Growing up, I always answered the ubiquitous question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ with the word ‘journalist.’ Of course, I didn’t know nearly half of what the term meant, and even now am only beginning to scratch the surface of it. I simply knew that I had a passion for writing and understanding other people; journalism seemed like the logical follow-up to that drive.
However, the declining state of the journalism industry today is daunting. PostMedia, Canada’s largest newspaper chain, cut 90 jobs in Jan. 2015. In the third quarter of 2016, it reported a $23.7 million loss, with print advertising revenues down 19.4 per cent. In Sept. 2015, Montreal’s La Presse laid off 158 employees. It now only prints on Saturdays, instead publishing daily content on its app. In August, The Toronto Star laid off 52 employees.
Student journalists are of course aware of the reality of the journalism industry; campus publications are exploring ways to transition into online content, increase their social media presence, and attract more readers. At the same time, McGill’s student publications are fortunate in that their readership levels are not directly correlated with their survival. The McGill Tribune, The McGill Daily, and Le Délit are all independent student groups primarily funded by student fees. The Tribune is published by the Societé de Publication de la Tribune, and The Daily and Le Délit are published by the Daily Publications Society and both receive student fees. Other publications—such as The Bull & Bear and The McGill Students’ Business Review—receive funding from the Faculty of Management. In the face of a struggling newspaper industry, student newspapers remain somewhat insulated.
In fact, campus journalism at McGill seems to be growing. The Faculty of Management’s The Bull & Bear and the Faculty of Arts’ Leacock’s were both recently reinvigorated. Last year, two new publications were introduced to the McGill community—The McGill Students’ Business Review and The Tab McGill. Such developments at least indicate an increase in the number of student publications on campus. However, numbers alone do not represent the full story. The mosaic of individual experiences with student journalism reveals the diversity in the passions of individual editors and writers, and the diversity of roles that different publications seek to play on campus.
For Mayaz Alam, former editor-in-chief at The McGill Tribune and current digital editor at The Globe and Mail, the role of a student newspaper is twofold: On one hand, it should bring attention to student accomplishments. Even in the smaller local-interest stories—such as stories of individual student athletes or student research—he sees concrete examples of how student publications can and do impact the student body, and put a spotlight on something that students may not have been aware of.
“One of the biggest responsibilities of a student newspaper […] is to cover things that highlight student achievement and student initiatives,” Alam said. “I think in that regard, [throughout my time as an editor] we were able to change or have an impact on student discourse or student life.”
At the same time, there is also the goal of having the voice of the newspaper make a difference in students’ lives and sway governance decisions. As an editorial board, making an impact on campus decision-making can be trickier—but is equally important.
“In terms of the impact on [the student body], it really is a mixed bag, because it’s hard to get students [at large] to care,” Alam said. “[The Tribune will] write things that […Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) executives and Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) executives and…] the McGill administration care about, but it doesn’t necessarily resonate with the student population.”
The McGill Daily is McGill’s oldest student publication, and has evolved from its roots as a sports broadsheet. Sonia Ionescu, U2 Science and coordinating editor at The Daily, explains the role the paper serves in providing a platform for those who don’t always get to have their voices heard at McGill.
“[The Daily’s] Statement of Principles relates to who we give space [to], or what we try to prioritize in terms of what traditionally doesn’t get coverage [in the media] or what we think that we can cover in a more critical or inclusive way,” Ionescu said.
However, she stresses that even though The Daily deals with anti-oppressive politics, this doesn’t mean that it is selective in who it allows to write articles—something she sees as a common misconception among the student body.
“Because we deal with anti-oppressive politics, I think that people find that [...] inaccessible almost,” Ionescu said. “People think that we very exclusively cover those kinds of [...] events, but a lot of times those are just the people who come to us. More or less anyone can write for us. We’ll reject a piece in very rare cases.”
Although it is difficult to gauge the exact effect of campus media on the administration and student societies’ decisions, both Alam and Ionescu point to the role of campus media in bringing attention to student activism and demands for change on specific issues. To this end, student publications editorialize and report on various issues pertaining to campus, such as sexual assault and divestment.
In terms of maximizing the impact student publications can have in swaying campus sentiments, the question becomes one of figuring out what student interests are and defining a niche somewhere within that sphere.
As McGill’s only French publication, Le Délit aims to promote francophones at McGill. Yves Boju, U3 Arts and production coordinator at Le Délit, explains how the paper sheds light on another side of the McGill community that other groups don’t always highlight.
“[When students are from] Montreal, they don’t necessarily move out of their parents’ to residence in first year, so they get less involved in the whole McGill community,” Boju said. “[We’re] not [working] against anglophones at McGill, just to present a different view of what McGill is.”
Théophile Vareille, U3 Arts and news editor at Le Délit, adds that the purpose of Le Délit is not just to be a French translation of English news on campus, but rather to highlight events within the francophone community and to promote those voices.
“We have the role to make sure that the French language remains alive and dynamic on campus,” Vareille said. “Every one of our readers speaks and reads English so we’re not aiming to just be a [French] version of The Daily or The Tribune, but to actually provide something different or more [related to] Montreal.”
For Julia Dick, U4 Arts and current editor-in-chief at The McGill Tribune, understanding the reason behind a publication’s existence is inseparable from both the question of how to engage readers and the question of why engagement and readership matter.
“Something that I really believe is crucial for [...] outreach and engagement [...] is sharing stories about The Tribune with people, and teaching the community more about what The Tribune is [and] why we exist on campus,” Dick said. “When people understand the why of any organization, whether it’s in journalism or [not], engagement is the natural second step. When you have a clearly identifiable identity and something for people to relate to or to be curious about, that leads into engagement and readership.”
Even once engagement has been achieved, there is a line to be drawn between telling stories that publications think their readers want to read, and telling ones that they feel ought to be told. At McGill, this dynamic often involves the general student apathy towards SSMU and anything student politics-related, in contrast to a common sentiment among campus publications that these issues absolutely need to be covered.
“[There is a] general hostility towards anything that’s even loosely connected to SSMU or student politics,” Vareille said. “I fear more the lack of interest of students than the general decline of newspapers.”
With the sheer amount of content available to readers online, it can be difficult for readers to sift through the clickbait articles and for publications to get the important—but perhaps less entertaining—stories read.
“The freedom of the press is a very integral part of any democracy,” Alam said. “With that role, we have to make sure that even if something isn’t doing well analytically or if people aren’t clicking on it, if it’s the story of the day and it has journalistic merit, it is our responsibility to promote that and to get people reading it in whatever way we can. Because it does matter, and people deserve to know and have a right to know about certain things that are going on.”
Telling stories may be the overarching essence of journalism, but there are a variety of reasons why students get involved in campus publications. Some dream of working in journalism, some see it as short-term endeavour, while others fall into it entirely by chance.
Alam explains how being a journalist was never his plan—he started as a sports contributor, not because he wanted to be a journalist, but because he wanted to be involved in the sports community at McGill. Even after his first year as a contributor, he never intended to become an editor. Three years later, he works for one of the largest newspapers in the country.
“I don’t have your typical journalism story,” Alam said. “I never wanted to be a journalist growing up. I sort of fell into this through the back door [….] and it became my life.”
For others, journalism remains an uncertain dream. Vareille got into student journalism because of a passion for writing; however, on whether he will pursue professional journalism after graduating, he remains unsure.
“Not necessarily,” Vareille said. “It would be a pipe dream. Today, it’s probably pretty hard to do. Even if I don’t manage to get into journalism, I think being [...] part of an actual newspaper in university has been my most valuable experience.”
Some students seek out a stronger connection to the McGill community through journalism and reporting. Katherine Hutter, U2 Arts, is a news reporter for The Bull & Bear. Although she is not planning to pursue journalism in the long run, being involved with the magazine has made her feel more in touch with the community and more invested in student issues.
“My amount of effort and dedication that I want to put into it has grown since I’ve started, because I see the potential that the publication [has] and all the stories we could cover,” Hutter said. “Now, whenever I walk around campus, I always have an eye out for something I could report on, and I like to research and see what’s going on.”
Alam echoes Hutter’s feeling that McGill can leave students to figure everything out on their own. McGill is an internationally recognized school, but its research focus—combined with its lack of funding—leaves little room for it to provide enough work experience opportunities for students. Undergraduate lectures are often large and impersonal, whereas creating a newspaper gives students the chance to apply creative, analytical, and problem-solving skills in an intimate team environment.
“My time at The Tribune prepared me more for life after McGill than McGill did,” Alam said. “Generally, [...] McGill prioritizes research more than anything else. But, a lot of people go to university hoping that it will prepare them for the job market and McGill doesn’t necessarily do a good job of that based on how the curriculum is structured […] especially in the Faculty of Arts [….] The Tribune gave me real life experiences before I stepped out into the real world and that was something that McGill didn’t necessarily give me.”
Telling stories about student politics and issues happening on campus can be both exciting and fulfilling. Hutter describes the thrill in rushing to report breaking news events and conducting interviews.
“My favourite part is probably, weirdly enough, deadlines,” Hutter said. “There’s this sense of pressure […] it’s not something I have to do, but I really want to do it [….] I like that pressure [….] There’s something exciting about that.”
There is also excitement in working within a motivated and passionate team environment and being invested in the creation of something unique. Dick explains that working for a newspaper offers countless opportunities for her to witness the people she works with express creativity and individual freedom in working towards a common goal.
“I love watching [editors and contributors] figure out what space they want to fill on campus with their section and how what they’re doing in the section comes together within the whole paper,” Dick said. “People come to me with all these amazing ideas and all I have to do is say ‘Yeah, totally, that sounds amazing.’ [The people are] what make me very excited to come into work each day.”
The fact that so many are still involved and deeply invested in student journalism, despite the uncertain future of the Canadian industry, points to journalism’s relevance beyond the supposed death of the daily print newspaper.
While forms of news and media may be evolving, the investigative drive to tell stories and expose the truth is fundamentally human. What matters is how journalists make sure those voices are heard.
“I don’t necessarily think reporting is going to change that much—the analytical skills of reporters and the doggedness and the passion they have for finding the truth—I think that’s still going to be a driving force of how people get the news,” Alam said. “The bigger aspect is going to be in how we as an industry try and get the news in front of people’s eyeballs, and how we can get them to pay attention [….] Because there’s a lot more content out there, it’s harder to get people to focus on what you’re doing and why your story matters.”
In my experience, telling stories that matter is about listening. From coverage of campus politics, to advocating for change on specific issues, to highlighting student achievements, to writing a good piece of satire every once in awhile, student journalism is inextricable from student life—whether or not all members of the community choose to read it. While one hopes that campus media does resonate with student interest, in the end, it’s about listening to what others have to say and trying to critically understand where they are coming from and what can be added to that conversation.