In defence of student media
Tonight, the students’ union at my alma mater made a bold proposal: cease print operations of The Xaverian Weekly, the student-run newspaper, and move it entirely online. Sadly, this isn’t the first time such a proposal has been made and never has the proposal come with logical reasons. This proposal isn’t about the evolution of student media, it’s about saddling it with fewer resources and greater expectations.
Student media is an invaluable resource on campuses for two reasons:
a) It provides the student body unfiltered access to the decision-makers at a university. It is often a student’s only window into how their institution is run, who the power players are and how they can be accessed. In addition, as many student media organizations are now realizing, their print readership and online readership are not comprised of the same people. To choose one over the other is to deprive a segment of the student body the access to decision-makers on campus they deserve.
b) Student media also provides professional learning opportunities for students interested in any aspect of publishing. StFX doesn’t have a journalism program. The Xav is the only way for a student at StFX to gain the experience they need to pursue a career in journalism. As a proud former editor-in-chief of the Xav, the skills I learned working at and running the paper led me to running a national wire service for almost 80 student newspapers across Canada with the Canadian University Press and then to a position as an online editor at The Globe and Mail. Other former Xav staff have found similar success reporting for the CBC or anchoring a city sports desk. The one thing we all have in common is that working at the Xav helped us achieve these goals.
The Xav’s current web presence is terribly outdated. The management software behind the website is a generation old, the design is limited from displaying video or multimedia content and the update schedule is limited, at best, when it’s even working at all. Changing these limitations to run a proper online news site could be done, but it requires training and equipment for the staff, designers and developers who can work with the web and resources to properly reach students on their mobile devices. A major part of the reason the Xav has had trouble building an online presence up to now is a lack of resources. The students’ union’s proposal does not intend to give the paper these resources while they eliminate the print product.
While the students’ union sees the move to web as a way of cutting costs, the realities of moving a student publication from print to web is that it requires more resources, not fewer. The students’ union is trying to wash its hands of the Xav’s money problems without realizing this is a detrimental, and perhaps deadly, blow to student media at StFX.
The fact remains that all media requires investment. To deny this is simply bad business. Mainstream media supplement ad revenue with subscriptions and student media do the same with a levy from students. Like many newspapers in this country, the Xav has struggled to maintain pre-recession levels of advertising. I assure you this is not an issue unique to the Xav, and it is incredibly naive to think that taking away the paper’s resources will solve this problem.
What the move from the students’ union amounts to is a cowardly shot at reducing the amount of independent reporting available to students, hampering the career aspects of those students involved in local media, and preventing future growth and development from being realized. It’s shameful. And StFX will suffer because of it.
Almost a year ago to the day, the students’ union also proposed cutting the Xav’s budget. I wrote a letter of support outlining the importance of student media and why moving online will not save the money the union thought it would. Council decided to continue funding the Xav and to help the paper become autonomous, i.e. put the paper in charge of its own fate. Today’s initiative marks the failure of that promise. You can read my letter, dated April 6, 2011, here.