The Ford government’s postsecondary education reforms potentially foretell a precarious future for campus journalism. Premier Doug Ford recently sought to justify the government’s new opt-out model for “non-essential” student fees by pointing to the controversy unfolding at Ryerson University.
The Ryerson Students’ Union (RSU) has allegedly racked up $250,000 in credit card debt. On Twitter, Ford linked to the CBC’s coverage of events and wrote: “I’ve heard from so many students who are tired of paying excessive fees, only to see them wasted and abused.” However, as other journalists have noted, in linking to the CBC’s article, Ford’s tweet overlooked a core component of the story: the news was first reported by The Eyeopener, Ryerson’s student newspaper.
Campus newspapers perform vital investigative and communicative roles, holding student organizations and university administrators accountable for their conduct. These campus institutions are also largely financially dependent on student fees, which, at public universities, are ultimately beholden to provincial policies.
As Editor-in-Chief Jack Denton wrote in his recent letter, “money from student fees comprises the majority of our revenue and we could not survive without it. The financial uncertainty of whether or not we would receive enough student fees in any given semester… would debilitate our operations.” In other words, the provincial government’s postsecondary policy reforms pose an “existential threat” to campus journalism as we know it.
Supporting strong campus journalism is neither a liberal nor a conservative value. It is, instead, a shared Canadian tradition that reflects our collective commitment to free press and engaged democracy. Student journalism is a vital component of U of T’s identity, as it is for academic institutions across Ontario. In addition to providing a robust exchange of ideas and information, The Varsity offers critical training for students who may shape the field of journalism.
Of course, the journalism we support must be thoughtful and productive. In response to Ford’s tweet about the Ryerson scandal, The Varsity published a photograph of the RSU executive Edmund Sofo and Ford posing together at an Ontario Progressive Conservatives Youth barbecue in August. The decision to publish the photograph was criticized by readers, who failed to see how the image was newsworthy in this context. In my opinion, this criticism is well-founded. The Varsity’s reporting seemed more akin to a political campaign response than appropriate journalism.
However, The Varsity’s shortcoming in this respect doesn’t delegitimize its broader function in our community. Indeed, the existence of the public editor column, in which I am free to criticize the newspaper and its editorial decisions, demonstrates the seriousness with which The Varsity undertakes its mandate.
As the public editor, I typically look inward, holding The Varsity accountable to journalistic standards and mediating the relationship between readers and the newspaper. But, with the newspaper’s future jeopardized, I find myself in the unusual position of looking outward and examining the consequences of the Ford government’s political reforms on students’ capacity to produce high-quality journalism.
Relegating student journalism to a hodgepodge of volunteer efforts and social media commentary — which is one possible outcome of these reforms — would be a profound disservice to U of T. It would reduce the quality of the news conveyed, diminish our collective role in training future journalists, and denigrate a symbolic space in which we, as a community, can engage in thoughtful self-reflection about who we are, what we represent, and the values to which we aspire.
Morag McGreevey is The Varsity’s Public Editor and can be reached at email@example.com.