WLUSP & WLUSU: It’s complicated

A student publication is no different than any other publication. Large or small, student-produced media serves the same purpose as any news or information source outside of the university.

Any student publication, such as the paper you hold in your hands, is part of the elaborate microcosm of real life that plays itself out on university campuses. A student newspaper is a media source for students in the same role that other, larger media sources cater to wider demographics.

What issues surround the student media at work on a university campus, what relationships do they have with others and how do their operations make an impact on the world that students inhabit?

The role of a student paper

“People don’t really understand the role of media in a democracy,” Laurier communication studies professor Herbert Pimlott stated bluntly.

“I see this problem not only with students, but with the rest of the population as well.”

The impact that media in general, and student-produced media specifically, has on influencing its audience was not lost on Pimlott, but he defined the role of media as informative rather than guiding people to think in certain ways.

“Just because you bring [an issue] to their attention doesn’t mean you’re telling them what to think. News media don’t tell you what to think, they tell you what to think about.”

Covering campus politics such as students’ union elections is a major responsibility of a student publication in its role of providing its readership with information.

In Laurier’s case, the operations of the students’ union and student publications including The Cord are unrelated; our publications are autonomous from the students’ union.

While this might seem necessary for the sake of objective reporting of students’ union operations, especially during elections, student media at many other Canadian universities are owned and operated by their students’ union.

Autonomous student media

“There needs to be a separation,” said Pimlott when asked about ties between students’ unions and student publications. “People have to have faith in the media that are reporting something.

If there is any kind of real or perceived link, it will damage the reputation of the student media and damage their ability in the eyes of the student body to report fairly.”

Of the 70 members of the Canadian University Press (CUP), an organization representing student publications across the nation, only about half of the papers are autonomous from their respective school’s students’ union.

Current president of CUP Rob Fishbook was on staff at the Fulcrum, the University of Ottawa’s English-language newspaper, during the publication’s move for independence from their students’ union in 2005.

“In the mid-90s especially, there was a push for student papers to go autonomous,” said Fishbook.

“We were seeing all these other papers gaining independence and how it was working for them and were getting kind of tired of our position,” he recalled.

“There was a little too much control on the part of the students’ union,” he continued. “Little things – like they would get annoyed if we tried to put a beer mug on the cover, they actually tried to pull the paper from stands over that.”

Fishbook explained that those at the Fulcrum felt it was inhibiting their ability to fulfill their role as a viable media source on campus.

“[We wanted] independence for the ability to grow and change and do better as a paper – to do things for ourselves rather than be tied down to what the students’ union wanted.”

As president of an organization that includes many publications run under the operations of students’ unions, Fishbook feels that autonomy is ideal.

“I think a lot of students’ unions – and this isn’t all of them – tend to think that as the publisher of the paper, they should have some sort of right to say what coverage of [the union] is in [the paper] and that’s not a good situation,” said Fishbook.

At Laurier

Joel Robinson, WLUSU’s vice-president of public affairs agrees that student publications need to be autonomous. “What I’ve seen at other schools is that [the union] will run the student newspaper and won’t necessarily bring up those tough issues or anything that goes against what the union says.”

Until the mid-90s’, Wilfrid Laurier University Student Publications (WLUSP) operated more closely with the union, taking a varied percentage of student activity fees charged by WLUSU for its budget. Today however, there is a distinct publications fee and no affiliation between the two organizations.

In 1996, WLUSP became autonomous of the students’ union after taking control of its own funding through a referendum, removing any financial – and editorial – control from the union.

The referendum was prompted by disputes between the two groups over content. In 1991, tensions grew to the point where The Cord was temporarily shut down. Staff members were locked out of the publications office by the union as well, all over issues relating to editorial content.

With issues of censorship, influence and financial control aside, the present situation stands in sharp contrast to how things used to be.

Robinson explained that in his position as VP of public affairs for the union a large part of his job is to provide student publications with information. “It’s about giving people the information and letting them write whatever they want. I can’t control the content of anything they write.”

“I can provide all the information possible and then opinions and facts and everything else will come out in the end,” Robinson added in reference to his position.

Dean of students David McMurray spoke of the relationship he has witnessed between these two student groups over his tenure at Laurier.

“It is student publications’ responsibility to communicate and report on what’s going on, regardless of whether it’s complementary or not and if there’s need for investigation on issues from time to time,” said McMurray.

Although he can’t recall there being a lot of difficulty, from a students’ union perspective, with student publication’s role on campus, he does acknowledge that in certain circumstances things can get heated between the two student groups.

“When things get personal. I think that’s when tensions can result,” said McMurray.

Current student publications president Bryn Ossington gave his impression of the atmosphere today between the two groups. “Right now, I think there’s a mutual respect on both sides. A lot of people that understand the intricacies of both organizations and I think that works well in both our favours.” Ossington outlined how financial independence simplifies things and affects the product that appears in print.

“We don’t have to write articles in a way that skirts the truth just to save face. We’re not fighting for our existence at the same time that we’re fighting to put out a good article and put out a good publication.”

Ossington emphasized that despite being independent, publications do need to be careful. “From our side of things we always need to be more conscious of what we’re reporting on,” he said. He made clear that publications need to avoid misleading readers and be careful to present a situation without omission and fully representing what is going on. Specifically on the topic of the union, Ossington noted that because the two interact so frequently emotions are often high on sensitive issues.

“They can get really upset with us because we aren’t telling the story that they want to be told and that’s the same case with anybody, but we just have a much more intertwined relationship with them.”

What does everyone else think?

The perceptions that administration and faculty have of student publications and their role are difficult to determine.

The Fulcrum’s current news editor Laura Clementson explained that they have a good relationship with administration at the University of Ottawa. “I don’t think they make things more difficult than they need to be.”

Laurier’s administration seems to appreciate the role of student media, especially as an independent voice. Vice-president of academics Deb MacLatchy called independent student publications “a tenet of having a free society and free press.”

She illustrated the potential for leadership and editorial control issues if a separation between publications and unions are not present. “Going back to when I was a student, it was a tug of war between the student press and students’ union, and that’s played itself out at many universities over time.”

So where does student media stand and what do people think of its role?

Pimlott made clear that the purpose of any media is dialogue and debate. This interaction can be on behalf of students, or anyone else interested or involved in the issues raised through student media. “Remember that it’s not just students who read the paper,” he stated. “There is a want for a sense of debate and that’s why letters to the editor are one of the most-read parts of the paper.”

With the widely prophesized decline of print media and greater access to and more sources of information today, student-produced media faces challenges.

Laurier’s student publications have seen advertising revenue decline and expenses increase in recent years including a more than twofold increase in rent for its office on campus – a space that residential services would like to see turned into student accommodations.

According to Pimlott, and perhaps agreed upon by those who pick up a paper each week, there is a continued relevance, a responsibility to an audience that student media posesses. “With so many distractions out there for students, there’s an even greater role for student media to raise the issues that if they aren’t at the forefronts of students’ minds, should be.”