As I type these words, the future journalists of Canada are piss drunk in some Edmonton bar.
It’s the annual conference for the Canadian University Press, the organization linking university newspapers from Victoria to St. John’s for over 70 years.
Walk into any newsroom in Canada, and you’ll find the majority of people got their start with their “campus rag”. The majority of the time, it’s the same story—an undergraduate unsure of their future stumbles into a messy office, learns that the poorly dressed and perpetually hungover editor (I may be editorializing) lets any student write for them, and eventually falls in love with that damned thing known as journalism.
And this week, 200+ of them are in Edmonton, learning from professionals like the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle, Esquire’s Chris Jones, and (gasp) even Sun News’ Ezra Levant, hopeful they can make a living doing the thing they love.
They’re also a little nervous.
Campus newspapers are no more immune to the pressures of the digital age than any other type of newspaper. Even a decade ago, advertisers figured the best way of reaching “the youths” was buying a full page ad in the Silhouette or the Peak. Obviously that’s no longer the case, and many publications have had to reduce the number of times they print a week, or take other measures to ensure editors have enough ramen and beer to survive.
The route from university editor to professional journalist has changed too. It used to be that if you regularly wrote for your rag, an internship at the local daily would soon follow. Then it took a modicum of skill to quickly parlay that into a guaranteed career with a good union salary.
Now, you can write for campus paper until the cows come home, but unless you’re extremely diligent and lucky, you’ll feel it necessary to enter a journalism program. There you’ll do a free, short internship (aka. “practicum”) or two, followed by a four-month contract at a daily, followed hopefully by another temp position, followed maybe by a job at a community paper/free daily, and then, just maybe, you’ll start to feel secure that you’re carving out a living for yourself. And that’s if your good.
(Of course, if you come from a campus paper, you probably are good. But we’re getting to that)
So it’s a different world, one where university newspapers are at a major competitive disadvantage to journalism schools. The latter have the established partnerships with newsrooms. They have a marketing and recruitment machine behind them. They have networking opportunities available from the get-go thanks to adjunct professors.
That being said, it isn’t all doom and gloom. I say this from observation, I say this from experience, and I say this with complete honesty:
A person who started at their campus publication has a better chance of succeeding then just about anyone else. For the following reasons:
A campus journalist comes in with hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of real-world experience, writing dozens upon dozens of stories, communicating with audiences in all mediums, and honing their skills through the sharp feedback and criticism of their peers.
A campus journalist learned their craft by doing, every day, in an environment where actions have real consequences.
A campus journalist is under no illusions about the state of the industry, because they worked 50 hours a week for sub-minimum wage before entering a large newsroom—for months, if not years—and decided to ignore the bachelor’s degree they were getting to pursue this occasionally noble profession.
A campus journalist doesn’t get intimidated, because they dealt with bullying university staff and bumbling student politicians before ever dealing with
Rob Ford local politician X.
A campus journalist has an appreciation of what their bosses are dealing with every day, because they’ve often been in the same shoes as them, albeit on a much smaller scale.
A campus journalist has more freedom than any other type of journalist, and learns how to hone that freedom into interesting articles for the rest of their life.
Perhaps most importantly, a campus journalist knows how to write a competent, well-sourced story every day, regardless of how important it is in the grand scheme of things, regardless of whether they have a good press release or not, because the campus journalist often had to write such stories themselves to fill the bottom half of Page 5, even when nothing whatsoever was happening on campus. When you’re at the bottom of the totem pole in a large newsroom, you have to write a lot of these stories, and unless you to have designs on doing freelance features for years on end, you better get good at these. Campus journalists already are.
Of course, people who never stepped in a campus newsroom can have these skills too—in my experience Carleton University and Langara College do a particularly good job of preparing their students for “real world” newsrooms. But the people reading this while chomping on bacon and downing orange juice in a desperate attempt to restore lucidity (that would be the young journalists in Edmonton currently attending that national conference) have more tools in their proverbial box than just about anyone out there. If you stick with it, you will be fine. Promise.
(That mélange of links are to recent campus journalists who are doing OK today, FYI)
However, they need some help. Help that should come from their elders.
If you came from the student press, find ways to give back. Phone them up and volunteer to give a seminar. Mentor a promising writer or two. Be a reference for someone. Answer their dumb questions. Tell your dumb stories. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Bruce Arthur or a stringer at the local alt weekly: you’re in the business, the kids will treat you like a god, and your advice will legitimately help them. It’s win-win. Maybe even win-win-win.
Basically, be an advocate. Canadian journalism is better off because of the role places like the Varsity and the Daily and the Gazette and the Sheaf and the Gateway have played for decades.
It’s a two-way street, of course: Campus papers need to do a better job of reaching out to alumni, and alumni need to do a better job reaching out.
But campus newspapers, those independent, silly, snarky, overly serious, authority-thumbing bastions, they still matter. So do the students that populate them.
I would try and write something profound here, but I’ll cede the floor to Michael Valpy, who wrote this about The Ubyssey, his and mine alma mater, 20 years ago when it was under threat from the student union:
“The Ubyssey has been accused of dicking around. Student newspapers are supposed to dick around, to be outrageous, to march boldly beyond convention. That is how societies renew themselves, stay alive. The period of time in life when humans are free to stuff convention up society’s nose is far too dismally brief.”
Help them dick around. There’s plenty of good people helping out the campus press this week. There’s 51 other ones available.