National student newspaper group faces financial crisis

Originally published in Macleans. Toronto, ON.

February, 2014

The Canadian University Press, a national cooperative set up in 1938 to bring student newspapers across the country together once a year and to create a platform for sharing stories over a newswire, will launch a last ditch fundraising campaign on Indiegogo this week to raise $50,000 to support its operating budget.

But critics of the organization, which lost 35 of 90 member newspapers in the last 10 years, say it needs more than just money. They say it needs a way to stay relevant in a changing news climate where it’s easy to share news stories online.

It has been an especially difficult two weeks for the organization resulting in a “state of crisis,” says president Erin Hudson.

“People think, ‘oh CUP is always in crisis,’” she says, “but this time it’s for real.”

The organization was recently audited by the Canada Revenue Agency and had to pay a whopping $9,000 fine for incorrect taxes. Then Hudson made a projection for the upcoming budget and discovered CUP would run a $7,000 deficit next year, the third in a row. To make matters worse, this time CUP can’t take money from savings; they’re all gone. As a result, effective Mar. 1, CUP will lay off all 12 of its part-time employees including bureau chiefs, editors and support staff. If the fundraising campaign does not meet its $50,000 target, it will be forced to rely on volunteer staff and make drastic changes to their newswire and other services, which include access to legal council, mentorship and the annual conference. The Indiegogo appeal will last 42 days.

But even hitting the $50,000 target may not be enough. Ian Froese is editor-in-chief of theDalhousie Gazette, which was one of CUP’s founding newspapers but dropped out in 2012. “The CUP newswire has lost relevancy to the Gazette in the last several years,” he says. “Now… local content is what matters. I’d rather have content produced by Dalhousie students.”

He says newspapers are forced to ask whether CUP is worth the membership fees. For theGazette, rejoining in September would have meant paying more than $5,000. “We want to see [CUP] survive,” he adds, “but it has become too bloated at a time when newspapers across the country are having to tighten their budgets because of decreasing advertising revenues.”

Geoff Lister, coordinating editor at The Ubyssey, the University of British Columbia’s student paper, had been having the same issues before his paper left in September. He and an editor from The Varsity, a newspaper at the University of Toronto, proposed a series of reforms at the conference in January that included scaling back on staff, conference costs and the national office in order to lower membership fees. When the reforms were rejected, they took the matter into their own hands and co-founded the National University Wire, an automated RSS feed of major news stories from member newspapers that’s completely free of charge. “NUW has risen out of a dissatisfaction with CUP and it’s going to exist in its current form until the organization figures things out,” he says. “CUP needs to rethink what it is and look at this holistically rather than cherry-picking solutions.” Ultimately, he says, NUW exists to prove the point that a newswire doesn’t need to cost upwards of $60,000 to operate, as CUP’s does. With seven of CUP’s former members stepping out to join NUW, it’s putting up stiff competition. Joining The Ubyssey and the Dalhousie Gazette are The Varsity, the McGill Daily, The Link at Concordia University, The Gazette at Western University andThe Martlet at the University of Victoria.

Hudson says CUP has already taken some of the advice offered at the last conference, cutting costs as well as next year’s membership rates, which will drop most noticeably for larger papers.

But since CUP relies on membership fees for 80 per cent of its budget, this hardly solves its financial troubles. At this point, it’s unclear which services would be the first to go should they not meet their fundraising target. The national conference is one of the most expensive items, with a rough cost of $150,000 to $220,000 annually. Hudson says some years they loose money even after charging delegates extra fees to attend.

“CUP will need to make some drastic changes to survive,” says Dalhousie’s Froese, “but I hope they do. I want to see it around for much longer.”

Katrina Pyne is a Halifax-based journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Dalhousie Gazette.

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National student newspaper group faces financial crisis

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