The oldest student newswire service in the world is in a heap of financial trouble, and they want your money to fix it. But despite the launch of a well-meaning online fundraising initiative, money won’t reverse the detrimental business practices that are threatening to bankrupt them.
Canadian University Press, also the oldest national student organization in North America, dates back to New Year’s Day in 1938. While nursing their hangovers at a national conference in Winnipeg, 17 student journalists from universities across Canada created the organization while discussing issues they faced in covering national news for their school newspapers. Eventually, the non-profit co-operative grew to provide a variety of services and resources for student journalists, and provided the opportunity for more than 82 student newspapers to exchange stories and ideas.
What began as a beneficial co-operative is now in jeopardy as years of financial mismanagement and a declining membership could soon dismantle the 76-year-old organization.
Since January 2013, 10 member papers — including many of the country’s largest campus newspapers such as The McGill Daily, The Link, The Dalhousie Gazette and The Ubyssey — have left the organization over complaints of high membership costs, leaving CUP with a current membership of 56 papers. Membership fees are determined by a paper’s operating budget, and a fee restructure proposal approved at a plenary in January lowered fees to 2.5 per cent of a paper’s operating budget under $40,000. Papers with a higher operating budget will pay three per cent, up to a cap of $3,000. Since leaving CUP, many of the former member papers have been working together to create a similar but competitive newswire called the National University Wire, which will cost members nothing.
CUP’s tumultuous year took another hit when their advertising agency, Campus Plus, declared bankruptcy last summer after years of financial uncertainty. CUP was then issued a non-compliance fine from the Canada Revenue Agency in January and laid off a dozen part-time staff in March. Now, the two remaining full-time staff have cut their salaries and health coverage and launched a 42-day online crowd funding drive to raise $50,000 in hopes of resurrecting the organization. They’ve raised just under $5,000 in a little more than two weeks as of The Gateway’s press day.
Despite these efforts, crowd-sourced funding won’t save CUP — only a fundamental overhaul of its business practices will keep the co-operative afloat. A high yearly staff turnover and a failing business model have debilitated the organization, yet it continues to resist change. A motion brought forth in January by current and former members suggested concrete ways of cutting costs and rehabilitating the dying business, but CUP’s proposal for the fee restructure won instead by four votes.
Current CUP President Erin Hudson told J-Source the organization’s 2012 expenses were about $341,089, with around $140,889 spent on 17 part-time employees. The president and national bureau chief — the two full-time positions — were paid $36,782 and $33,662, respectively. Both positions are based in Toronto and even though the president is in charge of the company’s finances, the position is typically given to a student journalist with no prior financial experience. With a consistently dwindling membership, critics are questioning why hundreds of thousands of dollars are necessary to operate a student newswire. It’s easy to chalk up CUP’s demise as another example of Canada’s struggling media landscape, but the organization has had multiple opportunities to change its operational model that it should’ve taken advantage of.
An annual national conference with a budget of $190,000 is the highlight of the year for member and non-member papers, but the steep fees including hotel, food and travel costs prevent smaller papers from attending the valuable workshops and seminars. Alongside membership fees, CUP relies on the conference as its main source of revenue. But last-minute flight cancellations at this past January’s conference due to the polar vortex resulted in a less profitable event. Recurring deficits throughout the past few years forced CUP to sell their investments, leaving them with no savings to bail themselves out of their financial disaster this year. They now have just $1,500 to their name.
Good journalism begins at the campus level and CUP has provided a voice for student journalists for 76 years. What it hasn’t done is maintain financial accountability, and no amount of money raised online can fix a flawed business model. The institutional memory of the organization fades each year as CUP staff go through a revolving door, leaving each incoming president with the financial mistakes of the last. Hopefully the blow of an uncertain future will force CUP to keep up with the demands of a changing industry.
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