This week, The McGill Daily launched a campaign to fight for the survival of the 97-year-old newspaper.
The Facebook support group is up, the posters are printed, and The Daily’s editors and board members are making classroom visits, hoping enough students agree to continue funding a newspaper that has become a Canadian journalistic institution and that counts Leonard Cohen and Irving Layton among its alumni.
As part of a new agreement, McGill is requiring the Daily Publications Society (DPS) – the autonomous organization that publishes The Daily and its French-language counterpart Le Délit – to hold a referendum asking undergraduates whether they want to continue funding the newspapers. Even if students vote Yes to continue paying the $5-per-semester fee, the McGill administration wants this process repeated every five years.
The Daily’s editors hope for a wide margin of support come March 8 to 14 to show the school that constant affirmations aren’t necessary.
McGill Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Morton Mendelson said students foot the bill for The Daily, and therefore should have a regular say in how their money is spent.
“[The Daily] is an institution that’s independent and that exists only because the students want them to exist,” he said. “They’re an activity and a service that is meant to benefit students.”
The former Daily editors The Link caught up with disagreed with putting the paper under the knife every five years, and all strongly hoped students keep funding their paper.
“[The referendum] doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me,” said Donna Balkan, a Daily reporter from 1970-75 and currently the senior communications officer for the Canada Council for the Arts. Balkan, who has worked for The Ottawa Citizen and the CBC, said that she sometimes disagreed with the editorial stance of the paper, but always supported the right of the editors to speak their minds.
“Not paying for a newspaper that doesn’t reflect my views is a rather selfish attitude,” she said. “It’s like saying I don’t visit Canada’s national parks so I don’t want my taxes going towards it.”
“Newspapers should be lively, provoke discussion and question conventional norms,” she added.
Mark Starowicz, executive documentary producer for the CBC, was the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily in the late sixties.
“The idea that The Daily might cease to exist is totally unimaginable to me,” he wrote in an email to The Link. “It is one of the great independent institutions and traditions in Canadian journalism and its existence should not be subject to the periodic fashions or passions of the moment. It would diminish McGill as a university.”
Another alumnus, Montreal Gazette Editor-in-Chief Andrew Phillips, said his studies really suffered when he was associate editor for The Daily – when it really was daily and not twice-weekly – in the mid-seventies.
“I think it’s really important that there be maximum ways for students to express their views that are not under the direct supervision, under the administration, or some official body,” he said.
But, he added, the independent press, by nature, “angers people and [is] vulnerable. Which means that they need to pay attention to their audience and serve their audience. But I just really hope people see the need for an independent student paper.”
The Daily’s Coordinating editor, Drew Nelles, said he thinks the school is forcing the paper to undergo the referendum because of “paranoia about their legal and formal associations vis-à-vis student organizations,” rather than of a desire to attack progressive independent student groups. McGill has already required the Quebec Public Interest Research Group and CKUT-Radio to go through similar referenda.
Mendelson emphasized that the referendum was not an attack on The Daily.
“You would expect a student press to be critical of the University and to challenge the administration,” he said. “I can’t imagine that students at McGill would want to have a campus without The McGill Daily.”
But the referendum still concerns Alexandre de Lorimier, chair of the DPS Board of Directors and a Daily columnist.
“I find that McGill is moving away from campus life,” de Lorimier said. “By putting these kinds of hurdles in the way [McGill is] not doing a good job of fostering a campus community outside from the academic experience or outside the great research funding.”
Balkan was in her car driving her son to a hockey game in Ottawa when she remembered a poem that floated around the office when she worked there. She still knew all the words: “‘Why is the McGill Daily?’ said the pessimist sourly,” Balkan recited in an excited tone, “‘Thank God,’ said the optimist gaily, ‘That it isn’t hourly!’”
Thirty years later, Nelles can also recite the poem, and said it was a testament to the history and tradition of the paper to the University.
“I guess [The Daily] was historically and remains to this day something of a controversial and very popular paper that is widely read,” he said, adding, “The poem speaks to its ongoing legacy.”
“I have agreed and disagreed with The Daily over the years, just as people agreed and disagreed with the paper when I was editor,” wrote Starowicz. “That’s not the problem, that’s the point.”
Referendum voting begins on Saturday at ovs.ssmu.mcgill.ca and continues until Friday, March 14.