The desperate struggle to save Canadian University Press

Canadian University Press, a 75-year-old cooperative of post-secondary student newspapers across Canada, might not live to see its 80th birthday.

Erin Hudson, its current president, is doing everything she can to keep it running, including launching a public fundraising campaign seeking $50,000 in donations. That month-and-a-half campaign ended on Monday, having failed to reach even one fifth of its goal. But the struggle to keep it alive continues.

What is CUP?

Canadian University Press started in 1938, and is a national association of student newspapers (despite its name, it also includes papers at other post-secondary schools like technical institutes and CEGEPs, though the vast majority are universities). In exchange for a yearly membership fee, which is on a sliding scale based on a paper’s overall budget — for most it’s a few hundred or a few thousand dollars — CUP provides a range of services.

The biggest one, which many members have historically believed is the only one, is a newswire service. It takes stories submitted by member papers, as well as some original stories written by a national bureau chief and until recently regional bureau chiefs, and distributes them to members so they can be republished in their papers.

But probably the most important one — and the most intangible — is a resource network that can help in times of need. There’s a lawyer that can provide legal advice in case of the threat of a libel suit. There’s a president at a national office in Toronto that can write letters of condemnation if a student union or university administration is trying to stifle freedom of the press. And there’s an email list where members can seek out advice or otherwise communicate with each other.

CUP also organizes a national conference every year, hosted by a different member paper each time. Attendees pay to enter, and it’s open to non-members, but members get a significant discount on entry fees. The national conference, as well as regional conferences, provide workshops and lectures from experts who give invaluable advice to student journalists. The conferences are also how the cooperative organization makes important decisions through a democratic process.

The membership crisis

When I was a journalist and editor at The Link, one of two papers at Concordia University, I sat on the board of directors of CUP and attended many of its conferences. I heard many discussions about the fundamental question CUP members have been asking themselves for many years: Are the benefits of being a CUP member worth the cost?

For smaller members, the services CUP provided were invaluable. Many of these papers aren’t independent of their student unions, and their budget barely allows them to print each issue. The idea of paying salaries or honorariums to staff is laughable. For them, the news wire provides a lot of content that can be used to fill pages. The president and other papers provide a lot of advice and help, which is more important when your intangible resources are just as scarce as your tangible ones.

But when you have a budget that’s as bare as can be, even a few hundred dollars for a membership fee can be a luxury. Between paying for printing the paper and paying to be part of a national organization, the former must take precedence. In my time, smaller papers were often in arrears on membership fees, and CUP was very tolerant of that.

For larger papers, the equation is different. The membership fee, though larger, is affordable. But the services aren’t as valuable. Many of the larger papers have their own lawyer on retainer. They have enough contributors that they don’t need to fill pages with CUP wire copy. And they have enough institutional memory that they don’t have to call up the CUP president with advice every week.

Technology also changed things. Decades ago, copy exchanges happened by mail or one of these things. All that has gone by the wayside with the Internet, which allows text and photos to be shared in seconds. Even without CUP, student papers can communicate directly with each other and enter into content-sharing agreements. Since student journalism is a labour of love, not money, stories and photos are often shared for free after a simple request.

Still, until recently, CUP had dozens of members, surpassing 100 in its heyday. For various reasons, many papers big and small decided that CUP was worth the cost. Or if they thought otherwise, they were too ambivalent to go through the effort to formally withdraw from the organization.

In the past few years, and especially last year, that’s changed. Some of CUP’s largest members, feeling as though their funds weren’t being spent properly, pulled out of the organization. This includes The Link, The McGill Daily, The Varsity at the University of Toronto, the Martlet at the University of Victoria, the Gazette at Western University and the Ubyssey at the University of British Columbia. The Ubyssey provides its reasons in this note to readers last fall.

I spoke with Julia Wolfe, The Link’s former editor-in-chief (and a friend of mine) who has been a vocal opponent of the CUP status quo. Nevertheless, she appears in the video above, telling of how she got her current job at the Toronto Star through a connection she made at a CUP conference.

Though she agreed with the paper’s decision to pull out of CUP, she has no wish for the organization to die. She went to a national conference as a non-voting member and proposed various reforms to CUP’s operations. To me, she provided a list of ideas for how it can use its resources more efficiently. Among them:

  • Remove the bottleneck whereby the Toronto-based national bureau chief edits all stories that go on the news wire. Allow member papers to share more stories with each other directly
  • Find ways to monetize content, say through partnerships with professional media, rather than posting the entire wire online for free
  • Set up job boards to connect student journalists with potential employers
  • Issue press cards so student journalists can better identify themselves to authorities
  • Negotiate with companies such as software providers to get better deals on goods and services for members
  • Replace the once-a-year in-person plenary session with other methods of direct democracy that allow members to vote on propositions or policy changes

The existing resources, Wolfe said, were simply insufficient to justify the cost of membership for The Link, whose predecessor had been one of the founding members of CUP.

Papers that left CUP formed their own free content-sharing service, the National University Wire.

This membership exodus put financial strain on CUP, which was already a pretty bare-bones operation, by depriving it of $20,000 a year in revenue while trimming virtually none of its expenses. It had only two full-time employees, the president and national bureau chief, plus regional bureau chiefs who worked part-time. Any budget cuts would have to come from services to members, which would just make the problem worse.

Plus, without those big members in CUP, their stories didn’t get distributed to the wire, which made the quality and quantity of content diminish.

Structural problems

The departures of these members weren’t the cause of CUP’s problems, but they didn’t help. Instead, as Hudson writes in a report to the board in February, the financial issues began getting serious in 2011-12, when the national conference ran a $10,000 deficit that CUP had to pay for, and a cash-flow crisis forced the board to cash in one of two five-figure investments in the bank. A year later, in summer 2013, it cashed in the other after suffering an operational deficit of more than $100,000. “No changes to CUP’s operations were made,” Hudson notes ominously.

A year later, the conference again ran a deficit because of an unrealistic budget, and lower revenues meant more cash loss for the organization. The organization, Hudson points out in her report, was assuming revenues that didn’t exist.

Without any more savings to cash in, the crisis reached this point.

It gets worse

As if things weren’t bad enough, there was a double-whammy that hit CUP recently making its financial situation even more precarious.

Last June, Campus Plus, an advertising agency for campus media that was owned by CUP and had been a cash cow for CUP and its national conference for many years, declared bankruptcy, a victim of the larger advertising revenue drop that affects print media of all types.

And in January, CUP was fined $9,000 by the Canada Revenue Agency for failure to meet its tax obligations. This administrative failure is a direct result of the fact that CUP doesn’t have enough money to pay for a bookkeeper on staff.

Neither of these is serious enough to topple CUP, but they exacerbated an already serious situation and forced the president to take drastic action.

Everyone’s fired

Among the emergency cost-cutting measures, CUP laid off all its part-time staff, the president gave herself a pay cut, cellphones for the national staff were cancelled, and the organization has decided to move out of its office in downtown Toronto to find somewhere with cheaper rent. It’s even listed the value of its office supplies, in case selling them to pay expenses becomes necessary.

The crowdfunding campaign is the other big part of this. Even at its $50,000 goal, it wouldn’t have solved all of CUP’s problems, but it would have given it time to restructure without going under.

The campaign, through IndieGogo, is structured so that CUP keeps the money even though it didn’t meet its funding goal. So CUP will still get $9,206 (minus fees) from 105 donors online.

There are structural changes, too. In order to avoid the institutional memory failures that have plagued CUP for years, its board of directors has been restructured to include outside professionals as voting members. This move, approved by the members at the annual general meeting in January, led to the announcement on Tuesday that former Globe and Mail media reporter Steve Ladurantaye, former journalist Wendy McCann and National Campus and Community Radio Association executive director Shelley Robinson are joining the board.

The annual national conference, which next January will be hosted by The Fulcrum at the University of Ottawa, has been handed over to the paper to manage on its own, which relieves CUP of both the organizing responsibility (formerly, the national conference was organized by the hosting paper but with significant help from the CUP president) and the financial liability. (I don’t think that’s a sustainable move, but it’s good news for this year at least.)

More controversial was a decision by the board to restructure the national office in Toronto and eliminate one of its two positions. Jane Lytvynenko, who had been elected to the post of national bureau chief, becomes CUP’s only employee on May 1, performing the roles of both president and NBC.

That news did not sit well with Patrick Vaillancourt, who was elected as CUP’s president for 2014-15 by the membership and had his job invalidated by the board without consulting said membership. He wrote a blog post condemning the undemocratic action, and it’s hard not to see his point on this.

Hudson said a national referendum on the decision would have taken too long, so the board had to act unilaterally. The parties seem to agree on the fact that both Lytvynenko and Vaillancourt were offered part-time jobs but that this wasn’t considered a realistic solution to the problem, forcing the board to choose one candidate over the other.

Should it live or should it die?

In the past few weeks, as this has been going on, a lot of people have written through various media about the future of CUP in more general terms.

Hudson wrote opinion pieces in the Globe and Mail and advocating for its continued existence, pointing out how CUP allowed important stories happening at universities to be shared across the country, how CUP helps train journalists, and how important CUP is to small papers.

But CUP’s plan has its critics.

The Gateway, the student paper at the University of Alberta, published an editorial from Andrea Ross asking “why hundreds of thousands of dollars are necessary to operate a student newswire” and suggesting a deeper restructuring was more necessary than a fundraising campaign.

J-Source published an opinion from Robert Murray, a former CUPpie, suggesting that the organization needs to die a dignified, quick death, and placing the blame on “the students who sat on their hands, allowing CUP’s credibility to be gradually eroded.” It followed that up with a piece from Lytvynenko arguing why it should live.

Critical mass

It may be tempting to argue that CUP simply needs to tighten its belt, reduce membership fees, and do more with less. That it shouldn’t cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to run a simple news sharing service.

But even before this crisis began, CUP was already streamlined. Most of the budget went to a national office staff of two (the president, handling administration, and the national bureau chief, handling editorial, though they often worked together on most things) plus part-time bureau chiefs in the various regions writing stories of national interest. That’s where most of the cuts have been, and it’s going to hurt.

Cut too much, and CUP could lose the critical mass of members it needs to keep going. It’s at about 55 members now, but it needs some of those big papers to come back if it hopes to get back on solid footing.

Not only that, but what little institutional memory the organization had could disappear even more. This is what led to the CRA fine. And it could mean the foundation of CUP breaks apart, causing the entire organizational house of cards to crumble to the ground.

When I spoke to Hudson recently, she seemed more open than I expected to the idea that the organization needs fundamental changes. This was before some of the more drastic cost-cutting decisions were made.

“We have a lot of contingency plans” in the event the fundraising doesn’t work, she said.

The $50,000 was supposed to go to operations, she said. Though CUP is going through a funding crisis right now, the cost-cutting should allow them to stay in the black. More pressing, though, is the cash-flow crisis. Members are billed in September, and many take months to write their cheques. But expenses need to be paid sooner than that. This money, whatever is raised, will be used to help cover those expenses until the organization has money in the bank again.

But Hudson agreed that there are changes to make. “Yes, expenses definitely need to come down. And they’re down,” she said. “Our monthly bills were too high.”

She cited the organization’s downtown Toronto office space as an example, and has proposed moving into a shared office that would cost a lot less.

She also noted that a lot of the trouble relates to turnover. The president and national bureau chief are elected every year, and it’s extremely rare for any to serve more than one term. So each spring, a new pair of staff members come in and have to re-learn how the organization runs. This prevents them from being able to see long-term trends.

“It’s hard to connect the dots, to see that this isn’t a temporary thing,” Hudson said of the financial situation. “CUP didn’t really adjust.”

Members must get involved

Hudson said she feels the members must have an important role in saving the organization that serves them. “We’re not seeing enough participation from members,” she said. “There are some members who are really rallying to help. I wish that was a little more widespread.”

Among the other solutions CUP is considering are more partnership and sponsorship opportunities, applying to funding programs, and hiring a permanent administrator.

Lowering membership fees to boost membership is another consideration, but not a priority. “In my anecdotal evidence, it needs to be more significant than that,” she said. “I think it’s a waste of time to continually ask someone to rejoin.”

Others I’ve spoken to seem to agree that if CUP provided more services to members, the current fees would be justified.

Silver lining

If there’s a reason to hope after all this, it’s that CUP still has about 55 members, and if they stick around for another year, the organization should stay in the black.

Plus, this isn’t the first time CUP has had this problem. In 1980, CUP faced a similar membership crisis after it hiked fees and lost a contract with an ad agency. Though at that time, CUP was a larger organization with more staff to cut, and it was a much more left-wing organization politically (CUP had a long debate over decades about how political it should be). Despite predictions of doom, it kept going.

Hudson, who I worked with when she was a Gazette intern last summer, ends her term as president in May, but will stay on as a member of the board of directors.

She’s not sure how CUP will be structured once it comes out of this crisis. But one thing is for sure, Hudson said: “CUP will look very different.”

Let’s hope it’s a look that the student papers like, and one that allows CUP to fulfil its mandate.

Further reading

One thought on “The desperate struggle to save Canadian University Press

  1. Dilbert

    I think CUP will continue to face challenges because they are being overtaken by technology.

    We have been down this road before (I think a couple of years ago). Most of the basic distribution services would be equally well served by an e-mail distribution or shared news server. The replacement National University Wire is a good indication of what can be done for little or no cost to the members.

    Times have changed. CUP is an example of the old, old, old school that hasn’t moved forward and is now getting what it has earned, which is a place in history and not in the present.


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