon reach the readers -- whom they characterize as consumers -- and dispense with the writers -- who are the hired help.
Access to the higher-ed nexus is offered to prospective employers. Here as well, there has been a generational change. In the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, people wanted to learn for the sake of learning; starting with the counter-revolution of the 1980s, people wanted to be prepared to make a living. In a perfect world, we would see that these are the same goals. There is much more to contemporary expectations than merely materialistic ambitions. Only those who already have jobs are able to dismiss the reasonable desire of those without them to come to school so they can get them.
In terms of content, a newspaper must (or at least should) perform the function of sorting and credentialing. Its operators determine what information within the chaotic mass of available data is worthwhile. Furthermore, they vouch for the accuracy of what they present.
The institution of higher education also performs the function of sorting and credentialing. It is a business that those of us who hold onto progressive ideals might be uncomfortable with, but it is the business we are in nonetheless.
Our responsibilities as gatekeepers could be described in a more genteel manner. We attest to the quality of not only our students, but also -- and just as importantly -- our teachers. We are saying to the world that coming here means you have the opportunity to interact with a certain group of great minds as peers and pupils. The catch is that the specific place may become no more relevant than the pages of the newspaper.
Most colleges in fact are not all that selective. They admit a majority of their applicants. Most law schools, however, are selective. Selectivity and prestige are mutually cause and effect. The nexus shrinks in size to grow in rank.
The campus enables social interaction. For traditional college students, that's essential to the experience. For graduate students, it's an entry to the profession. Yet social interaction itself is becoming altogether different. Old-fashioned courtship has given way to meeting via the web.
We know what has become of newspapers. After all, consider how I am communicating with you. There is a lesson here for any college president.