Cruz-Rubio flap spotlights big spending by UPenn paper

February 24, 2016
The quad at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia

On Monday, Ted Cruz fired his communications director for tweeting an erroneous article by student journalists describing Marco Rubio mocking the Bible. The quip in question occurred Saturday morning at a Hampton Inn in Columbia, South Carolina, where seven Daily Pennsylvanian staffers also happened to be staying. It’s unfortunate that their misquote became a national story. But what were these student reporters doing more than 600 miles from campus in the first place?

They drove down mainly to cover Donald Trump, whose preferred descriptor for newspapers, whether The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, is “failing.”* The billionaire’s heart might warm, however, at the recent spending by the student paper at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, which sent seven reporters to cover the campaigns in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and four to the pre-caucus events in Iowa. No other campus newspaper appears to be investing anything close to as much in presidential campaign coverage.

Every Ivy League school has a daily paper funded independently from the university, and 2013 tax forms show The Daily Pennsylvanian with net assets nearing $3.2 million, second only to The Harvard Crimson. A letter from the paper’s president, Colin Henderson, explains the spending on campaign coverage, calling it “perhaps the most demanding coordinated travel effort that the DP has attempted in its history.” He cites the prominence of one alumnus, Trump (who boasts ad nauseum that he attended Penn’s Wharton School of Business), as a driving factor. But the paper’s reporting isn’t limited to Trump’s campaign. At best, sending students across the country to cover the race gives up-and-coming journalists an enviable learning opportunity. At worst, it’s overindulgent, given the glut of coverage from national outlets. Either way, it’s a reminder that while most school papers are strapped for cash, a select few are swimming in it.

Despite the recent error that gained national attention, some Daily Pennsylvanian campaign coverage has been impressive. City news editor Dan Spinelli, a sophomore studying English and political science, offered a charming tour of Ben Carson’s press bus in Iowa.* He reported on rallies for several candidates before the caucuses, and, about a week later, filed a story on campaign events in New Hampshire. One editor, sophomore Caroline Simon, an English and communication major, wrote a short essay describing her seven-person team’s experience in South Carolina. “The way we were treated by other journalists ranged from odd maternal kindness to all-out hostility,” she wrote.

Citing a flood of press inquiries after the Rubio-Cruz flap, Daily Pennsylvanian editors declined to speak by phone with CJR on Tuesday. In an email, Digital Director Carter Coudriet wrote, “I was part of our New Hampshire coverage contingency, and I was blown away by the level of access we have had. In New Hampshire, we were probably some of the only student journalists at these events, yet I stood among CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and other major news outlets. Covering these events has definitely reaffirmed my drive to pursue journalism as a career.”

According to Coudriet, a sophomore studying political science, campaign coverage this year has cost the paper about $4,000, paid primarily through a travel fund subsidized by alumni donations.*

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Earlier this month, two reporters from The Harvard Crimson accompanied 50 student volunteers on an hour-and-a-half Saturday morning bus ride to Nashua, New Hampshire. Beyond that, none of the Ivy League newspapers appears to have sent reporters to out-of-state campaign events, based on a review of their recent Web output.

“It was really awesome to see that type of raw energy,” says Daniel Wood, one of the Crimson writers on that assignment. The freshman reporter scored an unexpected interview with Massachusetts Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy III at Hillary Clinton’s Nashua office.

It’s not unusual for student newspapers to pay for reporters to cover road games for prominent sports teams. At Penn State, The Daily Collegian sends reporters and photographers to away football games and to major in-state news events. Its editor in chief, Shannon Sweeney, a senior studying print journalism and political science, explained by email, “If we had the funds to send people to cover [campaigns from the trail], I definitely think it would be worthwhile. College newspapers are supposed to teach their staffers how to be reporters, and there’s no better way than sending people out in the field with other reporters.”

At the University of Virginia’s Cavalier Daily, another nationally respected student paper, reporters must pay out-of-pocket to cover away games. “The financial constraints are probably why there’s not much incentive to cover national campaigns, either,” Editor in Chief Dani Bernstein, a junior, wrote in an email. “Our readers will likely read about it elsewhere, and the cost of a hotel, etc., would be a large amount out of our budget, which … is pretty tight.”

Coudriet of The Daily Pennsylvanian says there are no set plans to cover upcoming primaries, but the staff will size up the situation in the coming weeks. “We’re all students,” he wrote, “and everybody involved in the election coverage has been playing catch-up with academic and extracurricular work.”

*An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the students flew to South Carolina. They drove. We also mistakenly listed rental cars among the student journalists’ travel expenses. Additionally, based on an inaccurate Daily Pennsylvanian staff webpage, we misidentified Dan Spinelli as a staff writer. We regret the errors.

Danny Funt is a senior editor at The Week and a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt