At 75-years old, student newspaper co-op Canadian University Press has seen better days.
In the past two years, a sizeable contingent of its founding members has left the organization; gone are the McGill Daily, the Manitoban, the Link and the Dalhousie Gazette, joining the Varsity** on CUP's former-members bench. That these papers were also paying the highest fees toward CUP is not a mutually exclusive phenomenon.
“We had a rough year last year. Everybody would agree with that. It was just economically a bad time for student papers,” says CUP president Sam Brooks. “They don’t have the money they used to, and so when they’re looking for something to cut [from their budgets], CUP fees look pretty attractive.”
How the organization got here depends on who you ask, but there are some fundamental factors contributing to CUP’s downhill slide, the first of which is its inability to keep up with the fast pace journalism constantly moves at.
“It felt like CUP didn’t realize how powerful the Internet was for journalism,” says Queen Arsem-O’Malley, coordinating editor for the McGill Daily. The national newswire — CUP’s primary raison d’être, historically — became less relevant to student publications looking to harness trends in both digital and hyper-local journalism.
“The idea for it was so previous-Internet age,” says Arsem-O’Malley. “The fact that it wasn’t re-conceptualized five years ago was a major problem.”
Essentially, CUP is showing major signs of aging — a unique problem for an organization perpetually staffed by young journalists. And therein lies the second fundamental issue.
“The lack of institutional memory is the problem,” says Julia Wolfe, editor-in-chief of the Link at Concordia University. Case in point: CUP doesn’t even have a complete list of its own founding members.
Käthe Lemon remarked the sorry state in which she found CUP’s archives in her 2004 Masters thesis, “Agent of social change: A history of Canadian University Press,” a problem the organization tried to address a few years later when it hired someone to index its archives.
Still, CUP’s lack of institutional memory is not something that can be easily resolved by having papers in the appropriate file folders.
Founded in 1938 in Winnipeg by a handful of Canada’s oldest student newspapers as a way of sharing stories and resources, it was only in 1959 that the position for a full-time president was created. Currently, the only two people who work for CUP full-time are the president and the national bureau chief — both of whom are elected to one-year terms by member newspapers at the preceding year’s national conference. Bureau chiefs and the regionally-appointed members of the board of directors (I held a few of these positions at CUP while working at the Link from 2003–2007) also only serve one-year terms.
“We have a 100 per cent staff turnover every year,” says CUP president Brooks. The organization stumbles every summer as its newly-elected keepers find their footing.
That lack of continuity is the reason membership agreed to a proposal at this year’s national conference, held earlier this month in Toronto, to hire an executive director to tend to the organization’s administrative duties. Additionally, the president will no longer be required to work from Toronto and the board of directors will only half-turnover every year.
“These new measures aren’t the be-all, end-all, but they’re a big step forward to becoming more stable,” Brooks says. As he points out, CUP isn’t the only one suffering from institutional amnesia.
“All student papers have an editorial staff that changes every year, and the one little piece of institutional memory we can give them is CUP,” he says.
And it’s true, to a certain extent. This isn’t the first time newspapers have left CUP; this isn’t even the first time some of these same papers have left, for the same reasons. Without knowing CUP’s significance, complex history or benefits, editors at campus newspapers may be hard pressed to come up with compelling reasons to stay on as members.
That said, the decision to leave CUP was not a light one for Arsem-O’Malley, Wolfe and their respective editorial boards, who both felt the tug of pride as founding members.
“We believed in the idea of the collective, supporting smaller papers. But we didn’t need the services,” Wolfe says, referring to both CUP’s legal resources and the newswire. “We believed in the ideals, but it becomes harder and harder [to justify] when you look at the cost.”
The Dalhousie Gazette echoes that sentiment. “The main reason we left CUP was that we actually just could not afford to stay in it any longer. We reallocated the money towards a website redesign that was long overdue,” says editor-in-chief Katrina Pyne.
Currently, CUP fees are determined based on a sliding scale, with large papers (aka those with the biggest circulations serving the most students) paying thousands of dollars* in annual dues, and medium- and small-size papers paying remarkably less. The idea is that, as a co-op, papers with greater financial resources supplement those that are less well-off, particularly in programs like travel pool.
But occasionally terse relationships with their respective student unions and the frequent need to justify student fee levies — sometimes via university-wide referendum, as has been the case for the McGill Daily — coupled with the industry-wide problem of dwindling advertising has cast many student papers into a state of economic instability. All this, plus the added pressure of having better, more interactive websites to attract more readers and advertisers, culminates in a sentiment felt across the board: student newspapers are tapped out.
However, if CUP’s services were more attractive, perhaps staying on as members would be an easier expense to shoulder. As it stands, the newswire no longer serves the same purpose it once did — so how does a 75-year-old dinosaur shed its skin?
“We’re trying to become more service-oriented. This is kind of our reaction to it,” says CUP president Brooks. “Being a newswire service was fine for years, except now papers need support in other ways. The biggest success I can talk about is how our mentorship program (with the CWA) has expanded.”
The mentorship program pairs aspiring journalists with more established ones and has helped CUP create partnerships with some of Canada’s major media organizations. The co-op is also looking to create CUP-specific internships and is considering inaugurating a summer skill development conference open to everyone.
CUP hopes to regain some of its relevance by refocusing its efforts on supporting and training individual student journalists year-round, as well as upping its status as an advocate for the student press when it comes under attack, regardless of membership. It also allows non-members to attend its national conference (NASH) — both its biggest money-maker and best-used service — at a premium that includes higher delegate fees and now, a $50 per article submission to CUP’s John H. McDonald journalism awards.
Still, NASH’s main purpose is, and always has been, plenary. As a co-op that hinges on participatory democracy, CUP is directed by its member newspapers; the AGM is the time and place they all get together to hash out their differences and find some common ground. Non-members can attend if they like, as Wolfe did this year, but don’t habitually get speaking rights, and certainly not a vote.
Though Wolfe was granted speaking rights by CUP’s member base to plead the Link’s case for a partial fee waiver for its cancelled membership, her colleagues at plenary decided it didn’t like the after-the-fact approach the newspaper took.
“It’s good when a member is dissatisfied and comes to NASH with a stack of motions for plenary,” Brooks says. “If you’re dissatisfied with CUP and you stand up and leave, you’re not at all helping the problem.”
Further reading: NASH75 plenary tackles membership fees and increasing staff terms (Storify)
** Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately included the Varsity in a group of student papers that left CUP in the past two years. It really left about five years ago.
*Correction: A previous version of this story said that the highest fees were more than $10,000. National Bureau Chief Arshy Mann says that the highest fee paid is around $5,500.
Tracey Lindeman is a Montreal-based freelance journalist and founding editor of Cult MTL. She was also editor-in-chief of the Link and a CUP bureau chief and board member in the mid-aughts. Follow her on Twitter @traceylindeman.