Roadmapping our new year’s resolutions

An overview of The Varsity’s main projects and priorities for 2018

Roadmapping our new year’s resolutions

Another year, another paper. The Varsity is back with more nail-biting, page-turning, sometimes eyeroll-inducing stories. As student journalists, we find ourselves in a unique position: week to week, we are provided the opportunity to experiment with new ideas and to propose sometimes unconventional initiatives. Some might prove successful, others might not — as students, we know it’s all part of the learning process.

With this in mind, we’ve developed a number of initiatives for the new year. Here’s what you can expect from us in the months ahead.

Content

The Varsity’s News section is excited to publish the results of at least two ongoing long-term investigations during the first semester of 2018. Readers can also expect a regular stream of data and statistical analysis within the News pages, especially given the recent hiring of a data-dedicated Associate News Editor. The team is exploring more engaging ways to cover the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) elections, scheduled to take place in March 2018, while continuing successful methods from 2017. These include publishing detailed profiles of election candidates and their platforms and promises, and hosting a public, live-streamed UTSU presidential candidates’ debate in our newsroom.

The Features section will be starting a new subsection geared toward exploring diaspora and cultural identities in Canada. The goal of this new addition is to shed more light on the diversity of peoples making up the university and the city of Toronto, as well as to give members of these communities the opportunity to voice how their cultures influence their experiences.

The Comment section plans to launch two audio series at the beginning of 2018, and contributors will be invited to participate in both throughout the year. The first is a podcast entitled Comment Up Close, which will feature more in-depth discussion and analysis of cover stories in the section each week. The second is a series of audio articles, featuring narration of Comment articles, created in an effort to make this content more accessible to all readers.

Reader and contributor engagement

Seeking to maximize engagement between The Varsity and its contributors, our management team is piloting larger staff meetings during the winter semester. Currently, the majority of ideas for The Varsity’s content is developed by members of the masthead; our aim with staff meetings is to improve and diversify the stories put out by the paper by incorporating more people in the decision-making process. The first of these staff meetings will take place on January 24. A joint visuals workshop for design, photo, illustration, and video contributors is also in the works.

This week, we also intend to launch an in-depth reader survey online, which will function as a good opportunity for readers to give us feedback on our work. We want to know what you think of us — what you like about us and where you think we need to improve.

Building off our first Reddit-related initiative in the summer, we’ll be actively participating in constructive conversations surrounding what we produce as well.

As we know all too well, the current media climate is fraught — but it doesn’t have to be. To retain mutual trust and to stifle misconceptions of how media functions, publications should actively respond to their readers’ questions and concerns. Accordingly, we hope to use forums like Reddit and Facebook more frequently to clarify confusions or address issues surrounding our content.

Finally, part of promoting reader engagement means continually experimenting with creative ways to bring our stories to you. Recently, our online team uploaded all Varsity issues published since the 2011–2012 school year to Issuu, a digital publishing site. Our Issuu page is currently available to readers, and we plan to integrate this platform with our main website soon.

Long-term projects

The start of 2018 also marks a turning point for one of our most prominent reader engagement projects this school year. In early September, we piloted a Chinese edition of the newspaper, creating a website dedicated to content translated from English into simplified Chinese in order to better engage the more than 10,000 Chinese students who attend U of T, both as readers and as contributors. The results from the site in the first semester have proven promising, so we’ve hired a managing editor for the project; she hopes to expand our presence on social hubs like WeChat and curate the content that appeals most to the Chinese site’s readership.

Ideally, this will pave the way for future initiatives related to The Varsity’s Chinese site. The expansion of this project makes room for more budding student journalists to participate in the site’s efforts, and down the road, we hope to expand this opportunity to writers and editors interested in contributing original works.

We recognize, too, that there’s more to improving our quality of work than simply expanding our pool of contributors. It’s also important that we work to improve our accessibility for contributors. Beginning this semester, The Varsity will be registered with the Co-Curricular Record (CCR), providing contributors with the opportunity to have their work recognized by the university. It’s our long-term hope — not for this semester, but for the successors of the current masthead — to be able to compensate those who currently work for us free of charge. Our writers, photographers, and illustrators are, in many ways, the very foundation of the paper; it is only fair that we strive to compensate them for their efforts.

On behalf of all of our masthead and staff, The Varsity Editorial Board wishes you a happy new year. We hope you enjoy what’s in store this semester — we’ll enjoy bringing it to you.

The Varsity’s editorial board is elected by the masthead at the beginning of each semester. For more information about the editorial policy, email editorial@thevarsity.ca.

Checking for bias

Why newspapers try to evade placement on the political spectrum

Checking for bias

Earlier this summer, The Varsity hosted an “Ask me Anything” (AMA) on Reddit. A reader asked our editors where they thought the newspaper “leaned on the political spectrum.”

It’s a hard question for newspapers. The Varsity — in line with most traditional mainstream media outlets — aims to be objective. But like other newspapers, it often gets accused of bias, most often with reference to the articles in its opinion pages.

A newspaper’s comment section exists to provide opinions on the news, so in one sense it should be biased. Still, newspapers try to embrace a range of opinions in these pages, and for good reason. When all opinion pieces share the same point of view, readers are right to wonder if “toeing the party line,” not thoughtful analysis, determines what gets published.

Responding to the reader’s AMA question, Editor-in-Chief Jacob Lorinc reflected on the commentary written by the paper itself — its unsigned editorials. He conceded that the newspaper’s editorials have lately had a left bent. Admitting he couldn’t point to a recent conservative-leaning board, Lorinc was quick to remind readers that members rotate two to three times per year, so things can quickly change.

But here’s the thing. Just as The National Post leans right and the Toronto Star leans left, The Varsity is always going to be a somewhat left-of-centre publication. It reflects — with some distortion — the campus and city that sustain it. And neither is particularly conservative. Both Torontonians and more educated Canadians — the kind you might find on campus — tend to vote Liberal or NDP. When these are the groups you both draw your writers from and write your stories for, it is hard to see how The Varsity could be anything but.

That said, The Varsity leadership works hard to shed this reputation — as it should. When newspapers too eagerly endorse a set of views, readers are right to doubt whether they are reading facts or partisan talking-points.

In her last column as The New York Times’ Public Editor, Liz Spayd warned against partisan journalism, writing that “whether journalists realize it or not, with impartiality comes authority.” She pointed to the damage the Venezuelan media did to its reputation with Venezuelans during Hugo Chavez’s presidency when, in the absence of any real partisan opposition, it assigned itself the job. The public stopped believing the media was a fair observer of Chavez’s regime.

The Varsity faced a big challenge last year in figuring out how to fairly cover the Jordan Peterson controversy. I was impressed by the self-awareness of its politics that The Varsity brought to its reporting on the issue, and the range of opinions it published. Though I know some readers disagree with me, articles like this or this suggest The Varsity gave real space to more conservative voices writing in opposition to limits to free speech.

Still, I can see why conservative readers often feel shorted. Take, for example, the three most prominently placed articles in The Varsity’s online comment section at the start of the school year. The first article, on diversity in film, argues “more work still needs to be done to ensure women of colour are granted the visibility they deserve.” The second piece, by the editorial board, argues that nationalist rallies have no right to organize on campus. Only the third piece could be said to have more conservative elements, though even here the author advocates wholeheartedly in favour of Canada’s principle of universal healthcare coverage.

The Varsity will naturally gravitate left. It needs to — and for the most part does — carefully monitor this habit. What it shouldn’t do is abandon impartiality altogether. Newspapers that become too ideological or partisan are no longer pursuing the truth or holding power to account. And if they aren’t, who is? In the age of overtly partisan outlets like The Rebel and fake news article generators, I don’t want to find out.