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Institutions of higher education, like other organizations, expend considerable effort to maximize their appearance in the mainstream news media. National coverage in the New York Times, the paper of record for the United States, is especially coveted, yet little is known about the selection bias mechanisms that impact national media coverage of universities. This study traces a 60-year history of New York Times coverage of research universities in the United States and finds that reporting volume has increased slightly even while the Times itself has shrunk by nearly half. Four categories are explored to determine the factors that have the greatest influence on news coverage of an institution: geographic location, enrollment, budget, and research output. Most surprisingly, universities are shown to have transitioned from news makers to news commentators.
New York Times coverage of research universities has increased slightly over the past 60 years, even while the paper as a whole was cut by nearly half. As a result, the percent of all Times news content mentioning a research university has doubled from 5% to 13%, while front page mentions have increased by fourfold to 21%. Nearly a quarter of all front page articles now mention at least one research university. At the same time, the percentage of articles about those institutions has dropped nearly 40%, marking a shift away from universities as a source of the news themselves to being just a source of soundbites on the news.
No single institutional characteristic seems to fully explain the differences in coverage over this period. Distance has a minor relationship, with public schools closer to large cities and private schools closer to New York City receiving slightly increased coverage. Total student enrollment is strongly correlated, especially graduate enrollment. Budget data for public institutions suggest that those with larger total expenditures have greater news coverage and that expenditures are more important than total assets. However, the proportion of a school's budget spent on public service, instruction, institutional support, and physical plant upkeep are inversely correlated with news coverage. Large faculty sizes are strongly correlated with increased coverage in both public and private institutions.
Thus, schools with the highest volume of news coverage have high expenditures, high numbers of faculty, low portions of their budget spent on public service and physical plant, and high student enrollments (especially graduate enrollments). Such institutional characteristics support the model of the "soundbite" university in that those institutions are more likely to attract the kind of high-stature faculty that newspapers like the New York Times seek the opinion of. This is a dramatic departure from the traditional model of mass press release mailings that public affairs offices have focused on and suggests universities may need to fundamentally revaluate the ways in which they interact with the press under this shifting model of higher education news coverage.