Ford’s cuts put student media at risk

Andre Forget

Campus newspapers strained as students opt-out

In Jan. 2019, Rob Ford’s Ontario government announced radical changes to the way university services are funded in the province. Among the changes were cuts to student fees, allowing students to opt out of fees. The initiative, labeled Student Choice, has put many student services at risk.

One of the groups most affected by this change in policy has been student newspapers. Last week saw Ontario’s student newspapers band together with a meeting at the University of Toronto’s Varsity offices. In attendance was a wide range of outlets, either in person or electronically, from University of Ottawa’s Fulcrum to University of Toronto-Mississauga’s Media. One of those at the meeting was The Eyeopener’s editor-in-chief, Sarah Krichel. According to the Ryerson student, there have been some very immediate impacts.

“It’s affected us in a lot of ways. The most tangible ways and the most immediate ways it’s affected us was cutting our budget down in order to save money for the future because we had no idea how much money we’d get from opt-ins.”

Krichel said that one other area of the paper’s budget that has suffered is the amount available for providing meals.

“We no longer get the food paid for by the Eye[opener], which is a big deal to a lot of editors because they’re paying bills and it really makes a big difference to have a couple meals per week paid for them in full.”

With very few student newspapers aware of their student fees for the fall semester – much like The Carillon, they receive their first installment of funding sometime in October – they’re facing tangible challenges, according to The Fulcrum‘s editor-in-chief, Matt Gergyek. The student choice initiative has led to the University of Ottawa outlet having to cut their editorial staff significantly.  Gergyek said that the staff are still in the midst of trying to figure out how they will cover a campus of 45,000 students with seven editorial positions, something that they were faced with the prospect of in January.

“So, that was pretty scary when we first found out [about the opt-outs] back in January. We all just kind of went into worst-case scenario. Personally, at The Fulcrum, we decided to cut our budget to the scenario where we would have 50 per cent of students opting in. So, that was really reducing our staff and really reducing our pay. We went from around 14 paid staffers to 7. That meant cutting a managing editor, associate sports editor, associate news editor, photographer, videographer, opinions editor, so those were pretty important positions and pretty big cuts, and they definitely hurt to do and at the same time we also had to cut pay for the people who were staying on, including myself. We’ve all taken a pay decrease just to ensure we are financially viable if we do get fifty per cent of students opting in, but at the same time we’re staying pretty optimistic, or we’re trying to.”

Both editors highlighted the 50 per cent operating assumption as stemming from when Australia moved to a similar system. According to Krichel and Gergyek, the preliminary amounts of opt-outs at other institutions are higher than expected, but as Gergyek put it, it’s about making sure that papers have enough to “stay afloat through this.”

Krichel said some newspapers have chosen to focus on an advertising model while others are highlighting everything that a student newspaper does through their coverage. In the Eyeopener’s case that means providing student jobs, allowing students the freedom to build their journalistic careers, and providing an outlet for the student voice.

“Going into the year it’s really just about increasing not just our presence, but our quality of work as well as our urgency and how important we are of a publication and actually conveying that with the masses and not just worrying about our little bubble of the journalism school, or a bubble of the programs that care about The Eyeopener, it has to be everyone.”

Gergyek admitted that the first emotion that came to the staff wasn’t elation.

“Like I said, at first we were all pretty panicky. I don’t think anyone ever thought, ‘Oh, the Fulcrum’s going to die, this is the end for us.’ I don’t think it ever went that far. I think we all just kind of thought okay, we really need to put our heads together, we really need to think this through. This is a really deciding moment for us. Either we’re going to be able to stay afloat and be financially viable through this, or we’re going to be going into a deep deficit and face funding challenges throughout these next few years for sure.

For context, The Carillon’s levy is $5.50 per semester for full-time students and $2.25 for part-time students. Both The Fulcrum and The Eyeopener have similar funding structures with far more students to serve. A 50 per cent cut in funding would mean the ending of our print publication and a significant staff restructuring. Both the University of Ottawa and Ryerson have the opt out process featured prominently on their webpages. According to Krichel that means that there’s no point in avoiding the topic with students and relying on student apathy to ensure that students don’t opt-out.

“I don’t think people really realize what this whole situation means for democracy, for free press, for those types of things. ”

“I understand the apathy side of it, but also eventually your students will know [. . .] and you really do need to address it and be straightforward and honest about it, and then say, ‘Hey, at the end of the day, it’s your choice.’ We’re not forcing anyone to opt in, obviously, but you need to know why you need to opt in, and what it means that you have to opt in now, and you need to know what it means to us when you’re opting in.”

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