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  • Investigating Journalism

    A diversity of publications has filled the void on campus

    By Mayaz Alam

    I t's no secret that the landscape of the journalism industry is profoundly different than it was at the start of the 21st century. The prevalence of the internet has fundamentally altered the way in which people consume print journalism; consequently, it has eroded both circulation and advertising, the primary revenue streams for publications.

    These changes have been felt in a different way on university campuses. For example, the University of Ottawa has suspended its journalism program for another year, while Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia closed its journalism school in 2012. Elsewhere, many schools are eschewing the term 'journalism' in favour of 'media' or 'communication' as part of a rebranding effort. Many student publications have also struggled to keep up-to-date with digital industry trends, even though the majority of students consume the news in an interactive, online manner.According to a 2012 survey, 37 per cent of college newspapers within the United States did not have a website in 2012.

    The 'McGill School of Journalism' is not undergoing a drastic overhaul because no such school exists, nor has it ever. In Montreal, McGill stands as the exception: UQAM, Concordia, and Universite de Montreal—the other three universities in the city—all have undergraduate journalism programs. However, the aforementioned programs are part of a grand total of only 11 programs Canada-wide—in a nation of 98 degree-granting universities.

    Although McGill does not currently have a journalism program, it has had a rich history of undergraduate student publications that have stepped in to fill the void. The resulting mosaic has created an extremely diverse group of news publications that have evolved over time.

    The McGill Daily, the oldest of the current on-campus publications, was created in 1911 as a daily sports paper. As The Daily's relationship with the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU) became increasingly contentious, it sought independence from SSMU.

    "Over the years [...] the shape of the paper has changed quite a bit," said Dana Wray, coordinating editor of The Daily. "But even [in] the '60s and '70s, The Daily was covering issues that were considered to be controversial and not mainstream. In the '70s, we covered International Women's Day. In the '80s, we created the gay-lesbian supplement [...] so it's been in its current form for decades now."

    Le Délit, The Daily's sister publication, shares an office and management with the Daily Publications Society. The French-language newspaper was founded in 1977 by The Daily's bilingual editorial board. Le Délit faced scrutiny from within the larger McGill community in its initial stages.

    "We take it for granted now, but the idea of having an all-francophone newspaper on campus was something quite big back then," explained Joseph Boju, rédacteur en chef of Le Délit. "The Daily received letters of support, but also aggressive statements, such as [a] letter signed by an irate mother predicting the 'destruction of the best university of the province' because of the francophone minority. Since then, Le Délit hasn't stopped publishing its issue once a week, advocating for francophone students on campus."

    Following The Daily's independence referendum in 1981, SSMU created the McGill Tribune, which was founded in 1981 to serve as SSMU Council's student newspaper. In 2010, the Tribune became completely independent as it sought greater editorial freedom.

    More recently, the Faculties of Engineering and Management have established faculty-specific publications in an attempt to cater to students within those fields. The Plumber's Ledger, which evolved from an Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) newsletter, reached its current magazine form in Fall 2012. Although The Ledger is still young, a long history of publications—comedic and otherwise—exists within the Faculty of Engineering.

    The history of The Plumber's Ledger begins with the history of The Plumber's Pot, a publication that was there for 30 years or so," explained Luis Pombo, editor-in-chief of The Plumber's Ledger. "They crossed the line [...] back in the day and The Plumber's Faucet, which was a serious publication back then, moved to a more satirical stance."

    The Ledger is still struggling to make a large dent outside of its faculty, but steps are being taken by expanding distribution to more on-campus locations. Within the Faculty of Engineering, however, The Ledger represents the interests and needs of members of the EUS.

    "Outside of the faculty [...] it's a relatively unknown publication, but we are looking to change that," Pombo said. "Within, I think the majority of the people see us as the engineering voice on campus and see it as a publication that reflects their views."

    The Bull and Bear, which is funded and published by the Management Undergraduate Society (MUS), can also trace its roots back to a faculty-specific newsletter. Since 2003, when it became an official publication, it has served to provide writing training, greater coverage of management-related issues, and a different perspective on campus issues for management students.

    "There's been a huge discussion within the faculty that management students don't get enough writing training, and [The Bull and Bear] became an outlet for students," said Max Feinsot, executive editor of The Bull and Bear.

    As magazines that publish once a month, both The Bull and Bear and The Plumber's Ledger produce a different type of content compared to a weekly newspaper. For Pombo, this means that there is more room to experiment with different types of articles.

    "The fact that we have such diverse content every month really works well," Pombo said. "We do a lot of features and that definitely helps in setting us apart. We also have short stories every month, which I don't think any other major publication does."

    With five major news publications on campus and a myriad of other journals and newsletters, McGill's print media might seem fragmented to the average student. Wray acknowledges that this situation may pose an interesting quandary for a first-year student who is surrounded by five different campus news sources, but notes that the landscape of media at McGill has become one of the university's strengths.

    "The diversity of journalism on campus is one of the strongest things about McGill," Wray said. "You really don't see that [on] other university campuses. I think that it's excellent that there are these very different newspapers where students can really find their place to shine."

    Boju notes that the presence of five different publications could possibly cause competition; even though all have their respective niche, each is attempting to convince students and advertisers that their publication is the one to read.

    "We are more than happy that there are several newspapers at McGill," Boju said. "It's a 'healthy competition,' as people say, though we don't see it as a competition because we differ in coverage. There is something quite extraordinary on this campus: It doesn't have a journalism program and [yet] it produces more newspapers than any campus in [Montreal]."

    Journalism is a changing industry, and on-campus publications are facing many of the struggles that their real world counterparts face. The future of journalism will undoubtedly look and feel very different from the past. Pombo sees the media at our fingertips with the proliferation of mobile apps and Jenny Shen, the editor-in-chief of the McGill Tribune, understands that digital media will become more and more prominent, prompting publications to look inwards.

    "We'll all have to re-evaluate what our intents are in terms of what our purpose on campus is so that even as we move online, we don' t forget our campus readership," Shen said.

    Feinsot, along with the others interviewed, hopes that print publications will still play a role on campus 10 years from now, but acknowledges that the ability to attract readers will have to change.

    "There will be more digital offerings [...] and more electronic interactivity," Feinsot explained. "I hope that they all don't go down the [...] route of becoming promotional pieces. There's money in it—but it's dirty money."

    McGill doesn't have an undergraduate journalism program. Instead, students have worked to develop a fabric of campus journalism that stands as an exception both within Quebec and Canada at large. Students have been thrust into leadership positions and tasked with managing large publications.

    At times they have caused controversy, but as a whole, McGill's student journalists' independence from the administration has emboldened the nature and quality of campus media. The lack of a journalism program should be viewed as a positive; it has resulted in a diverse and robust campus journalism landscape that enables students to consume and participate with the news from diverse viewpoints. In many ways, the 'McGill School of Journalism' has had classes for more than a century now—and class is undoubtedly still in session.

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