Suffering Student Media

April 2019

I’ve been observing Canadian student media for a long time. I got my start as a writer at my campus newspaper—an experience that changed me—and after graduation spent a couple of years as a national sales agent for an agency that sold advertising space for Canadian student newspapers. The best part of the job was reading the news from across the country. Many papers, like the Queen’s Journal, the Western Gazette, The Ubyssey, and others, delivered engaging reporting and editorial. They were reliable papers. An easy sell.

That was fifteen years ago. Not that long ago, but long enough for the scene to upend. In reading the student press, speaking to students, and observing the market for many years, I see two factors limiting the student press as a venue for the free exchange of ideas on university campuses. The first is a move towards privileged communication. The second is a change to the business model. Some readers will add that student media has become rigidly, ideologically progressive at the expense of all other points of view. I won’t discuss that issue here. Among the issues facing the student press, ideological bias is the one that needs the least comment.

Privileged communications

One factor limiting the free flow information in the student press is the privileging of information by student unions. Unions have learned from professional politicians and started to accredit media. Some are legitimate. Others they deem fake news.

On the campus where I teach, the student union (UTMSU) has limited access to reporters from the campus paper, The Medium. When the union does provide comment, the comment is almost always filtered. In one low moment, the union provided commentary on transit overcrowding through a nameless “media correspondent.”

Through conversation I also learned that the news editor at the paper had received instruction from the paper’s senior editors that any questions for the union had to be delivered to the senior editors, who would then relate these questions to the union. This policy was imposed at the request of the union. No more on-the-spot interviews. All must be arranged and managed.

Why this was happening became clear after a scandal broke at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. There, the student union tried to limit access to “accredited” media. At one meeting, union executives requested that journalists not live tweet or photograph student politicians out of concern that these students might become targets for online bullies. (At this meeting, the executive planned to overturn a decision made by the general membership to deny funding to a trans center—a controversial decision that would sure lead to some trolling.) Student politicians, I have heard from students, worry that statements they make as students might haunt them on Google forever. And so they want to say less publicly.

These developments—the quietening of unions and the caving of media to union demands—trouble me. The potential to speak stupidly is the risk people take when they enter the public sphere. Democratic representatives must be brave and accountable, not invisible. So must the media. Media that cave to the demands of unions misunderstand who the news media serve. Papers should be on the vanguard of free speech on university campuses, not acceding to the demands of student politicians.

Declining markets and gutted student levies

Advertising in the student press has declined precipitously. In 2006, two national advertising agencies—The Campus Network and Campus Plus—serviced the student press. These agencies brought millions of dollars in corporate advertising to student papers. Both agencies shut down and so far nobody has filled the void. Online advertising revenues do not compete with the revenues print advertising used to deliver. As a result, student newspapers increasingly rely on student levies to finance themselves.

In Ontario, these levies will soon be less stable, less bankable than in the past. The provincial government has instituted the Student Choice Initiative, an initiative that will allow students to opt-out of “non-essential” student fees, like the ones that fund student unions and media.

Proponents of the Student Choice Initiative cheer the move. Unable to win elections and unwilling to establish competing media—actions that take energy and make a positive difference—proponents want to withdraw funding from student organizations that typically lean left. One student told me that he planned on pulling back his levies on everything he could. “I don’t give a shit about any of this stuff,” he told me.

The people who do give a shit will have a harder time at sustaining their organizations. Newspapers will be gutted. Many will have to cut their print distribution, slash editorial salaries, and shrink their ambitions. This is a shame, since student papers do much to educate students and enrich the campus.

As I’ve mentioned in other places, killing funding to student unions and media will not cure the left-wing hegemony conservatives see on their campuses. While it is possible that apathetic students will forget to withdraw their funding, we’re more likely to see diehard activists fund paper themselves. Since they will be the only ones providing funding, they will take greater control of the organizations, however staggered they might be by funding cuts.

Another future exists. External funding sources, like foreign governments, unions, political parties, and other interests targeting students, might offer to underwrite the campus paper since nobody else will. Will these sponsorship arrangements be conducive to free expression?

I don’t mention any of what I’ve said out of spite or to embarrass anybody. The student press is a valuable extracurricular and a bedrock of campus life. I hope it thrives. I mention these developments to inform readers of what I’ve noticed. Readers who have noticed strange goings on with their student media are encouraged to write to me.