The End Days for Student Newspapers? Or An Opportunity to Expand?

The End Days for Student Newspapers? Or An Opportunity to Expand?

A cover of The Imprint from 2007
The University of Waterloo student newspaper is facing the challenge of students deciding they want their money back.

The student newspaper fee is opt-out, meaning students can request refunds. The Waterloo Region Record reports:

The University of Waterloo's student newspaper has been handing over cash to hundreds of students this week — part of a growing number of undergrads demanding refunds for their student fees.

It's the latest from the so-called "opt-in" movement on campus, and comes after the president of the Waterloo student federation sent an email to all undergrads telling them how they could get their $4.35 fee back from the Imprint newspaper.

That's left Imprint staff scrambling in the last few days as hundreds have lined up outside the newspaper's office, doing just that.

"We give them cash, because we can't afford to write all those cheques," said Imprint advertising and production manager Laurie Tigert-Dumas. "We couldn't control the numbers in the office, there were so many people in here."

This is part of a growing trend at Canadian universities, students are saying "enough" in response to rising ancillary fees and starting to scale them back.

From the mid-90s to a few years ago, ancillary fees were easily passed by undergraduate students and became a key source of new revenue for institutions. Athletics fees are especially popular, allowing administrations to build new buildings which attract new students, and fund varsity sports that draw attention and alumni dollars to the institution.

I wrote last week on my The Public Record Blog ( about McMaster students voted down numerous fees during the past year.

DISCLOSURE: my radio show airs on CFMU at McMaster, the station is funded in part by a mandatory undergraduate student levy.

Eight years ago I attended the Canadian University Press conference in Saskatoon and gave a talk called - I can't remember the exact name - something to the effect of how I kick your student newspapers' ass and what you can do about it.

During the Fall of 2006 and Spring 2007, my personal blog was running at its strongest covering student politics across Canada as student newspapers continued to their traditional print-only once-a-week schedules. I write about something that happened in Saskatchewan on Friday, on Friday. The student newspapers came out late the following Wednesday or Thursday.

There's been some movement during the past decade by student newspapers, but they remain closely tied to their money losing print product.

Other than Ryerson's The Eyeopener and UBC's The Ubyssey, my RSS feeds of various student newspapers are only populated once a week. With the odd exception of breaking news items - such as student election results - these papers remained tied to once a week news.

Another thing The Eyeopener and The Ubyssey do well - they use Access to Information legislation to force their universities to release documents. (Here's a recent FOI by The Ubyssey with national implications.)

To make things worse, national advertising in student newspapers collapsed more so than in traditional newspapers.

Only a decade ago, there were two national ad agencies specializing in servicing student newspapers. National advertising accounted for the majority of full page advertisements. Today, both those gencies are gone, and full-page ads are rare enough to be almost extinct.

With the demise of Campus Plus in 2013 - the ad agency run by and funding the Canadian University Press, the umbrella organization for student newspapers is struggling year-to-year for survival.

The CUP is a shell of its former self, with only one staff member and a conference remaining of what was once an organization that struggled to spend Campus Plus riches. Its existence is year-to-year, and tended to as a labour-of-love by its remaining Board. CUP is down to 32 members.

Things are gloomy, there is still opportunity for student newspapers - it does require they move quickly.

Cover of The Silhouette

The Opportunity for Student-Lead Newspapers

Most student newspapers had subscription rates for alumni and faculty who wished to purchase the publications. There were still a few mail out subscribers when I volunteered with The McMaster Silhouette in 2007 to 2010.

I often hear from faculty and alumni that they wish for independent coverage of campus affairs - this is the opportunity.

McMaster's "Daily News" published by the Office of Public Relations tells us how the administration is great and does nothing wrong, the Alumni Magazine provides the same view with added paragraphs encouraging readers to open their wallets. (I'm sure my good friends at OPR are rolling their eyes, I guess my Christmas Card will got lost in the mail again this year.)

The days of lively debate about the direction of the institution in these internal publications at Canadian campuses is long past. To make matters worse, the local for-profit legacy newspapers are increasingly reliant about these institutions purchasing advertisements for revenue, and with skeleton newsrooms the institution also provides the news. The university is becoming the hand which feeds them.

By inviting the community to submit and contribute to the student newspaper, and providing a venue for the lively discussion of ideas, student newspapers will make themselves invaluable to the wider campus community. (And qualify for generous government publication mailing subsidies)

It's time to reflect the community, while maintaining student management and leadership.