Q&A with CUP president Sam Brooks

Canadian University Press president Sam Brooks spoke with Eric Mark Do about the student press’ unique editorial voice, the Francophone representation in CUP and why its member papers find themselves facing the same challenges as newspapers across North America.


J-Source: What do you think the role of CUP is in the development of student journalism, and in the ever-changing journalism industry as a whole?

Canadian University Press president Sam Brooks spoke with Eric Mark Do about the student press’ unique editorial voice, the Francophone representation in CUP and why its member papers find themselves facing the same challenges as newspapers across North America.


J-Source: What do you think the role of CUP is in the development of student journalism, and in the ever-changing journalism industry as a whole?

Sam Brooks: I think that one thing that people need to understand is that student press is really unique in Canada. If you look at countries like the U.S. and a few others, there's really close ties between the student press on campuses and the university administration itself. In the United States, for example, they have faculty advisors for their student papers. If you take a step back and you look just at student press in Canada, it's completely independent – it isn't really like this any other place in the world. The majority of the student press in Canada is independent from either the university itself – I mean some of them are tied to journalism schools, and some of them are tied to students' unions, but it's not administered by the university itself.

So the role that we play has multiple different tiers to it. First and foremost, is we're fostering development of student press and independent student press in campuses. And this we do through providing them with resources, providing them with a news wire service, putting on conferences for professional development. We also play largely an advocacy role for them. If there's a student paper on a campus in Canada that is having its journalistic rights threatened — if the university or the student union or whatever wants to kind of overrule them or something like that — CUP will come in and advocate for them. We've successfully helped a lot of papers kind of draw the line where their business relationship with the student union ends and their journalistic integrity starts.

The second role I think we play is we have kind of a role in being a formalized institution for the people that don't actually go to j-school. CUP isn't in any way like an accredited university. But that being said, at a certain point in time – and it's kind of fiddled off a little bit lately – there were basically two paths you could take to becoming a journalist. You could either go to j-school, or you could just slug it out with your student paper and write and edit for them and kind of learn in the trenches. Of course there are some j-school-based papers within CUP, but the majority of our members are the people that are just trying to do it on their own. I think CUP plays a major role in trying to be an advocate in helping them develop as journalists – in a lot of ways showing the journalism industry in Canada that you don't have to go to j-school to be a journalist. And there isn't only one path towards being a professional journalist in Canada. We're really strong advocators for the alternative because not everybody can go to j-school.

Nowadays, there are 20-odd j-schools in Canada and they're kind of saturating the market with these j-school graduates. Even though there are tons of journalism grads out there, the people that have written 200 stories for their student paper – and had their work critiqued and reviewed by their peers – have just as valuable skills as the ones that have formal instruction. So I think that that's kind of the role that we play in the changing landscape.

J-Source: It appears that of the 80 student newspapers that have a membership with CUP, most of them are concentrated in four provinces (British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick). Provinces like Quebec seem to be underrepresented by comparison. Could you explain why this is?

SB: Quebec is a special case and here's the reason why: largely it's because CUP has a very small Francophone division. It's something that has been in development for the last three years or so. So at this point in time we can't offer as many services to our French side, but we're developing it really quickly.

The second pillar to Quebec is just sort of the climate there is that a lot of student papers – or at least English-language student papers – are not doing so well largely because the advertising market in Quebec is really targeted towards the French language. So, by and large, English-language student papers are not getting the revenue necessary to be such a big force in Canada. We do have some members in Quebec and we're trying to really build that back up right now, but frankly a couple of them left for financial reasons. Right now we're in talks with trying to find ways that we can bring them back in the organization.

The other provinces – like Manitoba, Alberta, etc. – I think it's just mostly because there aren't as many universities. If you look at a place like B.C., Lower Mainland and Vancouver area has four or five big universities and all of them have student press. The same goes for Southern Ontario. Whereas if you look at a province like Manitoba, there's University of Manitoba, University of Winnipeg, and a few colleges who are scattered here and there. The same goes for Saskatchewan. That's largely why we have more representation in some provinces than others: that's where the schools are.

J-Source: On your About page, it says that “Student newspapers seem to attract trouble.” Can you elaborate on that, and possibly give some examples where CUP has assisted student newspapers with legal issues?

SB: I guess in a lot of ways, student press sort of prides itself on being the voice for the voiceless, and for taking the risks that mainstream media can't. They can make profound statements that maybe, in some cases, aren't necessarily editorially correct. I guess, in a lot of ways, it's the climate of university culture and youth culture. The idea of being this rebellious underground press that seems really romantically attached to student press in some way.

When I'm talking about how student press attracts trouble, it's largely just because they're pushing the envelope. By and large, this doesn't really necessarily land in legal action. Student papers have very small budgets, and if somebody actually does get upset with them –very rarely will they actually get sued because it's not worth it. The legal costs compared to what you'd actually collect from a student paper are very low.

I guess attracting trouble, a lot of it is that some student press out there blur the line between editorial and news a little bit. And that sort of opens them up to not necessarily being intentionally libelous, but occasionally there can be some stuff that slips through the cracks. And that's a lot of times where we come in — we have some legal defence for our papers if they really land themselves in that position.

Where we do sometimes bring in some legal action is when something is not necessarily libelous, but something is unattractive to a university or student union's administration and it becomes more of a censorship issue. The student press takes a lot of pride in trying to get to the bottom of issues that people aren't really talking about on campus and it makes the university look bad sometimes. Right now, look at some of the dirt that's coming out in the administration at the University of Concordia in Montreal. The Link, which is the student paper that used to be a member of CUP and no longer is, has been doing some very fantastic exposé, investigative-type pieces on that. And so has our member of Concordia that has been covering it from more of a news perspective and less editorial…other examples where the student press has really clashed with the administration…A lot of times, the university administration stands up and takes a side and says, “Well, you guys are just a bunch of kids. You don't know what you're doing. You can't print that,” that kind of thing.* Where, in fact, they're not – they should have the same respect and integrity as any other journalist. And in fact, if the facts are right and they're not libelous, they can print that.

Much like the media in any society has a role of being the fourth estate, that voice that keeps governments and whatnot in check — student press does the same thing at the collegiate level.

J-Source: CUP has compared itself to a “student version of the Canadian Press,” as well. Can you elaborate on that?

SB: Certainly. By and large that is mostly because we have a news wire service. This is something that I think is what really separates CUP from something like the ACP, the Associated Collegiate Press in the U.S. which mostly is more of a training and conference based thing.

We have a massive editorial division where we have bureau chiefs and editors representing all different corners of the country as well as a national bureau chief that heads the entire thing. We have a Parliament Hill bureau. So in a parallel role with the Canadian Press, we not only are service providers and professional development networks and resources for our members, but we are also a resource in that we also have a news wire. We have a source that aggregates student news from across the country and allows our members to reprint them much like any member of CP or the former Postmedia wire service. So that's where our parallels to CP really come out.

J-Source: I've noticed more video reports coming from the Canadian Press this year. What's CUP's digital strategy in this age of multimedia journalism?

SB: It's developing. This year is the first year that we actually have a multimedia editor position for CUP. Last year, and years before, we had a podcast which was a little bit ill-listened to – it didn't really get that many hits and it was mostly just talking about the student press. But this year we've decided to open it up to being a full multimedia thing, and that's partly also because we also had to wait for our member papers to develop it a bit. Once it got to the point where enough of them were [creating video], we said, “Okay, now we can start doing this on our news wire as well and if we do it on our news wire it's not going to fall on deaf ears, it's not just going to be content that nobody uses.”

I think in this first year, and maybe the second couple years of its development [the multimedia editor] will function more or less as a curator of content – finding the videos that other papers have done and distributing it through our wire service. But the end goal is eventually for CUP to also create video news as well.

J-Source: One month of the new school year is behind us now. What's the most common issue/problem that you feel is affecting student newspapers this year?

SB: Funding. There's a lot of our members in Canada that don't get a lot of direct funding from their university. Most of them have student levies that are rolled in with the fees that they pay their students' union. But a lot of them don't have inflationary increases tied into those things. So they've had the same levy for years…while the cost of everything else goes up. With insufficient funding from universities and students' unions paired with a serious gap in the advertising market for print on student campuses have left a lot of our papers very, very underfunded right now. So I'd say that that is the number one issue that's been coming up so far this year.       


This interview has been edited.

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article caused confusion as to who was being referenced in the hypothetical quote from the university administration. We have since clarified it.