How should a student newspaper be?

An editorial by 2012–2013 Varsity Editor-in-Chief Murad Hemmadi

How should a student newspaper be?

“May you live in interesting times,” says the Bard. I’m referring, of course, to Terry Pratchett. This year has been filled with interesting times for The Varsity, both in its pages and in my tenure as Editor-in-Chief. One hundred and thirty-two years of history is a lot to live up to, but I hope that volume CXXXIII has met that challenge.

 

Money, money, money

The Varsity has faced a tough financial and advertising climate over the last few years, and we’ve adapted to reflect that reality — we’re now one of the few entirely student-run university newspapers in the country.

The referendum to raise our student levy was a key means of ensuring The Varsity’s financial future. I am incredibly grateful for the help and support I received from the board of directors, who oversaw the referendum, and to the paper’s masthead and staff, who put so much time and energy into marketing and campaigning. In particular, Ethan Chiel and Nathan Watson put countless hours into working on the referendum video and talking to students at our tables around campus. The successful passage of the levy increase (if the University Affairs Board of Governing Council approves it later this month) will come as a consequence of the work put in by the paper’s dedicated masthead and staff, and I’m proud to have worked with them on it.

The levy increase will, we hope, allow us to continue to expand our coverage and capabilities. It will also go some way to protecting us against the fluctuations of the advertising market, which took a major hit in 2009–2010 and has continued to waver since. The loss of the agency that sold national advertising on our behalf, which is due to shut down at the end of the summer, will hit us hard — but the impact has been mitigated by a successful levy campaign and the efforts of our in-house advertising team. I have every confidence that they will be able to make up any shortfall we may face.

Ultimately, the money you pay to The Varsity every year goes into the print product, our online presence, and yes, to the salaries of the masthead that works every week to ensure that important stories at this university are covered.

In the brouhaha surrounding ‘defederation,’ the university’s talking heads have often asked, ‘What do our fees pay for? What do students actually get from student fees?” With The Varsity, the answer is news, entertainment, diversion, information, a voice. Campus media is sustained by the students that produce it, and more importantly, by the students that consume it. I believe there will always be an audience for a student publication that speaks for and to students on this campus. That’s what your yearly $3.72 is paying for.

 

Print or online? Both

Editors-in-chief have often in this forum addressed the importance of the Internet and web-specific content for The Varsity. We’ve continued to grow our web presence, following a revamp of our website last year — for which I owe many thanks to last year’s online team and the website developer, kmsm.

The online team this year has emphasized connecting with students over social media, and our editors have delivered a mix of breaking news, online-specific content, and stunning videos that have increased our online footprint significantly. Certain stories just make more sense on our website. Our coverage of NXNE early in the year and the success of the timelapse video for the Night magazine are just two examples of editors understanding the power and popularity of timely, online-appropriate content.

The media landscape is changing. Every year, it seems, more and more student publications reduce or abandon their print publications in favour of online exclusivity. We understand the importance of the Internet, I assure you, and as we promised in our levy campaign we intend to continue to invest in and improve our website and online content.

But print is not dead, and certainly not on university campuses. Reading a copy of The Varsity that you picked up in a building lobby on your way to class is still a popular way of connecting with our content. At the time of our levy campaign, we heard from students who believed students would be better served by an email newsletter. As we outlined during the campaign, print at The Varsity pays for itself and more. But it also serves a more important function — it lets us showcase the work of our talented designers in a way that the website cannot.

So while we’re committed to growing our audience online, we’re also committed to the convenience that print provides to many students, and to the opportunity it provides students to get involved with the paper. You can have great content online and print it too.

 

Stories that Matter

This year we’ve tried to live up to our self-styled role as the student voice on campus. Beyond our coverage of campus politics, defederation, and administrative changes, we’ve endeavoured to steer the conversation at U of T, instead of just reporting it. The hundreds of students who have contributed to the paper this year span the multitude of faculties, colleges, ethnicities, genders, and backgrounds that make up our three diverse campuses, and are uniquely placed to reflect and consider the challenges and issues that face students at this university.

We haven’t always gotten it right, and that’s part of the learning process for every masthead. There have been articles that cause offense, and ones that failed to live up to the high standard of accuracy and ethics that we seek to hold ourselves to.

I’ve been particularly grateful to students willing to confront difficult realities or situations in our pages, for the betterment of their fellow students. Whether they’re dealing with anxieties (“Why I can’t come to class,” January 7, 2013) or stigma because of their sexuality (“Speaking out against small acts of homophobia,” March 4, 2013), these students have raised important issues that many U of T students deal with, but too often cannot express. These students’ perspectives are just as important as those of our student politicians, and it sometimes feels like the discourse on campus drowns out such voices.

Simon Bredin and the news team have consistently reported stories as they happened, covering the defederation and election campaigns from start to finish and breaking news of important campus events (like the appointment of our new university president, “Gertler appointed U of T president,” March 11, 2013). They’ve shown that campus media can cover issues of importance in the same timeframe and with the same thoroughness that readers expect from ‘traditional’ media.

 

Finis

My intent is not to be self-congratulatory, though I am proud of our work this year. I’m trying to point out, instead, the role that The Varsity aspires to at this university — as a participant in, and a driver of, important changes and advances, and as a close chronicler and scrutinizer of the institutions (student-run or otherwise) that govern the academic and social lives of students.

We have a duty to the students at the University of Toronto. If you hear about The Varsity during your time at this university, the choice to engage with us is up to you. But if you make it through your time here without ever knowing this paper exists (and paying our fees the whole while), we’ve failed in our responsibility to engage with you — our audience and fellow students.  I have every confidence that next year, led by newly elected Editor-in-Chief Joshua Oliver, and in the years to come, The Varsity’s dedicated staff of students will work to make sure they fulfill that duty.

I owe a debt of gratitude to every writer, photographer, illustrator, designer, and copy-editor who has worked on the publication this year. And I cannot end without giving credit to the people who make this paper run — the masthead. Your dedication and creativity made me want to come in for every minute of production, and carried me through every meeting and catastrophe. Thank you.

Poking fun at Canadian politics

The Beaverton strives to make its mark in the world of satirical news

Poking fun at Canadian politics

“Mayor Ford Unveils Bold New Double Vision for Toronto,” proclaimed the headline.

“We’re gonna totally end this fucking gravy train, lower taxes, and take our cars and just … and just go,’” Ford was reported yelling during an “impromptu press conference,” held for a couple walking their dog.

One can only hope that the embattled mayor of our city has not actually been reduced to such a state and, at least for the moment, that hope would be vindicated. The aforementioned headline and quote are excerpted from an article by The Beaverton, a rising force in the field of Canadian satirical news.

Having been generally focused on maintaining its online presence for the past few months, The Beaverton is set to produce its third print copy this April.

“I’ve always loved The Onion,” says Laurent Noonan, founder of The Beaverton, in reference to what is arguably the most famous satirical news publication. “But they didn’t really do Canadian humour, so long-term it’s just creating an equivalent of The Onion for Canada, so people aren’t just reading The Onion online; they’re enjoying some homemade comedy covering Canadian stories.”

While much of its content is specifically geared to Canadian audiences, poking fun at the confusing realm of politics in Canada, The Beaverton also frequently runs pieces on pressing international developments. One of The Beaverton’s latest headlines read, “Pope Francis Really Hoping New Job Will Finally Get Him Laid.”

Unfortunately, the publication has run into some challenges as it attempts to grow.

“The thing about fake news is it’s not search-engine friendly, so no one’s ever going to search for one of our articles. People land on our articles by accident,” Noonan explains. “The struggle is the brand-building.”

The Beaverton has achieved some notable successes in the last five months, with several of its articles going viral on social media sites like Reddit and Facebook. “The problem is sometimes a lot of people really like an article, but they don’t necessarily share it on their wall. People will read it, and we get a lot of feedback like this. They’ll like it, but don’t share it on their own social media, so it doesn’t go much further than that.”

Vanessa Purdy, a U of T alumna and writer for The Beaverton, notes that one of the main roadblocks is simply “people not being open to it, or people thinking we don’t really need a Canadian satirical publication.”

“I think it’s important to have a Canadian satirical voice,” she adds.

The Beaverton’s humour is close to unfailingly on point, with pieces ranging from ridiculous (“Turns Out Angry Neighbour Just Had a Mouthful of Bees”), to biting (the Ford story described above), to pedantic enough that you can laugh at them really insistently in order to demonstrate to your friends how educated you are (a cartoon depicting a bull asking a bear in an office, “So you’re my replacement?” and the bear responding drily, “Beats me… Nobody explains anything around here”).

Those involved with the publication take particular pride in how clever their “reporters” are. “Our writers are quite talented,” Noonan says. “We have two that are lawyers, one is an engineer, one is a doctor, lots of university students and graduates, so really smart people on board. It gives us a good feeling that we’re on to something.”

Moving forward, The Beaverton plans to expand its readership through a variety of means. “We want to try to have more distribution points across city, to have places people know they can get it,” Purdy explains.

“We want to try to get it on campus,” she adds, but acknowledges the difficulty of doing so, given the fact that the publication is not officially affiliated with U of T.

But the key to success for the growing satirical paper may be the social media that has helped it achieve its current levels of circulation.

“We just meet people on the street, tell them what we’re all about, that we’re Canadian comedy writers,” Noonan says. “People like to support you once they’ve met you. By virtue of sharing things on our Facebook page with our friends, sometimes they share them and then it starts to spread. If it’s really good, we’ve just got to get it out there on social media pages and then it just takes off across the Internet.

“Sometimes I’ll dress up as a beaver and I’ll go on the street with some of the other writers.”

Noonan emphasizes the unique niche he is trying to fill with his project. “Right now, there’s not really anything like us that’s trying to bring a Canadian satirical newspaper,” he states. “Things have gone well in the last five months because we are doing more timely stuff, and doing Canadian stuff. There’s not really anything else out there that’s covering a lot of Canadian current events stories.”

“The point of what we’re trying to do is get people talking about Canadian news in a different way,” says Purdy. “Whether or not it’s coming from Beaverton is not as important to me as that the idea is out there and people are talking about it.”

The Beaverton can be found at thebeaverton.com. The publication is definitely worth a look for anybody seeking a source for smart, incisive humour.

And that is “humour” with a “u.”

Protecting the press

Attacks on journalists are universally decried, but does our perspective determine which deaths we notice?

Protecting the press

When journalist Daniel Pearl’s murder was filmed 11 years ago in February 2002, his death crystallized a perspective on press safety that had been a long time in the making. Kidnapped in Pakistan while covering a story on militant Islamists for the Wall Street Journal, Pearl was forced to decry his American citizenship and Jewish heritage for the camera before being beheaded, and American media covered the story with vigour. The New York Times lamented that

“The terrible irony of Mr. Pearl’s murder is that he and other independent journalists have been trying to present a detailed and informed portrait of the mindset, motives and grievances of the Islamic fundamentalists in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the war in Afghanistan. That work will continue despite the killing, but the kidnappers have only undermined their cause by their acts.” 

By focusing on Pearl’s obviously horrendous murder as a risk taken by dedicated journalists abroad, The Times emphasized the popular American narrative of an impartial journalist under fire, risking his own life to bring the truth of the story to readers at home. While this explanation might have rung true in the case of Daniel Pearl, it fails to accurately capture the nature of press fatalities and the impact that journalist deaths have on media independence, worldwide.

In the aftermath of Pearl’s slaying, the Committee to Protect Journalists (cpj) issued a manual on protecting journalists in the field, recommending that news networks provide self-defence classes and body armour for their staff abroad. At the same time, the cpj acknowledged most press fatalities are actually local journalists, killed in the same place they live and work. The networks and blogs these journalists work for cannot afford expensive protection, and furthermore, while some local press may be killed in the line of fire, covering protests or wars, most are deliberately targeted because of their profession, either because of their perceived biases or simply because of the nature of journalistic work.

While conflict and violence are some of the events most frequently covered by journalists abroad, the cpj reports that of the 366 journalists killed between 1993 and 2002, only 60, or just over 16 per cent, were killed by crossfire. The other 306 journalists were hunted down and murdered, and their deaths frequently go unreported or under-reported in the world media — unless the victim was a western journalist abroad. In most cases, journalists were killed to prevent them from reporting on human rights issues or corruption, or as retribution for having done so. That we so rarely hear of their deaths questions The Times’ commentary on Pearl’s murder: “independent” journalists the world over are killed because of their reporting, and their work is inherently valuable, but in general, American and Western media do not value it. We tend to romanticize the deaths of our own journalists while ignoring the deaths of others.

The current situation in Syria provides a perfect backdrop for examining the various ironies of press endangerment and the ensuing impact on journalistic integrity. In 2012, Syria was the location of a plurality of media deaths: 28 of the 70 journalists that the cpj lists as having been killed as a direct, confirmable result of their work died in Syria. These deaths included photographer Remi Ochlick and reporter Marie Colvin, who were killed together in a shelling of their makeshift shelter in Homs, a year ago February. Their deaths, though incidental fatalities of their location rather than targeted killings, received intensive coverage. Colvin, a veteran American journalist who had entered Syria despite attempts on the part of its government to prevent foreign press from covering the uprising, and Ochlick, a young French photojournalist, were extensively mourned, their coverage and bravery praised.

Concurrently, however, both Syrian rebel forces and loyalists of Syrian government were openly targeting journalists perceived to be supporting the opposing side. While some of these journalists worked for local news stations or papers, many of them are simply described as freelancers, either videographers or bloggers, who were covering what is being referred to as “the first YouTube war,” where men with guns are followed by men with camera phones.

American popular opinion on Vietnam, “the first television war,” was heavily influenced by the fact that the horrors of the conflict were viewable on a mass scale, a scale that is now being dwarfed by the use of social media in the Arab Spring. But the sheer glut of information that is readily available for those of us distant from the conflict — tweets, YouTube videos, and blog posts — is perhaps not entirely beneficial to those who endanger themselves by providing that information. When it comes to news, we may immediately assume that more coverage and more perspectives are better, but volume does not necessarily ensure that we, as news consumers far from where the story is happening, are truly receiving an unbiased examination of events.

That we don’t hear about local press fatalities belies the notion, put forth by The Times 11 years ago, that we value journalists’ sacrifice because the sacrifice is a risk inherent to creating independent, unbiased reporting. This may be so, and a diversity of viewpoints is certainly essential to creating an accurate news narrative. However, the silent casualties of local press, of which the Syrian conflict is a good example, indicates that we don’t value journalistic sacrifices for this reason alone; we mourn losses in our press corps because they are our press corps, not because of the quality of journalism they put out or the risks they take in the field.

The term “Arab Spring,” for example, is representative of the highly constructed nature of corporate journalism, in any country. Writing for Al Jazeera, Joseph Massad described the term as being an attempt to steer the movement towards an American style liberal democracy by imposing linguistically on its “aims and goals.” “Spring” itself is a reference to the European Revolutions of 1848, which is referred to as the Springtime of the Peoples for the revolutionary movement away from monarchy and towards democracy.

With this type of deliberate linguistic and narrative architecture in place throughout mass media, in the strictest sense, the most independent, unbiased journalism being created now is the kind coming from Syrians with camera phones. Whatever their personal biases may be towards the conflict in their own country, that grainy footage and those of-the-moment tweets are unfiltered and unedited. The fact that foreign press casualties are not more publicized means that what we say about our own press casualties is merely propaganda; that it is not independent news we value, but news that fits into the constructed narrative, from journalists who have editors back home at their news conglomerates.