Karen-Luz Sison is a recent Carleton University graduate who has been involved with The Charlatan, Carleton’s student newspaper, for the past five years, including serving as editor-in-chief from 2018 to 2019.
I never thought after working for the past five years at The Charlatan – Carleton University’s independent student-run weekly – that I’d have to take on another job: keeping student journalism alive on campus.
Yet here we are. In January, Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government rolled out the Student Choice Initiative, which will make certain ancillary fees attached to tuition – such as student-union fees – optional for students.
This announcement sounds like it will affect unions the most. But in fact, this represents a massive threat to freedom of the student press.
Student newspapers, after all, are like other student-run groups – they’re independently funded by these small annual fees paid by each member of the student body. For The Charlatan, this fee funds the basic tools needed for a functioning paper, as well as paying student staff who do what they do best, even on a shoestring budget.
This isn’t unique to student journalism at Carleton; most student newspapers across the country use this model to fund their operations, to maintain financial independence from the authorities they cover. For instance, The Charlatan depended on the Carleton University Students’ Association (CUSA), with CUSA being both the landlord and the paper’s publisher. There was a long history of friction and political interference between The Charlatan and CUSA, the very organization the newspaper reported on, until the former won independence from the latter in 1988.
Before it was finally linked to the rise in inflation last year, our levy – which is $2.94 a term for undergrads – had never increased since winning independence. For the price of a single fancy Starbucks drink, every school year, students would be able to get 30 issues worth of campus news.
If students can now easily opt out of that levy, the paper is in real trouble. That matters, not just for our campus, but for the public at large. Journalism informs the public of what it needs to make everyday decisions, hold power accountable and hear the stories of the community we serve.
And as a public service and educational tool, teaching students to produce news that directly affects their peers in real time − and as a place that shines a genuine spotlight on accomplishments in arts, sports and more − there’s no other place I’ve seen these purposes play out best than through student newsrooms across the country.
When student unions handle multimillion-dollar budgets funded by student constituents, who else will take the time to look closely at the numbers, as the journalists at Ryerson University did? The Eyeopener broke the story on how their student-union executives misused $250,000 in credit cards this year, a story that Mr. Ford himself referenced in a tweet touting his new policy around opting into fees.
When students root out problems with the leaders that who exercise broad power in these smaller campus spaces, who will hold their feet to the fire? The University of Ottawa’s La Rotonde and the Fulcrum did that when they broke a major story about allegations of fraud among executives at the Students Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO). In response, the university took the unprecedented step of no longer recognizing the SFUO as undergraduates’ exclusive student union.
When students silently protest the way campus mental health and student suicides are handled, who will document what happened, as the University of Toronto’s The Varsity did? And when students speak out against tenured professors’ allegedly unfair teaching practices or express the fear they felt over a bungled active attacker emergency-notification test, student papers such as The Charlatan will listen with a deeper sense of empathy than anybody else can.
The reality of the media economy and ecosystem is that no major news outlet can truly keep tabs on a school community, certainly not as closely as student newspapers will.
No communications and public-relations staffer will ever give you an un-spun version of the facts; their job is to paint the authorities in the best light. Instead, people who work at student newspapers are often living directly in the trenches of student life. They go out of their way to understand the systems that govern their campuses in order to inform their peers and themselves. Losing student newspapers would mean losing one of the last true forms of local, publicly funded journalism: funded by students, produced by students and read by students.
On a grander scheme, too, universities have long been something of a microcosm of society at large. If student governments produce the politicians of tomorrow, student newspapers produce the next generation of journalists who will report on them. Without the student press, some of that innovation and talent won’t get cultivated.
Yes, journalism should be a public service accessible to all, and students are rarely flush with money. But the model of funding for student newspapers always reflected this mandate: If the paper serves the public, the public funds it.
This is the reality: Fair, balanced journalism that serves its community takes work, and work has a cost.
And just as universities and colleges reflect the politicians and journalists of the future, they also produce the engaged citizens of tomorrow.
If we don’t realize that truth requires investment, even on the scale of $2.94 every half-year for the youngest members of the media, how will we ever learn that lesson when it comes to deeply engaging with facts and debate around city, national and world affairs?
In a country where the presence of local news is already dwindling fast, it would be devastating to cut local journalism out of our student communities. We’ve been there before for our campus communities, when no one else was, and we’d like to keep being there.
Students can’t afford to lose that – but we can’t afford to keep going without our levy, at minimum.
Something is going to have to give.