The Editors – An Interview with the History of The Voice

A Students’ Union general meeting for April 21st has entered the consciousness of much of The Voice Magazine staff and readership. In this meeting, the Students’ Union will propose the replacement of The Voice Magazine with the ever-nebulous Writer In Residence.

To the dismay of many, Tamra Ross, former Editor in Chief of The Voice Magazine, says Athabasca University may be the only major university nationwide without a school newspaper.

To commemorate the value of The Voice Magazine on student culture, student writers, and the SU (as its own internal check and balance), I conducted interviews with three former editors of The Voice Magazine: Tamra Ross, Sandra Livingston, and Christina M. Frey.

Part 1: Tamra Ross

Marie Well: Tamra, you noted that Athabasca University may be the only major university nationwide without a school newspaper.
Tamra Ross: It would be pretty rare to find a school that doesn’t have a school newspaper. What is unique, though, is that most school newspapers are independent. The SU has no control over it. We are one of very few, if not the only one, That’s controlled by the Students’ Union. Usually, what happens when students pay their fees is there are separate fees for the Students’ Union and the students? newspaper. The two are not linked because the paper typically reports on the Students’ Union. But all of The Voice’s funds must go through AUSU first.

Marie Well: What about starting an independent paper?
Tamra: Unfortunately, if the paper is not going to be here, then it is kind of hard for anyone to plan anything because there is no paper to begin with. This is something that would have to be done with the assistance of AUSU Council setting aside staff time to help draw up plans to do it right. At this point, it depends on how people vote. If the paper remains, then maybe people want to see it move in that direction, in which case it is a matter of somebody drawing up a project plan, defining what the board would look like, and getting some students to work for it.

Marie Well: What role did you play with The Voice Magazine?
Tamra: Well, I was the Editor in Chief, so for the first five or six years, I was the sole editor of the paper. I did all of the editing tasks and the management tasks. It was just too much with my Executive Director role, so we hired a managing editor, the first of whom was Sandra Livingston, who has gone on to become a well-published author. Then we had Christina Frey, who has also moved on to become very successful as an editor, and Karl is the third managing editor. Once we got the managing editors in, they do the day-to-day tasks, but I would help with planning, direction, budget setting, advertising the Voice to student members, and any of the website updates. I had hoped to write a new website for it soon. Things like that.

Marie Well: Were you at the inception of The Voice Magazine?
Tamra: No, in fact, the very first issue of the magazine started in the same year that the Students’ Union started. There has always been a Voice. I think AUSU and The Voice are about 24 years old. For the first issue, they didn’t know what to call it, so they published it as The Paper. Then they did a survey in the first issue. That issue is still online. It is interesting how it changed. It used to be a print magazine, but as AU grew, it just became too expensive. They were only sending it out three times a year, and mailing it to everyone, so they finally went online. Anyway, they had a contest, and by the second edition, they picked their name. It became The Voice. Spring 1993 was the very first issue, so by the time I became involved as a writer first, it would have been ?99 or 2000.

Marie Well: How did you react to the proposed the ending of The Voice Magazine?
Tamra: I was very surprised because I never heard anything of that nature?just sad that might be the case because I think that student university newspapers are going strong. Every school seems to have one, and they seem to be doing very well. It is certainly not a thing of the past. I would be very surprised that someone would feel that way. It’s also a loss of opportunity for all of the students who are trying to learn how to become writers. That would be a huge issue. I have no idea why they would do that. And, of course, it is such an important accountability tool. It is accountability to the students because the newspaper is one of the few places that actually reports on what the Students’ Union is doing, and even when I was working there, sometimes something might get reported in The Voice that I didn’t necessarily like, because they were reporting on me, but we always knew that was really important; they had to be able to do that. Just as when you are with the Students’ Union, students have to be able to question you because you are working for the students. And you need a forum to do that.

Marie Well: What significance has The Voice Magazine had on student life at Athabasca?
Tamra: I think quite a bit. I think there were important issues that got raised in there, and sometimes just information. For example, I remember quite a few years ago when the grading scheme had changed across the university for undergraduates, one of The Voice writers wrote a comprehensive article describing how to figure out the new grading system, and a lot of students referred back to it, and it was posted on the AUSU website, witheven the University said “This coverage is better than what we put out, and it is really useful to students,” so they reprinted it in some of their publications. I know in the last year the University has reprinted at least one article from The Voice about good courses to for students just starting to consider.And sometimes itgets requests from other newspapers or magazines to reprint items, so that is fantastic when it happens.

It just informs students, to let them know what is going on.Usually every year, The Voiceprovides some convocation coverage. I think That’s of great value for students deciding whether to make the trip all the way to Athabasca. Mostly, It’s been providing a lot of great opportunity for new writers, and I know I worked with quite a few personally, and I won’t mention people’s names unless they post, but I know some people who had started out who had very little writing experience or were maybe even new to English. Most magazines will just reject their articles if they are not up to snuff. Because we are a student newspaper, we tried to pick a few people every year and work with them and really try to help them become better writers. There are people I see now who are really, really good writers. We really helped give them that opportunity to learn.

Marie Well: Why is the Voice meaningful to maintain for the students?union?
Tamra: Well, I think it is meaningful to maintain for the students. The students?union doesn’t specifically need it, but it is meaningful for the students because they have to have that independent source that is going to be reporting to them, and they need to have more than a single writer, but a group of writers who work together and try to create great content, support each other, and get that experience. I think That’s very important. A lot of people come to The Voice and ask questions about the articles,there are people from all over,students, but also people from other schools and other media who get information. As I said, we have had reporters from other papers inquire about stories we’ve printed, and they’ve contacted us to ask about them and get more information. It is a pretty well-read paper.

The readership has ups and downs, and had been slowing down in 2013 because it went through a period where there weren’t a lot of writers. That happens; content drops off and the readers follow, of course, but I know our readership was generally at a couple thousand unique readers every month. So, while readership had been going down prior to 2014, I know that while I was there with Karl that had reversed course. There had been a substantial increase and I was excited to see that. Partly because we had added social media and started promoting it through the AUSU newsletters as well. If you received any of the AUSU newletters last year, there was always an ad for The Voice in there. Every time one of those newsletters went out, it seemed like two or three people wanted to write. Maybe That’s where you found it, I don’t know.

Marie Well: That is where I found The Voice, for sure!
Tamra: Exactly, so we had just some new strategies, and it had really been picking up. There was a lot of new interest being generated. It was exciting. And last I checked, there were double The Voice Writers than what we had a couple of years ago.

Marie Well: How has The Voice impacted you personally?
Tamra Ross: It has been great because I met people through The Voice that I worked with as writers. Some actually ended up becoming managing editors that I developed long-term friendships with and am still in touch with, every now-and-then, and I know how their careers are going. That is incredibly exciting. The previous two editors didn’t leave The Voice because we asked them to leave or anything like that; they left because their careers in writing were going so well, they just didn’t have time anymore, which I think is the absolute best reason to lose an editor. We were sad to see them go, but they are working in the field. I definitely miss the interaction with the writers. You never kind of knew what they were going to have because, unlike magazines where they might assign topics, with The Voice, we didn’t know what someone might bring. Sometimes they would really surprise you with something very interesting.

Marie Well: What outcome would discontinuing The Voice have on student life?
Tamra Ross: I guess you’d really have to ask the students who like to read it, but I think that every time they lose an information source, That’s unfortunate. Mostly though, it is that loss of an opportunity to write. Again, we don’t even know what’s happening right now. We are speculating on this. It sounds to me that a lot of opportunities are going to be lost. When they say, Writer in Residence, it sounds like one person to me. It doesn’t sound like a team of writers. There are a lot of people who write for The Voice over the course of the year, or who are interested in writing for The Voice, and there are a lot of people who submit articles or intend to, but they don’t have the time, but they are very interested. I think That’s a loss, but it is so difficult discussing this, and I don’t understand why we don’t have any more information than we do. What happens with the accrued funds that are in the Voice reserves, for instance, which were being saved for improvements to the paper? Does AUSU absorb all that? Keep in mind that much of the Voice funding goes back to students who write for the paper to supplement their incomes.

Marie Well: What do you think are the steps from here?
Tamra: At the end of the day, the Students’ Union works for the students, so if students want the newspaper, they just simply have to vote that way. It is as simple as that. This is a democratic organization, and presumably, this wouldn’t be on the table unless students were asking for it, but I am not seeing anything to indicate that. That’s really what it comes down to for anything related with the students?union. Because it is student funds; it is their organization as it is supposed to represent them. So, the students have to facilitate that by always speaking out and saying what they want. A lot of times people don’t speak out very much about what it is that is important to them.

Marie Well: Do you have anything else you wanted to add?
Tamra Ross: I think there are a lot of other questions too. I mean what would happen with the 20 years of The Voice archives that are all online? I am very curious about that. That’s a lot of good work people did. Is that going anywhere? I am curious as to how it is impacting the regular writers because some of the writers have been with us for years. They really rely on some income from The Voice. Some are newer like you, but That’s the other thing too. It was a way to help out students. I mean, they give out scholarships at the Students’ Union all the time, a thousand dollars a person, and nobody has to do anything for them. The Voice writing is at least where somebody is working for their support, and they are working and contributing to other students and they are getting some funding for it. I think that works out very nicely.

I’m also really glad that people are taking an interest in it and that you are talking about it.

Part 2: Sandra Livingston

Marie Well: Your Voice Magazine experience led to you publishing some books, is that right?
Sandra: Well, I sold my first novel to Avalon back in 2008. I learned a lot about the publishing industry very quickly, and I soon realized the benefits of self-publishing. Even though they had an option for a second book, I chose not to go that route. I self-published, and I have a middle grade mystery series. It is the Madeline M. Mystery Series. The first one is the Secret of the Mummy’s Tomb, and the third one, which I’ve finished now, is Mystery of the Viking Ship. You can buy them on Amazon. My Website is http://sdlivingston.ca.

Marie Well: What role did you play with The Voice Magazine?
Sandra: I was the managing editor from 2007 to 2010.

Marie Well: What was your reaction to the news that the Students’ Union proposed the ending of The Voice Magazine?
Sandra: Well, I was initially very surprised. But I would say confused described my reaction the best. To me, it sort of came out of the blue, and I was very confused as to why the Council had made the decision to put forth that motion. I was very confused with how they were defining a Writer in Residence, and how that role might differ from The Voice Magazine. I was very confused as to what possible benefit they were projecting from making this move, and why the students hadn’t heard anything about it.

Marie Well: So you think the students weren’t notified appropriately.
Sandra: No, and I think it would have been immensely helpful both to the students and to the Council to maybe put something in the AUSU page or in The Voice and say here is what we are thinking about doing. We are looking for student feedback. Maybe gather feedback from the students to see what they wanted and to see what suggestions they have to sort of solidify the Writer in Residence plan and give them some sort of feedback that would really polish that idea if the Council chose to go ahead with it.

Marie Well: In the bylaws, it says they have 21 days to notify students through a means such as a newsletter. They sent out the newsletter April 14th, seven days before the meeting. So they weren’t following the bylaws?
Sandra: The AUSU has their own page that is completely autonomous. They can put in whatever they choose. I was just confused as a student, more so than as a Voice writer. I just had no idea what Writer in Residence meant or what the perceived benefits were.

Marie Well: What significance has The Voice had on student life at Athabasca?
Sandra: I would have to say that a student magazine at a distance university is even more important than it is at a brick and mortar school, simply because Athabasca University’s student demographic is so different. If you are walking around on campus, you can run into the editor, and you can ask questions or it is easier to find out what is happening with your student council if you are actually on the same physical location as they are. When you are at a distance, and they also have a different student demographic in the sense that most AU students are working, they have families, they have probably different schedule needs than say a student going to university full-time. They don’t necessarily have the time in their schedules to phone into every single SU meeting.

To me, The Voice is very pivotal to the central location where AU’s student demographic can go to that one-stop shop for the information about what is happening on our virtual campus.

Marie Well: Sandra, how has The Voice impacted you personally?
Sandra: That is a tougher one. I would have to say that it was a pivotal step in letting me take my writing career to the next level. I had had things published in local newspapers. I had had a few things published in The Voice. I had done the copy-editing course at Ryerson. When I got hired by The Voice, I would have to say that it really helped hone my writing and editing skills through editing other people’s work and dialoguing with the writers. It was just after I started working for The Voice that, well, I started in 2007, and it was a few months later that I got the phone call from Avalon books that I sold my manuscript to. It was very exciting.

Marie Well: So, the Voice was instrumental in getting you to that stage where you were published?
Sandra: Yes! I would say so.

Marie Well: Sandra, what outcome would discontinuing The Voice have on student life?
Sandra: I think it would put even more distance between the students and Athabasca U.

Marie Well: Yes, it is difficult to get even student-to-student interaction.
Sandra: Students may not actively pursue getting involved. They may not contact the Students’ Union. They may not attend meetings, simply because of schedule constraints. I think not having that information accessible to them to go in and catch up when they can, that makes distance university seem even further away for students.

Part 3: Christina Frey

Marie Well: Would you start off my disclosing a little bit about your editing services?
Christina: I work with mostly self-published and independent authors as well as some small independent presses. I do a full range of editing, depending on what a manuscript needs or what an author is looking for. I help them develop the story, I critique their books, and I also get into the nitty gritty?is a line sounding good, what are the slow points, is the rhythm off, and, of course, is the punctuation right or are there typos. I pretty much do the gamut.

Marie Well: What role did you play with The Voice Magazine?
Christina: I was the managing editor from the summer of 2010 until the autumn of 2013.

Marie Well: What was your reaction to the proposed the ending of The Voice Magazine?
Christina: I was actually pretty shocked, especially when I heard they were going to replace it with a Writer in Residence. In 2012 we had the 20th anniversary publication, and we did an introspective on The Voice’s history. I did some research for that?I was managing editor at the time?and it was very interesting to see how it was established to be the voice of the students. It was a way for students to be communicating with the Students’ Union as opposed to a top-down publication. It was to give students a voice. So changing the nature of the magazine kind of eliminates the original purpose of The Voice.

Marie: What significance has The Voice Magazine had on student life at Athabasca?
Christina: Well, at the risk of sounding pretty trite, it has given them a voice. Not just a voice to air their grievances, although it has provided a safe place where they can talk about things like “I’m not okay with how this is going” either at Athabasca or in terms of the larger political situation?how it affects their studies, their ability to obtain loans, to obtain resources. And they are able to comment safely on the Students’ Union.

But also, they have been able to flex their own writing muscles. It provides a place where students have an opportunity to publish, to learn to improve their writing skills. One of the things we actually did as editors, although of course we didn’t accept everything that was given to us, was that we didn’t just send a rejection, but we helped them try to improve. Sometimes an article went back and forth a few times; after that, they might eventually get published with us.

We had a little bit of an extra role that way that you don’t often see in a regular magazine.

Marie: Students’ Union posed the idea that a lot of the articles in The Voice have “absolutely nothing” to do with student life, Athabasca, or the Students’ Union.
Christina: No, we don’t specifically focus on studies because Athabasca students are not typical university students. They are from all walks of life. Many of them are professionals. Many of them are travellers. Many of them are working, studying at night, studying on the side. They have a very wide range of interests and experiences as opposed to a typical student at a typical brick and mortar university. Here you have a very wide net. I think The Voice reflects the diversity of the Students’ Union membership.

Marie: How has The Voice impacted you personally?
Christina: Well, it definitely gave me a lot of good experience working with a wide variety of genres and writers. I got used to turning around professional queries fast. I actually wrote for The Voice a couple of years before I became the editor, and I am still writing for them.

Marie: What outcome would discontinuing The Voice have on student life?
Christina: I don’t think they’d have that venue or location where they could safely talk about issues that affect them and also safely publish?or at least get their feet wet in the publishing world, which is also important.

Marie: Christina, do you have any last words you’d like to say about The Voice?
Christina: I would be really sad to see it go. It has been going for over 20 years and it is a little bit of a legacy at this point. It is a nice opportunity for students to have a place to give voice to their words. I do know a lot of people enjoy reading the articles. It’ll be something people miss looking forward to on Friday afternoons.

Marie Well: How can we contact you for some of your editing services?
Christina: People can look at my website for more information: Page Two Editing, http://www.pagetwoediting.com.

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