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When I think of my time at a student newspaper, I think of best friends, campus scoops and my first bylines. I think of a bunch of students, huddled in a room, pitching absurd headlines and laughing until we bent over.
I think of white kids.
My name is Amy O’Kruk, and I’m a content editor in The Globe’s summer staff program. Full disclosure, I’m white. But I was also one of only nine female editors-in-chief in the last 40 years at my campus newspaper, the Western Gazette.
Being one of only a few women in my role made me think about other kinds of diversity at my paper – whether that had to do with race, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability and so on.
Around the world, conversations about newsroom diversity are increasing, but data, especially in Canada, is scarce. In the U.S., some headlines say representation is getting better, some say it’s getting worse. And last year, a survey found that Canada’s columnists are overwhelmingly male, white, straight and middle aged. Outside and inside the newsroom, many are advocating for change.
But if we’re serious about increasing newsroom diversity – and the variety of opinions and wider coverage that comes with it – we need to look more closely at where it all begins: student newspapers.
I may be green, but here’s what I know: Student editors get jobs. We land entry-level positions. At The Globe this year, seven out of 10 people hired for the summer staff program came from postsecondary publications. It makes sense, of course. Student papers are great training grounds – they offer a published body of work, networks and crucial experience.
And if student newspapers feed legacy media outfits, diversity at the mouth of the pipeline is crucial. While data on diversity at Canadian student newspapers are almost non-existent, a 2017 survey of editorial staff across Canadian university campus papers suggested a higher representation of marginalized groups than the national average. For example, McMaster University’s Silhouette reported wide representation among its staff. Still, only 87 editors at 21 out of 60 publications responded, leaving an incomplete picture.
I can’t speak for every student newspaper, but at the Gazette, I struggled to attract and retain a truly diverse masthead. I suspect I’m not the only one. Indigenous students were entirely absent, and applications from some campus communities and geographic populations were few and far between.
I recently talked to my friend Naira, who was the only hijabi and South Asian woman at the Gazette for two years. She said many of her non-Caucasian friends didn’t want to join her because of the lack of minority representation. “It’s the idea that if you’re visibly different, you’ll always be on the outskirts," she told me. Toward the end of her time as an editor, she said she felt her presence had made a significant difference, with more Muslim students starting to volunteer or come by the office.
The other reality is that many students can’t afford to work at student newspapers exclusively. I could only pay editors about $200 every two weeks for 40 hours of work or more, and we had one of the larger student-paper budgets in Canada. There are students of all different backgrounds who would likely get involved, but can’t afford to work long hours at a paper (essentially) for free. This systemic barrier hurts socioeconomic diversity from the get go.
There are lessons for all workplaces here. Many young Canadians look for opportunities to gain skills and experience during college or university. It’s worth asking what obstacles at some of these key training grounds – whether it’s a prelaw society, student politics or a club – could be hindering diversity before your organization ever sees a resume.
On the media side, there are things student editors can do. They should be critical about the breadth of their coverage. Naira suggests reporting on student events put on by minority student associations or actively reaching out to communities not usually covered by an outlet. If those students see themselves in the paper, they’re more likely to pick it up and consider volunteering, she says.
Some mastheads are already leading the charge on this, publishing special editions, such as the Dalhousie Gazette’s issue focused entirely on the work of women and femmes or the Varsity’s Intersections, a collection of features exploring multiculturalism and diaspora in Toronto.
Further, BuzzFeed News reporter Lam Thuy Vo suggests practices such as targeted outreach, paid training opportunities and using metrics to attract and evaluate applicants fairly. Retaining diverse talent is also important. Vo points out the key to newsroom diversity is to make sure that different perspectives are heard so they have a stake in the overall product. All of these practices can be applied to student publications and other workplaces.
What else we’re reading:
The last time I went to Indigo, I was looking for a beach read. Instead, on a whim I chose Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. The book is far from a light read but no less of page turner. It’s about a young girl who leaves her survivalist family and goes to college with no schooling, eventually earning a PhD from Cambridge University. Westover’s memoir is painful and raw and provides little comfort – in the vein of Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, it’s the story of America’s urban-rural divide up close.
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