The upcoming existence referendum will once again challenge the financial stability of the McGill Daily. Every five years the Daily Publication Society (DPS), the student-run publisher of both the Daily and Le Délit hosts a referendum for the continuation of student funding for its newspapers. Currently, undergraduate and graduate students pay a non-opt outable fee of $6 and $3.35 per semester, respectively. These fees cover the majority of the DPS’s operating costs, the bulk of which include printing costs, rent for their office in the SSMU building, and monthly stipends to their editors. The current referendum reads, “Do you support The McGill Daily and Le Délit continuing as a recognized student activity supported by student fees, with the understanding that a majority “no” vote will result in the termination of undergraduate and graduate student fees for The McGill Daily and Le Délit?”
Before I critique arguments from both sides of the debate and finally offer my own stance, I will first attempt to debunk a few myths regarding the DPS’s financial dependency on student fees. The referendum states that without such student funding, both papers would “cease to exist at McGill.” Three underlying assumptions are at play here: the cutting of fees from students will eliminate all revenue streams to the DPS, students have no other option of offering financial support than in the form of a non-opt outable levy, and a cut to funding from students would pressure the publication to succumb to “commercial interests,” which in a sense would metaphorically kill the idea of the Daily from a more ideological standpoint. All three of these assumptions are wrong.
From a financial standpoint, the DPS has done quite well for itself. In a March 2012 issue, the Daily published the DPS’s financial performance and position of the two previous years. In 2011, it raked in a very impressive $168 thousand in advertising revenues, which accounted for nearly 40% of their cash inflow that year; the other 60% (nearly $280 thousand) came from student fees. Let’s suppose, hypothetically, that all student fees were scrapped. With more than $150 thousand in advertising revenues and more than $220 thousand of working capital (all current assets minus current liabilities) on their balance sheet, the DPS could still very well manage to retain their position as McGill’s most widely distributed publication. Sure, cuts would have to be made to either the volume of copies in circulation, the number of pages printed in colour, or both, but even if they cut half of their current weekly circulation, it would still be larger than that of the McGill Tribune and The Bull & Bear combined. I would argue that any tactful editorial board would, and should, adapt to changing budgetary environments, so any cuts to the Daily’s printing budget should be viewed by the editors as an opportunity to expand their online platforms and not merely as a threat to their on-campus presence.
The notion that the only solution to what would otherwise be a decline in publishing standards is to charge all downtown McGill students (aptly termed “members of the DPS” in one of the opening clauses of the referendum) is nonsensical. The obvious alternative would be to levy an opt-outable fee of the same amount, thereby giving the students of McGill, whom the DPS strives to serve, more freedom to choose if and when they would like to become a “member.” The reality is that the vast majority of students would not take the 30 seconds to go on Minerva and opt out, and with only a handful of zealot opponents to worry about, this alternative would not scar the DPS’s financial position to any serious detriment. The question, which I will address later in this article, then becomes whether or not you should fund the Daily at all.
The third myth concerns the Daily’s self-proclaimed moral principles. The newspaper, as far as I am aware, is the only publication on campus with a mandate to preserve what they term to be a non-hierarchical organizational structure, opposed to all forms of oppressive control, whether it be from the mahogany-covered halls of the Administration or the glaringly dull cubicles of corporations. A logical flaw emerges from the argument that if students stop funding the publication, the DPS would naturally submerge into the depths of corporate puppeteering whereby their content would inexorably be swayed by commercial interests and fall victim to James Admin’s totalitarian grasp. If you ignore the (very real) possibility that editorial autonomy can in fact co-exist with budgetary restrictions, then this vague outline of a worry might gain some validity. In theory, however, money should have no influence on free speech when operating in a democracy, so unless the implication is that without student fees the DPS would be forced to take bribes, then I see no reason why the publication cannot continue to follow whatever political mandate they choose in the absence of a $280 thousand income from students’ wallets.
To decide whether or not to fund the DPS in the first place is to understand the functions of student media. I have always maintained that student press serves three primary objectives: to provide a forum of dialogue on campus, to provide student groups and clubs a platform to reach out and create connections, and most importantly to inform, without bias, students on what is happening on campus. In two of these functions, the Daily reigns supreme over all other competitors at McGill, including The Bull & Bear.
The Daily’s large reach by default, puts them in a position of influence. Whether or not you agree with their commentary is secondary to the fact that you’ve read it and have absorbed the messages that the paper has tried (and succeeded) in disseminating. Furthermore, anyone can write for the Daily. The DPS’s publication model and its reputation allow the editorial board to skip the rigorous process of selecting full-time staff, which is a requirement that smaller publications like The Bull & Bear are faced with if they are to have any chance of securing a dedicated writing force and maintain a competitive position on campus in the shadow of larger competitors. In this sense, the combination of a large reach coupled with a very open article-selection process creates a unique opportunity for any student at McGill to be heard, loud and clear, amongst all their peers at school. This is an invaluable service that McGill’s oldest paper has provided since 1911, and the generation of the next century shouldn’t take it for granted.
Opponents to the referendum cite laughably under-reasoned articles as reasons not to continue “wasting money” on “garbage.” Such popular hits, like “Don’t Make Excuses for Rape Culture”, “Whose Campus? Our Campus?”, and my personal favourite “You Are Racist” seem to reinforce this claim. To go one step further, some people feel the moral obligation to remove themselves fiscally from a publication that offends them with gems such as “Dear Boot Licking Apologists” and “All Racism Happens Because of Whiteness”.
First, your right to not be offended does not overrule the right of others to write and publish potentially offensive material. Second, all those examples listed are commentary pieces. They have been published because of the open policy to publish, under certain restrictions, whatever is submitted to the Daily. In other words, the paper serves only as a platform for insolent morons to voice moronic diatribes and have very little to do with the actual endorsing of such material themselves. If you don’t like what you read, feel free to submit to them a counter-argument in the form of a better-written Opinion piece, or even a Letter to the Editor, but please don’t whine that it’s the Daily’s fault.
My problem is with the evident news bias. Section 2.2 of their constitution states that “Within this optic, The Daily recognizes that all events and issues are inherently political… involving relations of social and economic power and privilege. … We also recognize that keeping silent about these relationships helps to perpetuate oppression. To help correct these inequities, to the best of its ability, The Daily should depict and analyze power relations accurately in its coverage.” Ironically, I find this mandate to be a direct contradiction to “5.6 Racial, sexual, and socioeconomic bias or prejudice has no place in the editorial policy or content of the newspaper.” If you’re thinking that it is indeed difficult to publish content without any “socioeconomic bias” while maintaining a mandate to “correct inequalities,” then you are right. Every news piece I read that covers campus politics falls victim to selection bias, the cancer of journalism. I have yet to read a Daily investigation that doesn’t cut and paste the facts to only report what they deem “progressive.” To this end, the Daily has failed in providing clean, unbiased news to the public.
The big picture presides: while some articles are simply better than others, and while I take issue with their editorial discrepancy of news pieces, the value the Daily provides extends beyond merely what you read, which is just the tip of the iceberg. Student media provides a training ground for would-be journalists, or even just a medium for people who love writing. By defunding the Daily you are stripping McGill of its oldest tradition of inter-personal communication; this mass-circulated paper has been around long before the advent of the radio, TV, cellphone, and Facebook. That said, I would argue that imposing a non-opt outable fee is the equivalent of The Montreal Gazette striking a deal with the government to charge all permanent residents of Montreal a mandatory levy in taxes. This is not how the free press should function, and it should not be how student papers are run. An option to opt-out would not only reinforce the DPS’s objective to make their paper “accessible to all students” and remove such a hypocrisy, it might also incentivize the editorial board to diversify its content scope to appeal to larger masses of students from all political and socio-economic spectrums, adding more value to the community.
Polling period ends at 5 pm on January 31st. After this, one of two things will happen. If the referendum passes, the Daily will continue publishing as it has been for the last century. There will be articles that you cringe at, cartoons that make you facepalm, and commentary that make you question the future of humankind. The other outcome is that the referendum doesn’t pass, and all too soon, in a wisp of nostalgia, you will wonder to yourself, “Why don’t people talk about campus life as much anymore?” You decide what outcome you’d like to see.
Disclaimer: David Lin is the former Executive Editor of The Bull & Bear.
An earlier version of this article stated that the DPS operated at a loss of over $446 thousand in operating expenses in 2011, when the DPS in fact operated with an excess of $3,771. The Bull & Bear regrets the error.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.