About a week ago, another school at this university invited my colleague in advancement to a meeting. The meeting, as it turned out, was less of a meeting than it was a sales pitch.

The other school, and the campus media office that works with this school, wanted my school to help share the cost on something called Meltwater. What Meltwater was providing these units, basically, was a clipping service — they’d monitor media sites around the globe looking for references to their school and compiling them all into their user interface. It’s pretty slick; there’s even a button for translating foreign language press into English (by means of a Babelfish-type “translator,” which, of course, isn’t “translating” as much as “looking up word meanings and subsituting the English words that mean the same without reference to cultural context clues or idioms”).

Meltwater costs this other school and the media office $10,000. I’m not sure if it’s a month, year, or multi-year subscription, but the number that stuck in my coworker’s mind was $10,000.

As everyone who’s acquianted with the University of Washington knows, we’re going though a horrific budget crisis and looking at a 13% cut to the state’s higher education funding. Discretionary spending, already low in good times, has shrunk to almost non-existent now. Asking us to share in a $10,000 bill for a clipping service is something we can’t do.

But here’s the thing: we already have a clipping service running here in the school. A few years ago, I set up some Google Alerts using variations of the school’s name. About once a day I get an e-mail with an article or press release featuring some combination of the search term. I get a lot of false positives, yes, but the gems are easy to spot amongst the muck, and more often I’ve been able to scoop our assistant to the dean on stories — and our dean’s assistant is incredibly diligent at monitoring local news sources.

My colleague, luckily, had the Meltwater username and password, so I went in and compared a search of our school’s name with the Google Alerts responses I received. Meltwater was a little better at limiting the cruft, but not much, and they did not turn up a single article in their search that Google Alerts had not already notified me of.

No, Google Alerts doesn’t have a slick user interface. It’s just e-mails. It doesn’t have a “translation” service built in. You have to go run the article through Babelfish to fake-translate it yourself. And there’s a bit of a learning curve. You must punch in the searches yourself and tinker and tune them until they’re right.

But Google Alerts is free.

I’m hard-pressed to find anything about Meltwater that’s so superior to Google Alerts that it’s worth $10,000. In a time of financial hardship, would you rather pay $10,000 for the all-in-one solution that is Meltwater, or pay nothing for a product that has 90% of the features and has a slightly higher learning curve? The decision, for us, was easy — we’re not paying in to this $10,000 service.

There’s one thing gnawing at me, though. This can’t be the only service at this university people are overpaying for. Somewhere out there we’re leaking cash this university desperately needs to some company providing a service that could be done elsewhere for free or for a much lower cost.

Ten thousand dollars. That’s tuition for three quarters of graduate work here on campus.