A foot in the door

The New York Times is slowly trying to make itself indispensable to Portland State students and faculty.

Two different programs have brought the leading paper of record to campus for free this year. With the shower of attention has come encouragement for professors to use the Times in their curriculums and a pitch for student government to buy subscriptions.

Last spring, New York Times Education Manager Peter Eliason-Rivera arranged with Kevin Kecskes, the director of community-based learning in the Center for Academic Excellence, to make free copies available to students and faculty. Despite his efforts to get the Times to extend the offer, Kecskes said, the shipments of free papers ended finals week of Summer Term.

At that point, the New York Times ran an advertisement in the Vanguard for discounted subscriptions. The Times also did a study of the paper’s appeal and with that information pitched subscriptions to student government.

Their investment paid off, said professor R. Unni, who teaches marketing and advertising classes in the School of Business. He bought a subscription at the end of summer term after he missed having the paper around.

When the offer was up, though, Eliason-Rivera began looking around, Kecskes said.

"They would love for somebody around here to figure out where we could get money to pay for papers," he said. Kecskes puts the estimated annual cost at somewhere between $80,000 – 100,000. "Many times the pay for that comes out of the student fee money."

Kecskes referred Eliason-Rivera to student government.

Tony Rasmussen, communication director for student government, said they had supported the idea but didn’t have the necessary student support for bringing the paper to campus.

"We can’t use student money without obtaining the approval of the student body," he said. "With no students advocating for it, we can’t respond to a private company that way. We respond to students, period."

Even with 65 percent off the regular rate, the program had a $17,500 price tag, Eliason-Rivera told student government in July. Eliason-Rivera offered the organization a deal for Fall Term: If student government dedicated $5,833 of student fee money, the additional two thirds of the funding could be divided between the New York Times and PSU administration.

"They talked to the administration, they talked to [PSU President Daniel] Bernstine. They were lobbying really hard for this," Rasmussen said, adding that he and SALP Director Tonantzin Oceguera, who was also involved in the discussions, had received gifts from the Times such as frisbees and personal organizers.

Oceguera had also welcomed the idea of having the New York Times free on campus, but for the money, she said, there wasn’t enough student support.

"We needed evidence that students wanted this, since it would be students who eventually foot the bill. The data that came out [of the Times-conducted survey] didn’t prove that students wanted it or needed it," Oceguera said. "It very much felt that the New York Times was saying ‘do this because it’s good for students.’"

Oceguera said she had approached students who liked the free copies to see if they’d support use of student fee money for subscriptions, but hasn’t encountered anyone who is enthusiastic.

"Most students that I talk to say, ‘No, it’s not that cool, not for several thousand dollars a year,’" she said. "If it was driven from within a student group, we’d be more apt to consider it."

For now, students, faculty and staff have free access to the Times thanks to the work of the Graduate School of Education. Associate professor Carolyn Carr from the Graduate School of Education worked to get funds from the Oregon Department of Education, which was one of 16 states to receive money from the Wallace Foundation. In part, money from the foundation supports school reform through improving literacy and cultural competency, Carr said.

"[The New York Times] started [donating copies] for all the Wallace Foundation Universities, as far as I know," Carr said, citing the Times’ interest in the Wallace Foundation’s mission.

Carr understands that the Times stands to gain for its philanthropy.

"As an information agency, they want to sell papers," she said. "This builds awareness of the many uses you can make of that paper."

As to nudging professors to use the Times in their courses, Carr points out that this isn’t a unique goal. "Like many newspapers, they have guides for how to use papers in different courses," Carr said, adding that the Times has put special content on its website geared toward students, such as letters from deans and a legislator.

Kecskes says that the Times thought PSU’s focus on community-based learning made the campus an ideal place to further the Times’ own mission.

"They’re in the news business to educate people," Kecskes said. "They feel they have a good product and if they get it into classrooms, people will be better educated."

If the New York Times hopes to get subscriptions from donating copies to PSU, it’s a long shot from a marketing standpoint, Unni said. There’s no money allocated for PSU to buy subscriptions for students, he said, and students aren’t likely to buy their own, even after the free copies disappear.

"I don’t think they’re targeting students, that’s my personal opinion," he said.

"You can’t call this a bait and switch unless you look at it long term, where people get used to having it and get addicted," he said. "How many people will really come back to the Times after they pull out? That’s a good question."

Donating copies with the hopes that students will get hooked "can’t be a sustainable stand-alone model," Unni said. "The New York Times will definitely benefit, but I think it’s a stretch to expect schools to foot the bill."

At press time, Peter Eliason-Rivera was unavailable for comment.