By Laurent Bastien Corbeil
Several student newspapers have left the non-profit co-operative Canadian University Press to cut costs and started an alternative called the National University Wire.
The University of British Columbia’s Ubyssey was the most recent departure earlier this month, and some of CUP’s oldest members—The McGill Daily, the Dalhousie Gazette, the Varsity and the Manitoban—have left the cooperative in recent years.
“This is a trend that hasn’t stopped in a long time,” said CUP president Erin Hudson. “There’s a small amount of members who leave every year. We do have new members who join, but the reality is that we now have 55 members, and there’s a lot more student newspapers than that in Canada.”
Ten years ago, the co-operative boasted over 90 members. Those who have left say a combination of high membership fees and little-used or overlapping services were the most important factors behind their decision.
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To be a member of CUP, newspapers are required to pay a fee based on the size of their operating budget. For the smallest papers, that fee can be as low as $334 a year, but for larger ones like the Ubyssey, it can be as high as $5,735. On top of that fee, larger newspapers also have to pay hundreds of dollars into a cost-sharing pool for the co-operative's annual conference. Without this travel pool, it would be difficult for smaller papers to attend.
“We rarely used the newswire, to be frank,” said the Ubyssey’s coordinating editor Geoff Lister. “We used their lawyer once in the last five years when our lawyer was out of town. We have our own in-house resources for training and our own internal knowledge for learning about newspapers.”
Seven newspapers launched the National Wire Service at the beginning of the academic year. The newswire, whose members include the Ubyssey, the Dalhousie Gazette, The McGill Daily, The Link (Concordia University), The Varsity (University of Toronto), Western’s The Gazette and The Martlet (University of Victoria), allows student newspapers from across the country to share their content and keep track of campus news through a shared RSS feed.
“We’re not paying anything for it. It’s all done through an RSS with no fees,” said Colin Harris, editor-in-chief of The Link. “For a wire like this, and the way it is being done, it just makes more sense…instead of having a bureau chief going through everything and having only a handful of stories go up.”
While the NUW is not meant to compete with or act as a replacement for CUP, Harris said the new wire shows that it is possible to beat the co-operative on its own turf without high membership fees.
“It’s a way of doing one thing that CUP was supposed to offer better than they were doing,” he said.
Larger student newspapers like the Ubyssey generally have their own lawyer on retainer and can recruit enough contributors to fill their pages without the help of a newswire. But the biggest problem with the newswire, Lister said, is the way its budget is managed. According to him, the service is too costly and most of the money is spent on salaries.
“That’s really what the fees are going towards at this point,” he said.
Hudson is quick to point out that for the number of people CUP employs, its budget for salaries and benefits is not unreasonable. According to last year’s budget, the cooperative spent around $140,889 for a staff of 17. The president and the national bureau chief were paid around $36,782 and $33,662 respectively, and the cooperative’s total expenses were around $341,089.
“That’s a significant number of people.” Hudson said. “If people don’t want to pay for those [positions], then there wouldn’t be a wire with original content.”
Still, Hudson admitted that some of the criticism about CUP is warranted and that the co-operative is planning to change. Unlike in previous years, members of this year’s board of directors were given a portfolio to work on during their tenure. Those portfolios range from developing CUP’s alumni network to improving its website. Finding an alternative source of revenue to membership fees is also something the board will examine.
“We’re looking seriously at finding alternative revenues so that we don’t have to rely so heavily on membership fees, and so that we could ease them for everybody,” Hudson said. “If we lower membership fees without finding alternative revenues, the reality is that some parts of CUP wouldn’t be able to function.”
Hudson worries that CUP might not have enough time to implement these changes. While the organization is not about to vanish overnight, its future is in doubt. “We’re doing well, but if it keeps going the way it’s been going, where we keep losing members overall, then it is a matter of time,” she said.
Still, The Link could return to CUP, said the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Harris, if the organization made significant changes. “Making a more effective wire would be a great start,” he said, and suggested CUP find a way to connect the larger media to the student media. “They could use their status as a large organization to push something like that, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening right now.”
Laurent Bastien Corbeil is a Montreal-based journalist whose work has appeared in Maisonneuve, and he has worked as a news editor at The McGill Daily. He maintains a blog on issues related to free speech in higher education for Canadian Journalists For Expression. Follow him on Twitter @bastienlaurent.