Student journalism is more relevant than ever

Anthony Burton
The Strand

In January, student journalists from across the country came together in Toronto for the Canadian University Press’s annual NASH conference. Four “legacy media” figures comprised a keynote panel on Wednesday evening, followed by Saturday’s keynote featuring Jesse Brown, publisher of the Canadaland podcast. The optimism of Brown’s new-media success story was in stark contrast to the subdued mood of Wednesday’s panel, where Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank, Toronto Sun Editor-in-Chief Adrienne Batra, and former Globe & MailEditor-in-Chief John Stackhouse spent much of their time insisting to the room full of prospective journalists that things really aren’t all that bad for Canada’s major newspapers.

The numbers tell a different story. Postmedia, the national media chain that owns the National Post, Toronto Sun, Ottawa Citizen, and over 50 local newspapers across the country, posted a $4.2 million loss for the last quarter of 2015. Last week, they consolidated newsrooms in four capital cities, cutting 90 jobs. The Toronto Star just announced the closing of its proprietary printing plant, resulting in over 250 job losses on January 15, followed by the layoffs of 13 digital editorial staff. Ten of these layoffs were from the 70 recent hires assigned to the paper’s four-month-old tablet initiative, Startouch. It bleakly contradicts Cruickshank’s insistence during the keynote panel, where he insisted that Startouch was the future of Canadian news media.

The major news outlets in Canada are quickly beginning to look archaic compared to newer media companies. There are a couple of reasons for this. National newspapers are, by virtue of their medium, a one-way discourse. The printed paper demarcates the discussion: the only potential discursive space is in its pages, and you need to have some sort of journalistic credentials or overall prestige to participate.

It’s not a diverse discourse, either: in 2000, a Laval University study stated that 97% of Canadian journalists were white, and in 2010 the CBC’s workforce found that minority groups only made up 8% of their reporting staff. This isn’t to say that poor minority representation is always deliberately discriminatory, but rather that the nature of any large institution makes any change slow and gradual, even in a largely socially aware field like journalism.

The conversation, and the conditions surrounding it, are moving faster than old-hat media can adapt. As polarizing a figure as he is, Jesse Brown’s success in turning his podcast, Canadaland, into a news website with a full staff and national attention speaks to a shift in how we’re consuming news. The fact that Canadaland relies directly on donor contributions to keep running means Brown is accountable to his own listeners or readers, rather than to investors or the ruling elite of old media, kingpins like Philip Crawley or Paul Godfrey.

There’s a great episode of “Short Cuts,” a sister podcast to Canadaland, where Buzzfeed senior writer Scaachi Koul holds Brown to account for shoddy reporting on a supposed mass exodus of women from the Globe and Mail. Brown doesn’t really contest the accusations; you get the idea that he knows he messed up and relishes the opportunity to show the world he knows it. This type of direct accountability contrasts sharply to moves like the Toronto Star recently closing the comment sections on its own articles. It’s not the print medium that is hurting the viability of major news companies, but the exclusive discourse. When your consumers aren’t able to participate in the conversation, they’re not going to feel as if it’s a conversation about their own communities.

Despite sharing the same medium as these companies in crisis, student journalism is different in the most crucial way: it’s a conversation that we all participate in. We’re all citizens of the same campus: paying the same fees, taking the same classes, and sharing many of the same experiences. Student publications allow us to share each other’s issues and recognize the larger picture. When we engage in a conversation about our own experiences, the university grows into something much more than just a physical space. It becomes a community we can call our own.

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Student journalism is more relevant than ever