The Varsity looks into independence of student papers across Canada

The University of Toronto’s campus newspaper, The Varsity, recently published an article about the level of independence of several major university campus newspapers from their student unions.

Specifically, the article looked at the campus newspapers of McMaster University, the University of British Columbia (UBC), the University of Western Ontario (UWO), and Queen’s University, with their respective publications being The Silhouette, The Ubyssey, The Gazette, and The Queen’s Journal.

In 1994, the editors of The Ubyssey were fired for publishing a full-page satirical advertisement that criticized the university’s student government, the Alma Mater Society (AMS), according to The Varsity article.

According to the article, the AMS then replaced the editors with AMS members, which did not last as a call for a referendum to get a student levy gave The Ubyssey its independence in January 1995. The Ubyssey, at that time, was owned and operated by the AMS.

Jack Hauen, the coordinating editor of the Ubyssey Publication Society, said in an email that the newspaper is now fully independent of both UBC and the AMS.

“We’re doing great now. It’s huge for our editors and staffers to know that we can be as critical of UBC and the AMS as we want to be without fear of losing our jobs,” he said.

According to The Varsity article, The Ubyssey is now fully independent from the AMS, discounting an agreement for one ad in the paper per month, in exchange for a leased space in the student union building.

Hauen said they are always getting “suggestions” from people they interview about how to frame something or what to publish.

“But, it’s immensely comforting to know that at the end of the day we’re the masters of our domain,” he said.

Dave Tait, a Carleton University journalism professor, said that communities, like universities, need places where viewpoints of community members can be represented. It’s worth noting that Tait served on The Charlatan’s board of directors until the 2014-15 publishing year.  

“A real news outlet needs to have as its sole goal the serving of its community’s need for coverage in an accurate, fair and complete way, to the best of its ability and resources. Independence frees up a media organization to concentrate on this,” he said.

Many independent publications, however, find it hard to make financial ends meet.

“In terms of struggles, things are always tight financially, but that’s just life as a newspaper in 2017,” Hauen said. “We’re still able to pay our editors more than minimum wage, and we’re lucky that our student levy means we’re not going anywhere anytime soon.”

Tait said financial support can be provided in exchange for some level of control, but it doesn’t have to be based on that—it can also be provided to ensure a vital service is provided.

The editor-in-chief of The Silhouette, was also fired by the university’s student’s union in 2006, this time “without cause,” according to The Varsity article.  

According to the article, however, unlike The Ubyssey, The Silhouette is still operated by McMaster’s Student Union and its main connection is through its board of publication, which is in charge of approving The Silhouette’s budget and publishing schedule.

Other papers are also still owned and operated by their student governments, such as in the case of The Gazette and The Queen’s Journal.

Tait said one of the most important functions of newspapers are to be whistleblowers on abuses of power, within communities.

“It’s important that independence is not compromised, or else the ‘watchdog’ function of a newspaper is also compromised,“ he said.

Photo by Meagan Casalino