The Back Page

AND THE WINNER IS...

Presenting the First (and Last) Back Page Campus Journalism Awards

PAUL WELLS November 14 2005
The Back Page

AND THE WINNER IS...

Presenting the First (and Last) Back Page Campus Journalism Awards

PAUL WELLS November 14 2005

AND THE WINNER IS...

The Back Page

Presenting the First (and Last) Back Page Campus Journalism Awards

PAUL WELLS

THIS YEAR’S FINEST campus newspaper in Canada, according to me, is Quartier Libre at the Université de Montréal. And since one of the runners-up is the Link, from neighbouring Concordia University, the one-member jury of the First (and Last) Back Page Campus Journalism Awards has decided to crown Montreal as the capital of campus journalism in Canada.

Both papers achieve quality by doing something that hasn’t occurred to most Canadian campus papers: they take their time. The Link comes out only once a week, Quartier Libre

half as often. My very strong hunch is that the leisurely schedule has a lot to do with the nonsuckiness of both products.

Several weeks ago on my weblog I asked for samples of Canadian campus newspapers.

Student scribes across the country hurried to comply, and it’s been great fun to read their work.

Student journalism matters: I have never known a better training ground for this line of work than simply doing it, for good and for bad.

The good: you get to ask rude questions, make up your own schedule, show off a little creativity here and there.

The bad: you get a lot wrong. You never say all you wanted to. And too easily, you fall into routine. Just fill the damned paper and hope to fight another day. One reporter I know calls it “feeding the goat.” There are too many well-fed goats in Canadian journalism these days. And too many campus papers are letting themselves be training grounds for rote journalism.

Fortunately there are plenty of exceptions. I like the two-format Ubyssey from the University of British Columbia. News on Tuesday and a “magazine” on Friday. The heart of the “magazine” is a single two-page feature, but that’s still a chance for students to tackle complex topics.

At the University of Saskatchewan, Drew Larson shot an amazing cover photo of the Arcade Fire for the Sheaf, two musicians with faces tilted up, mouths open in identical Os. Great stuff.

The Queen’s Journal in Kingston, Ont., did a good job covering the homecoming parties that escalated into violence and vandalism. But they did something more impressive when they set up the turmoil in articles that appeared before the wild parties happened. Knowing where the news is going is always better than telling where it’s been.

Today’s campus papers have too many opinion columns by students who had nothing new to say. (I’m the wrong guy to tell you this, but columns are empty calories. Readers need news. Young reporters need to learn how to find some.) But the Queen’s Journal had my favourite column: an earnest plea for gender-unspecific washrooms, so transgendered students—crossdressers, sex-changers or the merely unsure—won’t have to decide whether they’re “Men” or “Women.” “The argument is a human rights one,” the columnist solemnly

informed us. How could we doubt it.

It’s an occupational hazard of campus papers that they’re often barely aware they’re published on campuses, where the principal activities are—wait for it—teaching and research. There are great stories in lecture halls and labs. Most campus papers never find them. The Gazette at the University of Western Ontario, my alma mater, was never good at covering the serious stuff, but this year it’s barely there at all. The Gazette comes out four times a week, but reading it, I could almost hear the staff huffing, as if on a treadmill, to keep it going.

Contrast that with the Charlatan, the weekly at Carleton University. When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty lifted a freeze on tuition fees, the Charlatan produced two pages of stories and a thoughtful editorial. And it produced four pages of feature material on vinyl LPs—stores, collectors, buried treasures—from seven writers.

The Link at Concordia throws in a dose of lefty politics—once ubiquitous on campuses, now quite rare—that at least gives its staff some things they care about: gay rights, the clash of Islam and Judaism, a seven-page package on “media democracy.” Out here in the mainstream, we’re supposed to find campus leftists tiresome. But the sheer scale of the Link’s ambition is refreshing.

Still, nobody in Canada is doing anything in English to match Quartier Libre. Professional-quality layout. Full-page interviews with Parti Québécois leadership candidates. Articles on transport policy, illiteracy, health care reform. Articles from Haiti and Brazil. And real courage: when Quartier Libre thought the university’s new rector, Luc Vinet, didn’t answer their questions frankly enough, they put his mug on the cover with the headline “L’esquive” (the Dodger). It takes them two weeks to put an issue together? Take your time, kids. It’s worth it. ííl

To comment: backpage@macleans.ca Read Paul Wells’s weblog, “Inkless Wells,” at www.macleans.ca/paulwells