TORONTO – Editors at campus newspapers across Ontario say government-mandated changes to tuition fees have forced them to look for creative ways to deal with the funding shortage – a reality that mirrors the broader media landscape.
The Progressive Conservative government announced in January that students would be able to opt out of paying for “non-essential” student services, including campus papers. Though each student is only charged a few dollars per semester to fund newspaper operations, editors have said the change could put their publications in jeopardy.
“We are not the only ones in this boat,” said Sarah Krichel, editor-in-chief of The Eyeopener at Ryerson University.
“Every single publication that is out there in the ‘real world’ and every single publication I’ve interned for, they’re all dealing with this stuff.”
Krichel met last week with her counterparts from a handful of other university papers to compare notes and solidify their united front.
For the first time, she said, they are in a position where they have to advocate for their papers’ usefulness while also reporting, editing and publishing the news.
“We used to have the funding. We used to be safe, and now we’re not,” she said. “It calls for better journalism and for more thorough coverage of our community.”
Krichel said that at The Eyeopener, the fight back is multi-pronged: they’ve been tweeting about the issue from both official newspaper and personal accounts – in some cases complete with instructions on how to ensure a student is opted in – and are also taking to the streets.
During orientation week, Krichel said, the Eyeopener set up a table on a busy corner of campus in order to make sure students were aware of what the paper is all about and why it’s worth the $5.65 annual fee students can choose to pay.
The Eyeopener will also receive a little over $10 from each student that there’s no way to opt out of, the school noted.
The paper has also dedicated a new section of its website to the provincial funding changes – which the Tories dubbed the “student choice initiative” – with stories about the new government policy and what it means for students, as well as a pitch to readers to help fund the Eye.
“We have a ton of stories that have made a huge difference … they’re all stories that only we could have found out, because we’re the only publication out there that’s looking at Ryerson campus as intricately as we are,” Krichel said.
The editors at the student paper at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., said they are looking at mainstream media for inspiration.
The Queen’s Journal is launching a newsletter and a podcast, hoping to replicate on a smaller scale the success of “The Daily” from The New York Times, which serves both as a news show and a pitch for the value of the paper’s journalism.
Iain Sherriff-Scott, the managing editor of the student paper, said the Journal has decided to focus on quality over quantity in the style of “The Logic” and “The Athletic” – two Canadian media startups that don’t publish as frequently as some other outlets.
But their situation is a little different from Ryerson’s, Sherriff-Scott said, in that the opt-out option is more complicated, and he hopes that for now, students will continue to pay the $8.96 fee.
“This policy damages student life broadly and very dramatically,” he said. “But our insistence in continuing to make this institution operational is pushing some long-overdue changes.”
The government funding changes caught Meredith Wilson-Smith, the publication’s editor-in-chief, by surprise.
“I was elected to become editor-in-chief on a Friday,” she said. “By Wednesday of the next week, I was sitting in a board of directors meeting, fighting for the paper to be able to continue to print. It really came on fast.”
Since then, they’ve had to cut back on staff, reduce honorariums and cut their own salaries in half, she said.
“I’m not saying I’m grateful, because quite frankly I wish everything was OK and this wasn’t happening, but ultimately I think we’ll all benefit in the long run from being put in a tight spot,” Wilson-Smith said.