Student unions and the campus press are two things that go together like a spark to gasoline. When it's done right you can take the energy and use it to propel the best interests of students as far as possible. When it's done wrong it can lead to everybody getting badly burned.
The campus press in Canada has its origins in the student union movement as students found they had to have a way to raise student issues that weren't covered by the mainstream media.
This is still very much the case. In fact, with the daily newspapers cutting back on their newsroom staff dedicated education reporters are becoming harder to find.
In a recent talk called 'The war on knowledge' Ryerson journalism professor, veteran journalist and former editor of the campus paper the Loyola News, Tony Burman noted that when once University public relations staff had dozens of education reporters to contact, these days it's down to only a handful.
Often, those reporters are overly reliant on contacts and sources from the institutions and students' voices are lost in the rush to meet the next deadline.
With that you would expect student unions to be some of the strongest advocates for a vibrant campus press seeking to delve into the issues, digging up the stories that matter to students and hold administrations and governments to account.
However far too often the campus press is seen by student unions as a venue for pushing their own agenda or as a nuisance when we report on what they are doing, fearful that some of their dirty laundry might be aired.
Recently we saw this shortsightedness in Windsor as the University of Windsor Student Alliance (UWSA) attempted to stop The Lance from printing the final issue of the semester citing a paltry $7,000 shortfall. This came on the heels of The Lance's coverage of the UWSA's recent elections where they highlighted a number of irregularities and outright breaking of the rules. The front-page headline of the issue before the UWSA's snap decision? "Electile dysfunction."
In the wake of the decision, which was later reversed after students at the university and journalists and alumni across Canada organized to "Save The Lance," there was a motion to formally separate The Lance from the UWSA. This would have followed in the footsteps of many campus papers that have become totally independent of the student unions that fund them after a conflict.
This year we also saw the Ryerson Free Press, published by the Continuing Education Students' Association of Ryerson, abruptly stop publishing, and a dispute over office space between The Gazette and the University Student Council at Western University.
Student unions and the campus press don't have to be at loggerheads, but that doesn't mean they should be cozy with each other. One of the best ways for student unions to pursue their goal of advocating for students' interest is helping provide the funding and infrastructure for a campus and community media that is editorially independent.
The credibility of any media rests on its ability to tell people the truth and a well-funded, staffed and trained campus press can do that for students. Media that's controlled by student unions simply won't have the same credibility and won't be taken seriously.
The price of having to take a little heat and spend a bit of money to create jobs to staff a newspaper is hands down one of the best investments a student union can make.
This article was originally published The Dialog and is reprinted here with permission.
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