How independent are student newspapers across Canada?

The Varsity investigates whether ties to student governments affect how campus publications operate

How independent are student newspapers across Canada?

In March 1994, after The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) student newspaper, ran a satirical full-page ad criticizing the UBC Alma Mater Society (AMS), the AMS fired the editors of The Ubyssey and replaced them with their own. When things fell apart, the AMS changed the locks to The Ubyssey’s office and shut down the paper. At the time, this was possible because The Ubyssey was published and funded the AMS.

In response, Ubyssey editors began gathering signatures from students to hold a referendum for a student levy that would support the revival of a new, independent The Ubyssey. The referendum passed January 1995, and the revived The Ubyssey published its first independent issue in July 1995.

Many other campus publications across Canada are still directly tied to their student governments, either through financing or governance. The Varsity examined the independence of student newspapers across Canada to see how autonomy — or lack thereof — can affect a paper’s content and operations.

Silhouette

In 2006, the Editor-in-Chief of the Silhouette, McMaster University’s campus newspaper, was fired by two members of the McMaster Students Union (MSU), supposedly “without cause.”

Unlike The Ubyssey, the Silhouette still operates as a service of the MSU. However, the Silhouette and the General Manager of the MSU — who was one of the executives who fired the Editor-in-Chief in 2006 — are committed to the lessons learned from the situation and have been working closely together since then.

Silhouette’s main connection to the MSU is through its Board of Publication, which approves its budget and publishing schedule and acts as an arbitrator for libel law concerns. Some members of the MSU also have a say in choosing the Silhouette’s masthead, although according to the Silhouette’s Editor-in-Chief, Shane Madill, the outgoing Editor-in-Chief holds most of the power in the decision-making process.

“The short version of this is that we have as much control over our masthead and content as possible while still having some support and second opinions if needed,” said Madill. “[The MSU acknowledges] that we have far more knowledge and experience with journalism and our service than they do, especially given the lack of a j-school here, and respect our actions and decisions related to the paper as a result.”

Despite the MSU’s involvement, Madill said it does not influence the Silhouette’s content. “I have not made any decisions about content or story ideas based off of what the MSU or McMaster would approve or disapprove of,” he said.

The Western Gazette

The Gazette, the student newspaper of Western University, is owned and operated by the University Students’ Council (USC), which collects its annual student fee of $18.51 on its behalf. However, according to Gazette Editor-in-Chief Amy O’Kruk, the Gazette maintains its editorial autonomy.

The main way the Gazette achieves its independence is through its Publications Committee, an official USC committee that acts as a liaison between the Gazette and the USC. All major decisions by the USC first need to be presented to the Publications Committee, which is made up of Gazette alumni, journalists working in the field, a media lawyer, students-at-large representatives, USC representatives, representatives from the Gazette’s advertising department, and in non-voting positions, the Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editors.

“I would say that the Gazette is in a good position right now because of our Publications Committee,” said O’Kruk. “It’s very much been respected by the USC and has been kind of the formal body that has gone over disputes or brought things to the table that the Gazette and the USC haven’t always agreed on. It’s been there, and we’ve been able to come to compromises so far.”

In O’Kruk’s five years at the Gazette, she has never seen the USC intrude upon the Gazette’s editorial independence, though she did note that Western University “essentially forced” the Gazette to pull its 2014 frosh issue from the stands because it contained a controversial “guide” to dating teaching assistants.

Now that advertising revenue is down, the Gazette relies almost entirely on its student fee. This could theoretically give the USC power over the Gazette and put the Gazette’s editorial autonomy at risk.

“As the Editor-in-Chief, my first and foremost responsibility is to look out for the paper,” said O’Kruk. “Right now, I’m looking at other ways that we can increase our digital advertising revenue, hosting events, other things that are a little bit more unconventional, just so that we can get to a place where we’re not totally relying on that student fee.”

The Queen’s Journal

Queen’s University’s student newspaper, The Queen’s Journal, is financially supported by Queen’s University Alma Mater Society (AMS) and is funded through student fees and advertising revenue.

The Queen’s Journal reports its budget and goal plan to the Journal Advisory Board, which consists of the Editor-in-Chief and the Managing Editor, who share one vote on the board, Vice-President of Operations and Media Services Director of the AMS, who also share one vote, a representative from the AMS Board of Directors, two members of the Journal’s editorial board, a representative from the Society of Graduate and Professional Students, three students-at-large, the Journal’s Business Manager, who is non-voting, and the AMS General Manager, who is also non-voting.

“Our goal plan and budget go through the Journal Advisory Board for approval first and then go to the AMS Board of Directors for approval as well,” said Editor-in-Chief Joseph Cattana.

According to Cattana, decisions about the masthead or content of the Journal are made by the Editor-in-Chief and the Managing Editor, and the AMS holds no power over the masthead or content.

“I have never felt restricted or censored from publishing certain content because of outside influences like Queen’s University or the AMS,” said Cattana. “The AMS and the Queen’s Journal will always have their differences, but it has never infringed on our ability to produce content.”

The Ubyssey

The Ubyssey is “super independent,” said Coordinating Editor Jack Hauen. The Ubyssey’s only ties to its student union are through an agreement to lease space in the student union building in exchange for one full-page coloured advertisement per month.

The Ubssey is really happy with our independence at the moment,” said Hauen. “There’s always going to be communications issues with the student government and UBC — they feel like it’s easier to ignore student papers than, you know, mainstream media — but independence wise, we’re peachy-keen.”

In order to avoid the perception of bias, Hauen banned Ubyssey members from ‘liking’ or ‘love reacting’ to social media posts by AMS members. However, Hauen encourages Ubyssey members to ‘friend’ members of the AMS on social media or engage with their Facebook events in order to stay as up-to-date as possible.

The Gauntlet

According to Jason Herring, the Editor-in-Chief of the Gauntlet, the University of Calgary’s student newspaper, the paper is “99 per cent” financially independent and “100 per cent” independent in terms of governance. The Gauntlet is funded by a student levy of $3.50 per student every semester, as well as through advertisements.

The Gauntlet provides the University of Calgary Students’ Union (SU) with two advertisements in each issue in exchange for using space in the student centre building, but the SU holds no power over the content or operations of the Gauntlet. Sometimes Herring receives emails criticizing the Gauntlet’s coverage of the SU, but he noted the SU doesn’t “have any actual power.”

“I’ve never personally felt restricted from publishing anything,” said Herring. “There’s definitely no outside factors that have restricted what I’m doing.”

“Students who go to a school and report on politics might be friends with the student politicians,” said Herring. “I think that some papers have a bit too militant of a stance towards their students’ unions and toward their editors’ relations with the students’ unions.”

How independent are your student publications? Part II

How governance and form restrict and expand the content of campus publications

How independent are your student publications? Part II

In The Varsity’s first issue of Volume 138, we looked into the independence of campus publications, mainly focusing on newspapers. Here, we examine the role of governance in editorial autonomy — and the ways in which form restricts content at more niche campus publications.

Acta Victoriana, the literary journal of Victoria University, operates through a levy that comes directly from the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council (VUSAC). There is a certain amount of money Acta receives that can only be changed through a vote among Victoria University students. VUSAC also has no influence over the makeup of Acta’s masthead or the types of content published in the literary journal.

“The amount of funding we receive doesn’t need VUSAC’s approval in any way. So, financially, we’re fairly autonomous,” said Carl Christian Abrahamsen, one of the Editors-in-Chief of Acta. [But] sometimes freedom can actually be a difficulty.”

The journal’s editorial autonomy does not come without difficulties of its own. Since VUSAC does not oversee Acta’s masthead, the journal has been subject to bouts of internal mismanagement. 

Acta is an example of ways governance can affect the structure and efficiency of campus publications. While editorial autonomy allows for creative freedom, it also leaves publications entirely in the control of their executives.

Maintaining editorial autonomy through funding

Juxtaposition, a non-profit and global health magazine based at U of T, receives its funding from sponsors, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), grants, and occasionally colleges and departments.

In order to not be beholden to one type of sponsor and face problems with funding demands or dependency, Juxtaposition tries to diversify its funding sources.

“The sources of financial support also do not impact the content we publish, our values and mission, or how we choose to decide on topics for events,” Simran Dhunna, last year’s co-Editor-in-Chief, wrote in an email to The Varsity.

“Speaking for myself and during my tenure, I haven’t felt censored or restricted from publishing certain content,” Dhunna wrote. “We have quite a bit of freedom to publish different types of content, especially that which deviates from traditional biomedical perspectives on health.”

Dhunna wrote that as long as writers and editors approach content critically, use evidence, and employ culturally considerate language, then “everything is fair game.”

The U of T chapter of online magazine Her Campus is a UTSU-recognized student group. Because of this, it depends entirely on the UTSU to pay for events and any physical materials it uses.

“We didn’t receive too much last year, but I think that has to do with our ‘club category’ or ‘club level,’ so that impacted what we had to do for events, specifically where we had to do outreach for to make ends meet in terms of catering, venue, etc.,” Veronika Potylitsina, Co-Editor-In-Chief and Campus Correspondent of U of T’s chapter of Her Campus, wrote to The Varsity.

According to Potylitsina, the structure, governance, and financing of each Her Campus chapter is decided by the Campus Correspondents. U of T’s chapter has not been censored by the university, but other chapters have been under certain conditions that dictate their content be conservative or un-opinionated.

“We have a lot of freedom in terms of what we can publish,” wrote Potylitsina.

The freedom and constraints of form

Campus publications are also beholden to their physical — or digital — forms, which can dictate what kind of content is produced and when it is published.

Juxtaposition mainly publishes online, which allows articles on current events to be quickly published and helps Juxtaposition reach a wider audience beyond just U of T.

“Our content naturally diversifies, and has the space to be more creative, because we are less restricted by the typical logistical challenges of print publishing,” wrote Dhunna. “It also allows readers to engage with content more dynamically, through sharing our articles in their own networks/platforms and commenting on articles directly.”

Dhunna also notes that publishing online allows Juxtaposition to monitor its statistics and report those numbers to sponsors.

Juxtaposition publishes one print magazine per year, which, according to Dhunna, “demands a different level of creativity.”

“So while online publishing is an article-by-article process that is more fast-paced, print publishing positively challenges us to think about our content in a more structurally creative way,” Dhunna wrote. “There are trade-offs for both with regards to readership, content and design.”

As an online magazine, the U of T chapter of Her Campus also has freedom to quickly publish articles and reach U of T students across all three campuses.

“We have members from all three campuses and from a variety of studies, and I think the convenience of communicating and operating mostly online is what draws people to join our publication,” wrote Potylitsina. “That being said, it’s very easy to feel disconnected on a team that does most if not all of their communication online.”

Disclosure: Sophia Savva is an Editor for the U of T chapter of Her Campus.

Understanding racism is as important as calling it out

Re: “Campus publications denounce white supremacy in wake of Charlottesville”

Understanding racism is as important as calling it out

The conflict in Charlottesville continues to occupy a prominent place in the news. Earlier this summer, the hatred and violence that transpired at the Unite the Right rally prompted condemnation from most mainstream sources.

At U of T, after The Gargoyle issued a statement condemning white supremacy and Neo-Nazism in all forms, other major student publications were prompted to do the same. In general, the way media sources have responded to hatred has sparked controversy over the nature of neutrality and bias, and whether there is a place for social activism in journalism.

Definitively, neutrality is a key factor of the journalistic process. This is because journalism, at its core, is a truth-seeking process: the practice requires making honest observations and conducting analyses of the way things really are.

The Gargoyle and other publications are fully justified in condemning white supremacy and other deplorable ideologies. White supremacy is an idea that violates the core principles we as members of society ought to share: it cuts across partisan divides, and runs counter to the very foundations of our political discourse, which are based on equality and respect.

At the same time, publications who condemn white supremacy should also make the effort to understand where it comes from. Alongside elements of hatred, what happened in Charlottesville was an expression of anger from those fearful of the unknown, and isolated by rapid economic and social change. Given the truth-seeking exercise underlying the journalistic process, we should not hesitate to investigate the nuances of these conflicts.

Sam Routley is a third-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Political Science, History, and Philosophy.