The Canadian University Press (CUP) is hosting a series of round-table discussions across Canada about the future of journalism and the role of student newspapers. As a member of the organization, The Voice was invited to participate. The goals of these discussions are to engage student journalists and invite their feedback on the challenges they face in producing student media in the current climate of blogs, click-bait and shrinking budgets.
This is the first time that CUP has invited feedback from its members. CUP wants to use its position as an umbrella organization for campus publications to advocate for student-produced media and to improve student journalism in Canada.
Although the number of attendees at the forums has varied, those who have shown up have been eager to share their experiences. A common point of discussion at the forums has been how campus publications are struggling to survive, which reflects the general trend of changes to the whole of the journalism industry.
The internet has been the biggest factor in these changes. The rise in blogging and the perception that online content should be free has changed traditional journalism, even among big media companies. Many campus publications still produce a printed newspaper, but readership of print issues is decreasing in favour of digital readership. While many campus newspapers struggle to convert to a digital format, there is a realization among them that to maintain or increase readership, they must either publish both in a print and a digital format, or convert entirely to digital. They note that the largest increase in readership has been among those who read the publications on mobile devices.
The other major challenge facing campus publications is the decline of advertising revenue. This decline directly affects how many pages a publication can produce for each issue and the news items that the publication is able to cover. The decrease in page counts due to the decrease in advertising means that campus news is now becoming limited to covering a few news stories per week, along with basic campus sports coverage and a minimum of entertainment reporting. In-depth feature reporting and photo-journalism is now becoming a luxury that few publications can afford. While many campus publications are independently run, which means they are solely responsible for their budgets, even the ones that are attached to their university student unions are finding that their funding can be decreased or in danger of being eliminated altogether because of the squeeze on university budgets.
Despite the challenges that student publications face, students in general see them as a valuable part of their campus experience. There have been instances of student newspapers breaking major university-related news stories before the mainstream outlets. Also, because student journalists are often close to the hub of what is happening on campus, they can report on stories in ways that external journalists are unable to, often questioning the decisions that the institutions make. Student publications are also viewed as slightly alternative media sources.
The current struggles of campus publications reflect the fight for survival that the entire news industry is struggling with, but how independent media such as campus news will weather these changes is difficult to predict. As for the CUP round-tables, the results will be compiled and presented to its members as a working paper to facilitate further discussion.
Closer to Athabasca University, the AUSU working committee on The Voice has recently wrapped up and has presented its finding to Council. The committee was set up to improve The Voice and make sure it remains relevant and responsive to the needs of AU students. Part of the committee’s report is expressing the recognition that The Voice is a valuable part of the overall communication process at AU, even more than other universities, because it is one of the few ways that AU students can connect with the wider AU community. However, because AU itself is in a unique situation due to its distance learning format, publishing an AU student magazine also comes with unique challenges in terms of sourcing and reporting on the stories that matter. Council will take time to reflect on the committee’s recommendations and decide on what actions to implement.
The news that campus publications everywhere are struggling to survive in a tough environment is not new. Several campus newspapers in Canada have folded in recent years and more are fighting to survive. The simple fact is that post-secondary institutions, and the faculty and students that are a part of them, must decide whether campus media is important and what role these publications have in a world filled with information. If they do decide that having a student-produced newspaper or magazine is important, then those publications must be supported. Otherwise, independent student media is in danger of completely disappearing from campus life.
Carla Knipe is completing her BA in English. She can be reached on Twitter @LunchBuster.