Hard-Pressed at BU

BU's journalism department rocks. So... why is the school’s student paper tanking?

Illustration by Vigg Illustration/Ann Koeffler

Illustration by Vigg Illustration/Ann Koeffler

Boston University has one of the country’s highest-power journalism programs: It boasts Pulitzer-winning faculty and alumni who go on to the New York Times. And yet, BU’s student newspaper is nearly broke, largely ignored on campus, and now—particularly embarrassing for an “independent” newspaper—in hock to the school. In May the Daily Free Press accepted a $78,000 advance on future advertising from BU’s administration to stave off bankruptcy. That’s the same administration, by the way, that the Free Press is supposed to be covering.

Like a lot of papers, the broadsheet was hit hard by the 2008 recession, which killed ad sales and sent print costs soaring. In response, the Free Press cut back on circulation and page counts, eliminated the Friday edition, and moved to a cheaper office.

But other local student papers have fared better lately: The Harvard Crimson and the Tufts Daily both started off the year in the black. Advertisers, it seems, still love reaching college kids.

So what’s the problem with the Free Press? A lack of interest, apparently. The paper has a circulation of just 4,000, while the Crimson is at 6,000 (despite Harvard having less than half as many students as BU). The Free Press has also had trouble attracting aspiring journalists. While the Tufts paper’s masthead is crammed with more than 100 names, the Free Press lists just nine.

All of which may point to the real issue: Instead of being a rollicking, risk-taking lab for young journos, the paper plays it by the book with its coverage, notes BU journalism department chairman William McKeen. “The Free Press could develop more of an attitude or an identity with the BU students,” he says. As a result, while reporters and editors at Harvard and Tufts flock to their campus papers, BU students strive for internships elsewhere in the city.

And what of the Free Press’s reporting now that it’s taken the advertising advance? Annie Ropeik, the student chairman of the paper’s board of directors, says she expects BU to stay hands-off. “Our plan is business as usual,” she says. That might not be a good thing.

Boston University
4,000   Circulation of the Free Press
16,340   Total undergrads

Harvard University
6,000   Circulation of the Crimson
6,641   Total undergrads

Tufts University
4,000   Circulation of the Tufts Daily
5,150   Total undergrads

Clarification: The Daily Free Press and Tufts Daily have different conventions for listing staffers on their mastheads; the Free Press does not necessarily include all contributors to the newspaper in theirs.