Free Stars leave their mark on campuses

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By Kevin Ritchie 

At York University’s food court, first-year business student Pauline Yick scans the business section of The Toronto Star before rushing off to class.  She picks up a free copy of the Star every day on campus.

At the other end of the shopping mall-like student centre, Joanne Haskin is reading about the revolution in Serbia as she eats her Wendy’s meal.

“To me, it’s the only real newspaper that’s here,” Says the second-year sociology and humanities student.  “It’s just lying around so I don’t even pick it up.  I just reread it where someone left it.”

At the end of each day, York’s Star racks — all 27 of them — sit mostly empty.  Racks holding the student newspaper, The Excalibur, remain nearly full.

In September, 1999, The Toronto Star struck a deal with York University to distribute its paper for free at the school as part of its campus readership program, arrangement that took The Excalibur, one of York’s weekly campus papers, by surprise.

“It’s had a really crushing impact,” said Excalibur editor-in-chief Shawn Jeffords.

He says the paper has had to cut its circulation to 15,000 from 17,000 since the Star arrived because its pick-up rate — the number of papers taken off the racks each week — dropped by 25 per cent.

“When you’re giving [the Star] away for free just like the regular publications, that puts them in direct competition with us,” Jeffords said.

Brad Henderson, a spokesperson for the Star, says he can’t explain why The Excalibur’s circulation dropped.

“We’re still going to look at it and find out why that is,” Henderson said.

He says the goal of the Star’s campus program also run at Wilfred Laurier University, Seneca College, Georgian College, Queen’s University and the University of Toronto, is to build interest in reading newspapers in general.

Student readers would not only add 20,000 to the Star’s weekday circulation of 450,000 and weekend circulation of 750,000, he says.

The fact that so many York students are reading the Star makes Jeffords question the university’s commitment to students.  “They don’t realize it but they’re hurting their own campus media — their own voice,” he said, adding administration has refused to pull the Star from campus and plans to renegotiate its contract with York when it’s up in a year and a half.

His plan is to concentrate on the quality of The Excalibur, although he isn’t optimistic about the paper’s future.

At Ryerson, Linda Grayson, v.p. administration and student affairs, hasn’t decided whether to enter negotiations with the Star.  She says if the school moves forward with a deal, she wants the campus media to have input.

“This is not being done in a rush,” she said.  “I’ve said ‘Tell me your concerns and let’s see if we can address them in a contract,’ if we decide to go that way.”

Laurier’s deal with the Star includes a clause that states campus-newspaper stands must be at least three metres from the Star’s racks.  Asad Kiyani, editor-in-chief of Wilfred Laurier’s The Cord, says the clause forced his racks out of the food court, and his papers onto the Star’s bigger blue racks.

“People don’t see [The Cord] as much.  They see the Toronto Star and a bunch of other publications,” he said.  “You lose the distinction you have of being a student newspaper.”

Since the Star’s eight racks arrived on campus, The Cord has cut its circulation to 4,000 from 6,000.  Kiryani says the newspaper plans to increase off-campus distribution to bring the paper’s circulation back to 5,000 issues a week.

Other universities, however, have closed the door on the readership program.  The University of Guelph and Brock University both turned down the Star’s offer because they felt the Toronto daily would threaten the advertising and readership of their campus papers.

Bonnie Neuman, Brock University’s associate v.p. of student services, says concern over increased litter and a lack of academic benefits were two reasons she killed the Star deal.  She also believes it sets up an unfair competition for the campus press.

“We felt that it was much more important for us to maintain good relationships with our students rather than insist on doing something we didn’t really feel had strong academic benefits,” she said.

Although students in Southern Ontario may enjoy reading the Star for free, Katie Meyer, editor-in-chief of The Ontarian at the University of Guelph, says they don’t realize the long-term effect the program will have on campus media.

Meyer says the Star would have threatened her paper’s national advertising dollars, which she called The Ontarian’s lifeline.

Henderson, of the Star, doesn’t see it that way.  “There are no advertisers that are going to turn to the Toronto Star because they want to reach university campuses,” he said.

“Campus papers, to [advertisers], are niche markets.”

But Meyer contends if a campus paper’s readership drops, the paper must charge for adds, so the Star, which reaches a larger audience to begin with, will start to look more attractive to advertisers.

“If the Toronto Star was able to say we can target students all across Canada, then why would GM or Kraft Dinner advertise with us when they could advertise with the Toronto Star and get better readership?” Meyer asked.  “That leaves the campus press completely in the lurch.”

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