While the Queen’s administration foresees the new Toronto Star readership program as a potential success, the experiences of student newspapers at other universities suggest that the livelihood of student publications at Queen’s may be at risk.
The readership program, which kicked off last Monday with the opening of five reading centres in various residence locations offering free copies of The Star, along with student publications such as The Journal and Golden Words, has been introduced at Queen’s after being implemented at several other universities across Ontario. York University became the first university in Ontario to establish an agreement with TorStar, publisher of The Toronto Star to allow the distribution of free newspapers on campus beginning September 1999. In response, the Canadian University Press (CUP) has strongly opposed the readership program arguing that it will seriously endanger the future of the student press.
“TorStar’s new strategy to distribute thousands of free copies of The Toronto Star on Ontario university and college campuses is a serious threat to the current health and long term survival of student newspapers,” stated a September 1999 press release from CUP.
CUP’s concerns were magnified last year after York University’s student newspaper, Excalibur, experienced declining readership and difficulties in securing advertisers after The Star began to distribute papers on campus.
“To be honest, I think that The Star is trying to cripple us. We’ve had to cut our circulation from 17,000 to 15,000. They are now direct competition and trying to compete with a paper like The Toronto Star is just impossible,” reported Shawn Jeffords, editor-in-chief of Excalibur. In response to concerns regarding the declining readership of student publications, Toronto Star Circulation and Marketing Manger Bill Whitfield claimed that the university and college distribution campaign is designed not only to encourage more people to read The Toronto Star, but also to support the newspaper industry as a whole.
“It has been a concern in the newspaper industry for many years that newspaper readership is slipping… The Star’s news readership program is to keep people reading news in general,” he said. Associate Dean of Student Affairs Roxy Dennison Stewart, who worked with The Star to facilitate their distribution program at Queen’s, feels that there is enough room on campus for both The Toronto Star and student publications.
“People are interested in the papers [The Star and the student publications at Queen’s] for different reasons and I think that’s what we have to focus on.”
“The more exposure you have to different media, the more selective you become of where you can get the best information for certain reasons. If you put everything together you tend to get a more balanced perspective of what’s going on because you are pulling it from different sources and different
biases,” she added.
However, Asad Kiani, Editor-in-chief of Wilfred Laurier’s student newspaper, The Cord, has already witnessed negative effects on student interest in The Cord after The Star began distributing papers at the university this summer.
“Even though we have record enrollment this year, I still have a thousand papers in my office because no one’s picking them up,” he reported.
While Whitfield emphasized that the campus readership centres can give a boost to student publications in that they incorporate racks with space to feature student newspapers along with The Star, Kiyani pointed out that the placement of The Star tends to overshadow all other publications on the racks.
“The Toronto Star has the prime spots… It just pushes community papers out of the picture,” he said.
Dennison-Stewart admitted that the new readership centres in the residences are not displaying student publications sufficiently.
“The space that is currently available to student newspapers, I don’t believe is adequate, so we have to address that. I think they need to be at the top of the rack.” Wilfrid Laurier Dean of Students David McMurdy pointed out that student leaders supported the proposal prior to signing, despite the objections of Kiyani and other student editors.
“Ultimately, representatives of the student body were very supportive of the program as a service to all students,” he said.
Citing serious concerns about advertising, staff of The Eyeopener, Ryerson Polytechnic University’s student newspaper, continue to protest the possibility of The Toronto Star being distributed on campus. While an internal university policy against on-campus distribution by non-university publications kept The Star’s readership program off Ryerson’s campus last year, the university administration has revisited proposals for the plan this year.
Lori Farizan, editor-in-chief of The Eyeopener, explained that while the student paper secured a full-colour, full-page ad for an automotive company in their Orientation Week issue, they observed the next week that the same ad had been picked up by The Star.
“If the advertising goes down then the money goes down and we can’t publish,” she stressed.
Despite the concerns voiced by other student publications, Whitfield emphasized that he does not think the presence of The Star on campus will negatively effect the ability of campus publications to secure advertising at Queen’s.
“Our motivation has nothing to do with advertising. The number of papers on the University campus is too small to affect advertising,” he explained.
Like Whitfield, Dennison-Stewart does not foresee major advertising conflicts between The Star and student publications at Queen’s.
“The advertisers of The Toronto Star are not the same advertising groups that would advertise in The Journal of even The Whig-Standard,” she said.
Dennison-Stewart emphasized, however, that while the University’s deal with The Star is for a preliminary, three-year period, it will be closely monitored by the administration who will remain in consultation with student publications. If it is determined that the distribution of The Star has negatively affected these publications, the contract may be re-examined.
“Any contract can be revisited, but you always enter it with a planned date. What you don’t want to do is derail it without giving the chance to all parties to work out the details.” In light of the range of concerns voiced by student press regarding the free distibution of The Star, Whitfield emphasized that the readership program is more than just distributing newspapers, as it also incorporates a speaker series for students featuring Toronto Star journalists, and a mentorship program aimed at students interested in pursuing a career in journalism.
“We want to support the whole journalism/newspaper issue in general. I hope that the whole process becomes of use to The Journal as well as The Star,” he said. Jeffords, however, criticized the value of The Star’s speaker series and mentorship program.
“[The Star’s] publicizing of the program is] a lot of lip service. We had speakers come on campus and basically bad mouth the campus papers. I don’t know what the point of that is,” he said.
Fazari is also convinced that The Toronto Star’s readership program can only serve to damage the livelihood of student press.
“What I fear is losing our identity…if it will start with The Star where will it end?”
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