When it comes to student news papers, it's pretty common for editors to get bummed by the goings-on on their board of directors. Most of the tussles are about financial matters, but at the Varsity at U of T over the last few months, something radically new has been added to this uneasy relationship.
It seems the board is now flirting with ending the almost half-century-old practice of allowing volunteer journalists at the paper to choose their own editors. While the process isn't perfect, this selection by peers rather than through politicking has worked for decades, churning out a roster of journalists and social thinkers like Peter Gzowski, Naomi Klein, Mark Kingwell, Linda McQuaig and Tom Walkom.
The feud between the masthead and the board (12 elected students plus two professional reps) erupted some months back when the latter fired the advertising salesperson and furious editors threatened to quit. Shortly afterward, the board formulated a strange amendment to its mandate to the effect that it, and not student journalists, should be responsible for hiring editorial staff.
This unprecedented intrusion into editorial affairs prompted a swift reaction. Varsity editors ran a front-page editorial called "A student newspaper is a democracy" and condemned the proposal. Frustrated board members were freaked by what they considered the airing of dirty laundry in public.
The tale gets weird here, all the more so in that most of the players decline to speak on the record. Bad relations quickly escalated over a series of vicious e-mails circulating around the campus attacking the amendment - allegedly from Varsity staffers, who denied sending them. To investigate, board CEO Danny Sundarajaran (who is also the computer technician) started looking at the office's e-mail server.
The editors demanded that an independent technician examine the server, and the computer was moved in the meantime into a guarded storage space at the U of T police station normally reserved for evidence.
U of T police sergeant Steve Cox says the police were present "for mediating purposes only" and that "nothing criminal" was involved.
The two sides could not agree on who would conduct the "forensic audit," and at one point the three editors physically blocked the CEO from getting at the server.
Then the board fired editor-in-chief David Shiga, arts editor Tabassum Siddiqui and photo editor Kara Dillon. "There was no warning or conditions for continued employment," Shiga tells me in the midst of this.
Says Siddiqui, "It's appalling that members of one of the hardest-working mastheads in years were dismissed. The board is trying to influence content."
But the firing didn't stick. It was only carried out under an obscure part of the corporation's bylaws that applies to emergencies where the executive may act with the authority of the board. The tactic backfired, and the next day a full meeting of the board of directors reinstated the editors.
This is especially good for photo editor Dillon and arts editor Siddiqui, since they both plan to continue in their jobs next year.
The details of the reinstatement are confidential, and both sides refuse to comment on the issue.
One board member offers a justification for the hated amendment: the election process, he says, is one that leaves out the thousands of average students who fund the paper through their fees. He points out that fewer than 25 people voted in the most recent editorial elections. So why, he asks, shouldn't the board members, themselves elected by students, get to choose the staff?
But many find it appalling that a board with a fiscal mandate and without journalistic experience would take it upon itself to hire student editors. Says Canadian University Press (CUP) national bureau chief Chris Wilson-Smith, "CUP has 63 papers, and the vast majority of staff, if not all, are elected through some staff voting process," he says. "Some papers even vote on a lead story, as an example."
Most papers, he says, have boards of directors, but these function not as control bodies but rather as support networks. A board asking to provide more editorial direction? "It's nonsense, really," he says.
Will the controversial amendment ever see the light of day? This isn't clear. CEO Sundarajaran believes "the debate has been poisoned, and our community needs to make a calm and intelligent choice regarding the future of the Varsity."
Incoming editor-in-chief Dennis Choquette has a different take. "The amendment was eliminated because it was causing conflict within the Varsity. The proposed amendment was too controversial," he says.
The bad blood may spill into next year, when the paper celebrates its 125th anniversary. Next year's board hasn't been chosen yet, and none of the current members is seeking re-election. But on campuses, while the personnel change yearly, issues tend to live on. "Within student politics, a clean sweep is never a cleanup," says Choquette.
As for the e-mail server, it's still at the U of T police station awaiting the "forensic audit" the board wants, and the Varsity still hasn't put out a paper.