By Nora Loreto and James Clark
Special to The Dialog
The Ryerson Free Press was, for a few short years, one of the most progressive campus publications in Canada. First launched in 2006, it quickly established itself as an unapologetically left-wing alternative to most student-run newspapers, and attracted a readership well beyond Ryerson’s downtown Toronto campus. With a clear focus on student activism, the newspaper did more than simply report on campus politics: it aimed to intervene in them, and push them in a progressive direction.
For a while, it managed to do just that, shaping debates among student activists at the same time as providing a platform for broader off-campus struggles in the labour and social movements. But just over a year ago, with very little warning and no subsequent explanation, the Ryerson Free Press suddenly stopped publishing.
The Eyeopener recently asked the same question. Unfortunately, no one at the Continuing Education Students’ Association of Ryerson (CESAR), the publisher of the Ryerson Free Press, had much to say publicly, generating even more questions about the newspaper’s demise, not to mention the overall state of the student union.
As former staff at the Ryerson Free Press, we too share concerns about its untimely collapse. In particular, we worry that the absence of any credible explanation about what went wrong will make it more difficult for other progressive media to avoid the same fate. And in light of the disappointing loss of CKLN-FM, there is a real urgency to identify the numerous challenges facing all progressive campus media, and to generalize the best approaches for overcoming them.
So what went wrong?
Based on our own history with the Ryerson Free Press, we can identify both internal and external challenges that we believe contributed to the newspaper’s mounting problems.
Internal challenges are generally related to the overall political vision of the publisher’s leadership, and the degree to which it is prepared to support, fund and defend radical ideas – the content of progressive media. By its very nature, progressive media challenges mainstream ideas, often attracting criticism and generating controversy. Their objective is to provoke debate and unsettle their readers, not to support the status quo.
This only became possible for the Ryerson Free Press following the political transformation of its publisher, CESAR, which elected a progressive leadership in 2004. As CESAR increasingly engaged and mobilized its membership for progressive causes, its publication began to reflect the organization’s shift to the left. In 2006, CESAR’s long-standing publication, Nightviews, was re-named the Ryerson Free Press, and re-launched as an explicitly left-wing, activist-focused newspaper.
But, like other student unions, CESAR experienced changes in its leadership from one election to the next and did not sustain its progressive outlook. As CESAR’s leadership shifted away from the left and became more removed from its members, it supported less and less the original vision and mandate of the Ryerson Free Press.
We really began to feel this shift during the latter part of Nora Loreto’s tenure as editor-in-chief, when members of CESAR’s board of directors repeatedly threatened to shut down the newspaper – for financial, not political, reasons. Year after year, the board slashed the newspaper’s budget. As staff, we managed to block the outright elimination of the newspaper, but were forced to spend more time and energy on securing new revenue sources just to maintain production.
Besides reducing financial support, the CESAR board reduced political support, too. In truth, the two are one and the same. The board’s commitment to provide the newspaper with adequate funds and other resources is directly related to its political commitment to support a progressive agenda. As the leadership moved rightward, it increasingly questioned the newspaper’s relevance to its readers and the wider membership – despite the continued popularity and high profile of the Ryerson Free Press, both on and off campus – to the point that it now no longer publishes the newspaper at all.
Incidentally, the extent to which CESAR’s board has retreated from progressive student unionism is evident in its lockout on Sept. 30 of its full-time staff, whose members are represented by CUPE 1281. Instead of negotiating a fair contract, CESAR’s leadership has forced the first-ever labour stoppage in CESAR’s history.
Cutbacks and dwindling political support weren’t the only threats we faced. External challenges came from a range of sources: the university administration, conservative faculty members, right-wing campus clubs, mainstream media, and even political parties. These challenges have always existed, and will continue to do so, but can be effectively mitigated by an engaged and active student union membership and a confident and political student union leadership.
Without that kind of back-up, however, external challenges become much more threatening. Shortly after its re-launch, the Ryerson Free Press became a lightning rod for controversy – from our defiant support for the Toronto city workers’ strike, to our pro-Tamil coverage of the Sri Lankan civil war, to our anti-Zionist Holocaust memorial, to our exposure of campus conservatives in attacking progressive student groups, and so on.
We proudly reported on issues that, in our view, deserved a higher profile – even if our coverage provoked angry responses from powerful interests. This principled approach helped generate respect for our writers and for the newspaper in general, even among journalists who disagreed with our politics.
But a good reputation in progressive circles, and even within the broader student movement, wasn’t enough to limit our opponents’ attacks, which usually took the form of lawsuits. Just the threat of legal action can be enough to scare people into silence, especially new and inexperienced student union leaders who worry (and rightly so) about how they spend their members’ dues.
We faced the threat of lawsuits on several occasions, mainly from people with formal ties to conservative political parties. As editor-in-chief, Loreto consistently stood up to these threats, always providing ample evidence to defend whatever we had written. And on the rare occasion we made an error, we immediately corrected it and publicly apologized.
Some threats went beyond bluster.
In September 2012, Andrew Monkhouse (then an articling student, now a lawyer at Monkhouse Law) served Loreto, James Clark, the Ryerson Free Press and CESAR with a lawsuit seeking $25,000 in damages, in response to an article by Clark called “Manufacturing Crisis.” Published in the October 2009 issue of the newspaper, the article examined the convergence of right and left-wing forces on campus that coordinated efforts to disaffiliate from the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS). We mistakenly identified Monkhouse as an activist seen campaigning to defederate from the CFS. In his lawsuit, Monkhouse alleged that the online publication of that error caused “severe lasting damage to his reputation and career prospects,” and warranted a $25,000 award.
Monkhouse alerted us to our error in 2009. We immediately corrected it online and in the next issue of the newspaper. Two-and-a-half years later, Monkhouse alleged that the online archive of the original print version of the article was defamatory.
We remained confident that there was nothing defamatory about linking Monkhouse to a defederation drive against the CFS. Although we mistakenly named him in our article, his record as an anti-CFS advocate was clearly documented in other campus media. In 2009, Monkhouse spoke publicly to York’s Excalibur about his role in circulating anti-CFS petitions. Earlier that year, The Leveller probed Monkhouse’s connection to an effort by conservative students at Carleton to intervene in campus politics through the creation of front groups.
Regardless of his claims against us, we were more concerned about the chill effect his lawsuit would have for progressive student writers, and the extent to which it would discourage media from tackling difficult issues, lest they trigger some kind of legal action against their publisher. Indeed, the original statement of claim filed by Monkhouse clearly states his intention to do just this:
“An award of up to $25,000 is justified and required to punish the Defendants and deter inappropriate conduct in the future, both from these Defendants as well as other quasi-professional news organizations nationally.”
We maintain that we handled the correction fairly and properly, and we refused to offer him any money. In the end, the case itself never made it to court. Monkhouse advised us that he was unavailable just weeks before the trial date and later agreed to drop the claim against us in the absence of any payment. He also settled separately with CESAR, which had its own legal counsel at that time. We are not privy to the terms of CESAR’s settlement with Monkhouse.
This experience should be instructive for all progressive campus media: these are battles worth fighting. While the financial cost of a long and protracted lawsuit may well exceed an out-of-court settlement, the political cost of going to trial is probably worth it.
Sadly, not everyone threatened with a lawsuit of questionable merit will have the financial means or the political confidence to fight back. That’s one of the reasons we decided to write this article: to share our experience with other progressive journalists who might well find themselves in a similar situation. If the broader student press becomes aware of these situations, and accordingly develops an effective strategy to counter them, progressive campus media will be in a better position to do its work, and to do it well.
Ironically, Loreto and Rebecca Granovsky-Larsen first identified the use of the same tactics investigated by The Leveller in an award-winning March 2009 feature called “Conservative Party Strategy to Take Over Student Unions Exposed.” Their coverage documented workshops led by conservative activists about how to run campaigns to defund Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) and to defederate from the CFS.
Today, another defederation drive is under way, ostensibly led by left-identified activists, but, just like in 2009, involving right-wing forces. Indeed, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative leader Tim Hudak’s election promise to gut the labour movement is likely encouraging campus Tories to renew their attacks on progressive student organizations, especially the CFS. Despite what motivates some on the left to support these initiatives, their collaboration plays into the hands of a decidedly right-wing agenda.
A progressive student movement requires progressive campus media, and in order for it to survive, its contributors and supporters must play a role in building engaged and active student unions, which, in turn, will have the confidence to support, fund and defend progressive campus media. Such a movement can become both the source of radical ideas and their audience. This task is not an easy one, and must be renewed from year to year, especially as student union leaderships change from one election to another.
In our experience, the rightward shift of CESAR’s leadership represented an internal challenge that opened the door to external ones. Without a doubt, there will always be outside forces attempting to undermine the work of progressive students, but those threats are significantly reduced whenever students collectively stand up to them.
That means that progressive journalists, especially on campus, must never forget what forms the foundation of our collective work: working together, sharing our stories and experiences, honestly debating strategy and tactics, documenting our history, generalizing our successes and learning from our failures, and, most importantly, offering help when help is demanded of us.
In other words: solidarity.
And while the Ryerson Free Press may be silent for now, it could just as quickly be revived. In the meantime, other progressive newspapers continue to publish on campuses across Canada, and more will likely emerge – especially in moments like these, as more and more students, in response to the pressures of a neoliberal education system, show a genuine interest in radical ideas.
For our part, we too refuse to be silent, and hope that, by sharing our experiences as contributors to the Ryerson Free Press, we can generalize the kinds of lessons that will help build progressive campus media all across the country.
Nora Loreto is an activist, a blogger, and the author of From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement (2013). She was editor-in-chief of the Ryerson Free Press from 2009 to 2012. Follow her on Twitter at @NoLore.
James Clark is a PhD candidate in English at York University, and a former CESAR board member. He was the features-and-opinions editor of the Ryerson Free Press from 2008 to 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @2JamesClark.