“‘Rye’ and coke”: Uncovering a university’s secret deals

by Robyn Doolittle
Editor-in-Chief, The Eyeopener

By the time I got back to the office, our issue with “Cracking Coke” had been on stands for about three hours. When I saw my red, blinking voicemail light, I thought some advertiser had inadvertently reached my phone or, perhaps, a hypersensitive student politician was demanding a retraction.

The last thing I expected was half a dozen messages of congratulations.

While the masthead recognized the significance of our story that revealed the details of Ryerson’s confidential contract with Coca-Cola Ltd., we weren’t sure others would. We were wrong.

Faculty, former Eyeopener staff, other mainstream media outlets and even our competition lavished praise on us. Many commended us on being one of the first — if not the first — campus newspapers to make use of changes to Access to Information legislation, which made universities subject to it.

But for those of us who know the story’s history, a larger significance emerged.

In September 1998, Eyeopener editors discovered Ryerson was secretly negotiating with Coca Cola and Pepsi over lucrative and exclusive contracts. Over the next few months, our reporters wrote a series entitled, “The Cola Wars” — despite little information from university officials. In fact, it was a Pepsi spokesperson who told The Eye that the university chose Coke over Pepsi. Because of the strict confidentiality agreement, school administrators refused to give the paper any information about the contract.

I first came across the series as a news editor in 2005. Because news has a way of repeating itself, one of my favourite story-generating techniques is combing through old issues. The “Cola Wars” series blew me away. I thought it was one of the best examples of investigative journalism The Eye ever did. I thought, if only the reporters had gotten a copy of the contract, what a truly perfect investigative piece it would have been.

From then, my co-editor and I brainstormed, thinking of ways to get a copy of the contract “leaked” to us. We even pondered stealing a copy of it. While we did not suspect some terrific scandal lay within its pages, we believed this secret agreement symbolized a barrier between the student press, university administrators, and students. Our quest for this journalistic “Holy Grail” began in earnest.

More than a year later, The Eyeopener finally got a break. A change in
ATI meant that, for the first time, student newspapers could request information from their universities. So, with a band of section editors, I rode the elevator up to the administration offices in Jorgenson Hall, and presented our first-ever request (along with a $5 processing fee).

The process took four months and was unnecessarily complicated. It also cost an additional $10 in administrative fees. But, by the second week of January, the elusive document was finally in our hands.

A month later, using ATI, we ran a second, similar story. This time it revealed more about Ryerson’s contract with food-services provider Aramark. Certainly, the change in ATI will help The Eyeopener report better on how our university operates, keeping it more accountable to students and the public.

Shady bureaucrats be warned: The Eye is watching you.

Read the story in The Eyeopener.