There’s no doubt about it, newspapers are in trouble.
In last year’s farewell editorial, my predecessor Jade Colbert was faced with the difficult task of reflecting on the financial and institutional challenges facing The Varsity in the wake of the global recession. After many a healthy financial year we found ourselves facing a budget shortfall so severe that the Board of Directors was forced to make deep cuts in our expenditures: salaries were reduced, spending was slashed, and The Varsity became a weekly after years of publishing on Mondays and Thursdays.
Due in no small part to her efforts and those of last year’s Board, I’m happy to report that The Varsity has experienced an excellent year financially, with ad revenue far exceeding even our most liberal expectations. Regrettably, the problems facing newspapers around the world run much deeper than their financial chemistry.
Ours is a generation with a heroin-like addiction to information. Every morning when I stumble out of bed, the electronic portal which inhabits my desk is my first point of entry into the day. I sometimes spend upwards of an hour engaged in a desultory digital trance before tending to the morning by actually feeding or cleaning myself. Each day without exception, I repeat this activity with ritualistic precision. As everyone at U of T knows, it’s simply impossible not to be consumed by the Internet.
You might think this would create an ideal atmosphere for newspapers to flourish. We have access to more information than ever before, with an ever-increasing number of ways to consume it at our disposal. At this moment however, the entire media industry seems more interested in the means by which information is disseminated than in its actual value or verisimilitude.
In a great twist of irony, the same information mediums being pushed into obsolescence by the digital age seem persistently occupied with extolling it; celebrating their impending demise with thunderous applause. Canada’s election has already been dubbed the “social media campaign” – last week Michael Ignatieff and Stephen Harper both attempted to define the entire election narrative through a carefully orchestrated bought of political chest-pounding…on Twitter; Egypt’s revolt against its brutal dictatorship was widely attributed not to the long suffering of its people, but rather to Mark Zuckerberg and the selfless sacrifices of Google Executives. Just about every major global event is now considered and contextualized in relation to how it came to be news, how the news reached its audience, or how new media (ostensibly) determined its outcome.
In short, the message has become the medium.
This is surely a welcome step for those charged with purveying information as widely and efficiently as possible – be they advertisers or politicians (increasingly indistinguishable from one another) trying to supplant scrutiny for spin – but I believe it also carries with it considerable risk. With more competitors than ever, newspapers are forced to resort to new measures to maintain their readerships, from histrionic headlines to aesthetic overkill. The speed and intensity with which we now receive information leaves us grasping for a narrative, even if one doesn’t really exist.
During and between elections, polling, no matter how variant or ephemeral, becomes a narrative anchor around which newspapers organize much of their reporting. A slight change in the numbers is called a “structural shift”; a poll sample of 1,000 respondents defines the “national sentiment”; often, the public is told exactly what it thinks about an issue before being given pause to consider it (odds are this phenomenon will be on display throughout the next several weeks). Often the polls say something completely different the following week. Hardly anybody seems to remember.
There may be tremendous potential in the proliferation of new media, but we shouldn’t presume that everything coming in its wake will be a boon to democracy – or the institutions that dwell within it.
In spite of the apparent cynicism found in many of the above paragraphs, journalism certainly isn’t dead.
In fact, many of the changes mentioned above have allowed The Varsity to embrace its new weekly format not as a regressive measure, but as a positive step. Not only does our new publishing structure give us more time to expand onto the web with blogs and other content, but it allows us to print more features and in-depth investigative news reports.
It’s true that we can’t always break the news in print the way we used to, but during last summer’s terrifying G20 summit, we learned that breaking stories on the web could be tremendously advantageous, and it’s something we’ve continued to do throughout the year. Accompanying this, every section has undertaken to publish longer and more informative content and regular features. Despite only printing once a week, The Varsity now publishes even more content than it’s published in previous years.
And what splendid content there has been! We have continued to publish our Magazine, which printed three times this year, and have tried to experiment with its form and objectives. Our recent Digital Issue aimed to replicate the info-bite ethos of the Internet, combining shorter, more concise articles with lengthier features. In our other two magazines (Home and All-Arts), we strove for conceptual coherence, hoping to unite every article around a central theme explored in every manner possible.
This year’s masthead took on the task of reinventing The Varsity with tremendous enthusiasm and grace. Their combination of immense creativity and hard work has made what might have been a difficult year, given our recent financial troubles, a fine one to remember.
Despite how abruptly the school year always seems to end, the last twelve months still extend behind like a vast expanse. The sheer number of events at The Varsity this year makes it impossible to reflect on in full, although the routine I’ve developed will certainly be a hard one to shake. My Thursday and Friday afternoons were invariably spent with a cup of tea and a mound of copy in my third floor office at 21 Sussex. During these editing sessions, I learned more about U of T than I ever thought possible.
I also managed to read quite a few back issues of The Varsity which, last October, entered its 130th year of publishing. Early in that month, we released a special issue commemorating the occasion, which included the first editorial we ever printed, and a retrospective looking back on the past 130 years. (We may never have issued an ultimatum to administration threatening a takeover of Simcoe Hall if all our demands weren’t met by High Noon but hey, I think we’ve done our bit this year.)
The Varsity’s history is very much U of T’s history. When The Varsity published its first issue, the university was a thoroughly elitist institution in which a small group of affluent white males were prepared for exciting futures as affluent white males (though the call for entry of women into the classroom was already growing louder). In its first issue, The Varsity called for what was then dubbed co-education.
In the 1960s as the postwar intellectual culture liberalized, so did student life. More so than in any other period in U of T’s history, students imagined themselves as active citizens of the campus, charged with taking ownership of knowledge and using the institution as a progressive instrument for the benefit of society.
Even though this remains the (very worthy) goal of many of today’s student leaders, changes in the nature of the university make the 1960s conception of a participatory, democratic campus increasingly problematic. Though the postwar generation succeeded in making education almost universally accessible in North America and Western Europe, the neo-liberal generation that followed made it as much an economic venture as a tool for learning or fostering democratic citizenship. Today more than ever, the university is infused with the global economic architecture, such that it must now measure its success by its output of “basic income units” (Governing Council speak for students) into the labour market. Within such a model, the very notion of citizenship – either on campus, or in the national sense – falls into jeopardy. Fields of study which contribute to the wellbeing of the economy are privileged over the liberal arts or “antiquated” books. The university simply becomes a business, with students as its patrons, faculty as its employees, and administration as its board of directors.
Despite this fact, student life is still very much alive in the campus press, in clubs and course unions, and in the many student governments which work to improve community on campus and nurture its historic identity; not to mention in classrooms where the professors love to teach and the students still love to learn.
It’s never easy to say goodbye. From the second semester of my first year to the present, The Varsity has been my home on campus. From the day in January, 2009 when I rushed to the newsstand to read my first printed article to today as I write my last as Editor-in-Chief, I have enjoyed immensely the company of everyone at The Varsity, past and present.
This year was no exception. I’d like to thank every person who has contributed to The Varsity during the 2010-2011 publishing year (we simply wouldn’t be here without you!); every editor and associate editor (you’ve been truly inspiring and remarkable colleagues); Emily Sommers, Ruichen Zhu, and Dimitris Apostolopoulos who sat through endless executive meetings for no pay and not much glory (couldn’t have survived without you guys); the fine folks at MasterWeb Incorporated for printing The Varsity on time and in fine shape every week; Rogelio Briseño for being the unshakable backbone of this newspaper, just as he has been for the past decade; and Chandler Levack and Jade Colbert, who are great friends and were tremendous editors to boot.
Newspapers may be in trouble, but this year’s team at The Varsity demonstrated that, even under the most adverse circumstances, it is always possible to adapt and produce something people love to read—and that we can all be proud of.