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SURVEY RESULTS SHOW VOICE IS STILL VIEWED AS AUSU CONTROLLED
Students also leery about privacy of Voice communications
The first online Voice Annual Reader Survey closed last week, and response rates were high. Although students were not strictly required to fill out the entire survey, most respondents answered a majority of the questions, and provided excellent written feedback via the final write-in fields.
The results will be extremely helpful in planning the direction of The Voice over the coming year. They also provide a perspective on how the Voice is perceived by its financial backers – the AU student body. Based on the response rate to the very short survey we ran in March of this year, our readership has grown considerably. Despite this survey being much larger, we received over twice the number of responses over the same number of weeks! Subscriptions are also up by about 34%.
However, many of the results have raised concerns. For example, a full 24% of Voice readers believe that The Voice is entirely controlled by the AU Students’ Union [AUSU] and that AUSU decides what does, and does not get printed in The Voice!
This is a dangerous perception for many reasons. First, AU students – who do not have a means to congregate on campus – are even more in need of an autonomous publication than students at other universities. If The Voice is not a forum for student views and concerns, then what is?
Second, AU students need a public forum where they can receive news about their students’ union, and how their fees are being spent. AUSU collects over $300,000 of student money each year, and you have a right to know what the council is doing with it.
The Voice is the only place where students who are not part of AUSU council can publish articles for other AU students – whether it is a personal reflection, a political diatribe, a work of fiction, education news, or yes, coverage of a students’ union event or decision.
With the proposed Alberta education Bill 43 impending, the need for such a publication is even greater. The Bill clarifies the government position that all student’s groups need to have watch-dog systems in place so that those who pay into the union can be made aware of what is being done with their funds. It is because the government fears that such watch-dog organizations are not in place that the new education bill contains a provision which would allow the government to step in and audit or dissolve a student’s union if there is evidence of “financial irregularities.”
The AUSU is probably more vulnerable to such action than many other students’ organizations because they operate at a distance. Students may not know what the SU is doing unless they make an effort to attend council meetings (which any student may do for free via teleconference – there is a meeting on December 14th Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for info).
If you happen to feel that the government provisions are a good thing, think again. Yes, everyone wants to know that their student organization is being evaluated and held to high ethical and financial standards, but who would you rather do this: the government, or you? It is you who pays into the SU, not the government, and it is you who stands to benefit from a well running SU. The government, on the other hand, is likely to least like an SU that is working well, since a strong SU often stands in opposition to government initiatives that are detrimental to students.
So the need for a student run publication at AU is clear. Unfortunately, the survey results indicate that many of you don’t feel that there is such a publication. I suspect that the 24% who feel that the paper is controlled by AUSU would be reluctant to write letters about the SU in The Voice. The results bear that out too. The survey asked if readers would feel comfortable sending The Voice a negative opinion of AU, AUSU, or The Voice. You indicated that you would feel more comfortable writing us with a criticism of The Voice than of the SU!
What is most alarming to me, however, is the result that indicates a low level of trust in the Voice editor, and concerns over the security of Voice email: an astounding 58% of you feel that any email you send to the Voice may be shared with AUSU council!
I cannot be emphatic enough in stating that this is not the case! I would never directly share a Voice email with the SU or any member of council. Yes, sometimes students send me concerns that would be more appropriately directed to AUSU (given that 24% of you feel that writing The Voice and writing AUSU is the same, that is not surprising), and in those cases I suggest that the writer send their email to council. Yes, sometimes students express concerns that I feel the SU should know about, and in these cases I may share the concern, generically, and without identifying information, with a member of the SU if I feel that they may be able to rectify the situation. I may even urge a student to ask the SU for advocacy, but this would always be the students’ decision.
But share the emails? Never! If I did this, I would be guilty of a serious breach of confidentiality, not to mention trust. I’m not aware of the previous editor having ever done this either.
I want Voice readers to feel secure that if they send an email to The Voice, it will go to The Voice only, and it will not be sent to the SU unless I am given specific permission to do so. By the same token, please be aware that if you have a concern that you want AUSU to address, you should send it to AUSU, not the student magazine. Even the university needs to be aware of this. Often they will send an email to the SU, asking for them to include something in The Voice.
Now on to the biggest misconception: 62% of readers think that I’m a member of AUSU council! Wow! I knew that some people thought this, but 62%?
Ok, here is the deal. I was a member of AUSU council – acclaimed in the election of March 2002. In December of 2002 the Voice editor got a full time teaching job and she was not able to handle The Voice on her own. I helped her out for the next two months. When it became clear that she would not be able to continue as editor, the job was posted.
I resigned from AUSU council and gave up my honorarium in order to apply for the full time Voice job. I didn’t know if I’d get the job, though I knew I had a bit of an edge because I’d already been doing it part time. However, if someone with significant newspaper experience had applied, I’d have been out on my kiester. I submitted a resume and cover letter, I went through the interview process (an gruelling one-hour interview with a panel of three interroga:. Oops.. interviewers), and about a month later, I was hired. Everything was very formal.
I am an employee of the students’ council, not a councillor. Through AUSU policy, I am granted editorial autonomy, which means that AUSU cannot tell me what to print.
So now begins a campaign to let readers know that I’m not on council, which I hope will address this perceived conflict of interest. I have close ties with council, but my ethical responsibility is to the students who pay for the paper, and I take this seriously. I encourage students to write the Voice with any concerns they have, even if they are about AUSU. Of course you can also praise AUSU if you wish!
I will also be working to erase the perception that email communication with the Voice is anything but confidential.
I want to explain, now, how your student paper is funded and run.
The Voice is funded by AUSU. What this means is, AUSU takes a portion of the $8 per course that you pay in to the union, and allocates it to The Voice. Right now that amount is about $1 of each $8 fee. This budget is then managed by the Voice Editor and is not subject to direct SU control – or at least it was not until last month, when a new policy specified that I must get pre-approval for all expenditures. This policy is said to be a temporary measure while some finance policies are revised.
The amount of money that goes to The Voice is determined by AUSU. AUSU may decide next year to give more money to your student paper, or they could decide to discontinue funding at any time. Fortunately, the current council is a strong supporter of The Voice.
The editorial autonomy of The Voice is granted by AUSU. Yes, AUSU could take this autonomy away, but council has agreed that The Voice should be a student paper. I do not have to accept submissions from AUSU council members, though many councillors provide great input and I’m glad to have it. Readers have indicated that they enjoy these contributions as well, which is the most important reason to include them. I have asked councillors to revise articles, however, and I will continue to do so as needed.
I would love to hear some feedback from AU students on how you feel your student newspaper should be funded. I realize now that there is one question I should have asked on the survey, and it would go like this:
Compared to other projects and services offered by your students Union and paid for with your students Union fees, how important is the voice?
“¢ it is the most important service?
“¢ is a very important service?
“¢ is neither more nor less important than any other service?
“¢ it is less important than other services?
“¢ it is of no importance?
I hope this clarifies how The Voice is funded and run. It’s important for students to know this, because every AU student benefits when all students feel comfortable expressing their views in the student publication. If you think your point of view is missing from The Voice, let me know!
Tamra Ross Low
Editor in Chief