Photo: Eric Davidson
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Anyone who keeps up with the media in Ottawa woke up to a most unwelcome surprise on last Monday, Nov. 27.

Nearly 40 community publications across Canada were closed and nearly 300 jobs lost in the blink of an eye. In Ottawa alone, that meant the closing of eight community newspapers. The move came with little warning, leaving many people were shocked, and it wasn’t long before the URL for Metro Ottawa’s website was forwarding readers to the Ottawa Citizen homepage.

Outside of media executives boasting a higher market share in core demographic areas, not a lot of people are offering takes on why this is a good thing. That’s because when local media gets cut down, a lot of small, but important issues don’t get the same level of coverage.

People living in a given area don’t have access to that window into how their community is working. Local people lose an avenue to pursue journalism at a lower level to gain experience.

A survey by Pew Research found that the average American, both Republican and Democrat, trusts local news outlets more than national news outlets, social media, and even their family and friends.

In the age where many people cry, “fake news!” all indications are that local news might be our strongest solution.

Student newspapers are absolutely a part of that. They cover news at the community level, and get people interested to join other community news organizations, as well as national ones. They’re a big piece of the puzzle.

Student newspapers often receive funding and don’t exist in the same corporate structure as most other outlets, meaning they’re not subject to the whims of big news organizations who are focused on the bottom line. So student journalism should be totally fine, right?

Well, not quite.

Don’t worry, if you’re a student reading this, your student newspaper isn’t owned by Postmedia or Torstar, and it won’t be shut down because it doesn’t fit into the business plan of a large corporation.

Even so, student journalism has been facing some serious problems of its own recently.

During the Ontario college strike, the student paper at Algonquin College, the Algonquin Times, was forced by their student union to stop publishing under its own name, forcing student journalists to retreat to a hastily-created WordPress site called the Algonquin Timeless.

And that wasn’t the full effect of the strike. According to reporting done by Canadaland, student papers at six other colleges stopped publishing during the strike as well.

Last month, the McGill Student Union took a public negative stance on a referendum question to continue funding the two campus publications, le Délit and the McGill Daily.

At Wilfred Laurier University, several issues of the student paper, the Cord, were found ripped up, and some of the shredded copies were placed at the steps of the Cord’s office.

All that was just within the last month, but these problems have been here much longer.

For example, last year the current president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa called the campus’ French-language newspaper, la Rotonde, “fake news,” and members of the SFUO executive went to a meeting to elect members to the paper’s board of directors, allegedly to gain seats for themselves on the board.

There’s something wrong here.

There are a number of things that can be done to help student journalism, especially after this latest rash of incidents. Decoupling papers from bad relationships with their student unions for one, as well as fostering more debate among students and discouraging behaviour that leads to students destroying their newspapers.

One thing that the mass closing of newspapers in Ottawa demonstrates is that something about the model for Canadian journalism isn’t working right. But if we’re going to fix this model, if we’re going to make sure that cities across Canada once again have access to a variety of good, consistent news coverage, we need to start small.

There’s a reason big tech companies like Google fund programs to teach people to code at a young age, and why they make software available for the public to play with. They want the demographic who will be entering the workforce to be comfortable in a coding environment, and be stimulated by it enough to apply for a job in Silicon Valley.

If we as Canadians can’t make student journalism just as attractive, it won’t matter if we fix Canadian media as a whole, as far fewer people will be engaged or passionate enough to run it as new cohorts of workers are needed.

Many of the journalists in Canada’s mainstream media were involved, at least in part, in their student newspapers. Student newspapers also offer a bridge for people who—understandably—don’t want to put all their eggs in that basket right now to get involved.

Student newspapers actually compliment a strong local news presence, as they introduce students to covering small but important stories close to the heart of communities.

In fact, a strong cohort of journalists from student papers will do more than maintain Canadian media, it will bolster it in much needed ways. A J Source survey found that the editorial boards of student newspapers show “a higher representation of marginalized groups in campus newspapers than the national average.”

It’s hard to argue that Canadian media today is truly representative of our country’s population. For example, a 2015 report found that around 90 per cent of CBC employees at the time were white. It looks like student journalism could be a positive force here, yet another reason to protect it.

If more people who care about good, informative journalism are ready to enter the profession, fixing the problems in Canadian media will be a lot easier.

Amid the chaos facing local newspapers, let’s not gloss over the serious things that happened to student newspapers recently. We can find solutions and talk about those issues, and build a better Canadian media from the ground up.