When you think of the people and institutions that make Canada unique, a few things come to mind: Tim Hortons, Hockey Night in Canada, CBC Radio, Neil Young, Margaret Atwood.
Canadian University Press is much lesser-known, but just as much of a landmark with several years on them all. CUP is a feisty news organization for students and by students that has been operating since 1938.
Since its founding, CUP has given voice to young Canadians and given student journalists a way to connect to their peers on the other side of the country.
Now, CUP is facing an existential crisis after being slapped with a CRA fine (hey, we’re journalists, not accountants) on the heels of the bankruptcy of its advertising arm, Campus Plus.
Everyone knows these are not the best of days for making money with journalism, yet the importance of sharing what is happening on Canadian campuses has never been greater. This year alone, stories depicting important aspects of campus life became national stories that made it into your living room thanks to student reporters who used CUP’s resources to tell the story.
Last month, the conversation between several UOttawa student politicians joking about sexually assaulting their female colleague was first told in The Fulcrum; editors consulted CUP’s lawyer before publication.
In January, University of New Brunswick professors went on strike and The Brunswickan’s breaking story drew so many readers the site crashed. We shared it with students everywhere.
In September, offensive frosh chants depicting rape of underage girls from coast-to-coast were lambasted. The editor from The SMU Journal at Saint Mary’s University began working on the story days before it broke nationally. CUP hosted the story, once again, making it available to students at other universities.
CUP played an essential role in the life of each of these stories and does the same for so many other stories that affect communities and campuses all over Canada.
If you know a university student who is working as a campus journalist, their job prospects might provoke some anxiety. But CUP trains your kids, the next generation of journalists, on how to hold postsecondary institutions accountable for what happens on campus and in the classroom – and for the outcomes of their education.
The difficulties CUP faces are similar to those of big media, and like big media, we’ve taken to social networks and crowdfunding to try to save it. Many of Canada’s most well-known journalists got their start as "CUP kids” and they have donated to the effort to keep us alive. Though facing many of the same financial challenges of major media – plummeting revenue, an influx of free online content and new patterns of consuming media – student media retains its fundamental differences too.
Because many student papers have funding from student fees, their journalists are free to tackle tough, controversial topics and debates larger media systematically shies away from. Many journalists remember their time as student reporters because it was the only time they had the freedom to participate in their stories.
That might seem like it runs counter to the basic journalistic principle of presenting stories objectively, but student journalists covering their own campus have no choice. They’re affected along with their peers when school staff go on strike, cuts are announced or police storm campus to push out students protesting.
It’s not uncommon to wind up with a laundry list of disciplinary action from their university, arrests and threats of legal action – it happened to me and I’m not special. The freedom to write what you want in the manner you want comes with challenges. I've taken panicked calls from student papers who have been threatened with lawsuits, intimidation and pulled printing contracts.
South of the border, a plethora of foundations, centres and organizations exist solely to address the many and varied issues that affect student newspapers. In Canada, there’s one: CUP.
Free press and good journalism is a tenet of Canadian society. CUP plays a critical role in supporting and strengthening one of the more vulnerable players in Canadian media, the student press. If this institution dies, journalism and Canada will be worse off.
Erin Hudson is the president of CUP and former Quebec bureau chief. Her involvement in student press began at The McGilll Daily. To learn more about CUP and its current situation, please visit the homepage for the Keep CUP Strong campaign.