Looking Back on 10 Years of The Runner

Former staff reflect on the stories and staff that shaped the newspaper

(File Photo)

Although brief, the history of this newspaper is studded with scandal, experimentation, and change. The Runner has been reinventing itself since it published its first issue in 2009 and continues to achieve its goal of reporting, without fear or favour, on the issues relevant to students at KPU.

Our first decade has been turbulent at times, but we persevered and ended up breaking a lot of scandals along the way. With The Runner turning 10 years old this month, we decided to put together a retrospective of what we’ve done, who we’ve been, and which stories brought us to where we are today.

Hold onto your hats, because the journey along this timeline might be bumpier than you would expect.

The Beginning

Before there was The Runner, KPU students could read the Kwantlen Chronicle, a paper coordinated by the university’s journalism faculty. With the Chronicle, second-year journalism students were given what was often their first opportunity to get published. The Chronicle didn’t die until two years after The Runner was born due to changes in the journalism program itself, so we won’t talk about it much here, but the archives are still partially available online. Rest in peace, Kwantlen Chronicle (2008-2011).

In February 2008, a Kwantlen Student Association referendum question brought us into this world. It asked students,“Do you support creating an independent, freely distributed, year-round, multicampus, student-owned, student-run news and campus culture publication (e.g. a magazine, newspaper, news magazine) at a cost of $0.75 per credit per semester, provided every student will be able to opt-out?”

Of all the votes cast, 194 were for “yes” and 65 were for “no”, meaning that there were officially student funds available for the creation of a paper. That fee is still how we get our funding today.

The first issue of The Runner hit stands on Feb. 24, 2009. The coordinating editor was Steve Smysnuik, whose tenure only lasted eight months before Denny Hollick was elected editor in September 2009.

Chris Yee, who was at the newspaper’s first contributor meeting in 2009, remembers watching the premiere edition of The Runner come together. He stayed in the newsroom as a contributor and bureau chief for six years and still works in student media today, as the public relations coordinator for SFU’s radio station.

He recalls one anecdote from when he ran for election as the arts and culture bureau chief for the paper that he feels encapsulates the energy of the early days in the office.

“There was a tie that came down to a dance-off, which I lost,” he laughs. “I guess we were small enough that we could get away with something like that, an absolutely informal way of breaking a tie.”

“It’s still dear to my heart,” he adds.

Back then, there was no space for us on campus. We rented our own office in Surrey, where the team would put together stories on many of the same issues we’re covering today: U-Pass referendums, issues between the KSA and the CFS and BC-CFS, missing KSA Council minutes, and so on. Nine years ago, for the paper’s first anniversary, Media Editor Christopher Poon reflected on the first year of the The Runner’s lifespan.

“Our first few issues were a little rough around the edges; people didn’t submit things, others wrote overlapping stories, layout had to be decided upon, etc,” he wrote. “However, as we slowly gained our footing, and began surveying the various students of our campuses, we began to fill our pages with things that students wanted to see.”

What he and the rest of the founding team didn’t know was that, just a year or two down the line, the paper would break a story that would shake both the publication staff and the entire KPU community: RAF 2.0, the sequel to one of the biggest scandals to ever hit a student association in Western Canada.

RAF 2.0

Our coverage of RAF 2.0 was by far the most contentious, and the most interesting, time in The Runner’s history. Before we existed, coverage of the original RAF—a group of students who were elected to the Kwantlen Student Association back in 2005 and later taken to court for allegedly defrauding students of over $2 million in fees—was unfortunately limited. The story was being reported by national publications like Maclean’s, but there was no coverage from anyone at KPU.

When the scandal suddenly flared up again, The Runner was just celebrating its second birthday, bidding farewell to its third (and first female) editor Abby Wiseman and welcoming the tenure of Jeff Groat, the paper’s longest-running editor so far.

In June of that year, things started getting shady in the Kwantlen Student Association, and then-news editor Matt DiMera noticed. First, the KSA fired their legal counsel and put the lawsuit against the former RAF directors on hold. Then they banned electronic recordings at their council meetings. In July, DiMera identified that some of the new KSA councillors and executives had ties to former RAF leader Aaron Takhar, and discovered in August that one of the associations’ directors had provided an incorrect address in her official documents with the association.

In October, The Runner published an article authored by DiMera titled “Kwantlen Student Association Settles RAF Lawsuit”, which opened with the words, “After more than three long years in court, the fight is over.” In February 2012, he wrote “KSA Signs Secret Deal with Impeached Former Directors”, which explained how the KSA paid for legal costs and signed an out-of-court settlement with impeached RAF members. When one of said impeached members hired a private investigator to follow Runner reporters around, the paper wrote about that too.

Perhaps the most famous products of The Runner’s RAF coverage were two videos, posted in November 2011, of the KSA’s special general meeting to “impeach their current council and bring in new bylaws to reduce the chances of corruption occurring within the society,” as written in the description for the first YouTube video posted on Dec. 4. “The meeting was impeded at all costs, including by pepper spraying students, and pulling fire alarms,” the description reads. A week later, another video depicted Aaron Takhar and other members of the original RAF slate protesting the SGM.

The man behind the camera was Matt Law, who is still on KPU campus today as a digital media specialist for the university. At the time, he was technically the web editor, but could often be found taking photos, writing, and editing as well.

“The whole KSA debacle was a pretty defining moment of my time there. It was pretty intense,” he says. “We had media attention from outside the university interviewing us, and we had contacts for other stories saying, ‘Oh, jeez, I just saw this story in The Runner and I recognized your name.’”

“It was exciting, it was fast-paced, and I still don’t know that we knew what we were doing, but we were trying to cover it to the best of our ability,” he adds.

Matt DiMera won awards for his coverage of RAF 2.0 and later became the editor of the paper when Jeff Groat left in April 2013. He remained the editor until January 2015.

A good deal happened during that time, and by the end of his tenure, despite his award-winning coverage of RAF, The Runner was suffering.

The Paper Nearly Folds

Between September and October of 2013, the paper’s news, culture, and media editors all resigned and were replace with former Capilano Courier editor Samantha Thompson, according to issue mastheads.

Between March 2014 and October 2014, The Runner didn’t post a single news story to its website, and was rarely updated at all. Issues began getting slimmer, some consisting of just two broadsheets offering four or five articles in all, though many included important stories. Most of these were written by DiMera—for example, his coverage of allegations of workplace assault and harassment against interim KPU President John McKendry. Still, throughout the summer, The Runner began missing important publishing deadlines.

When asked about the loss of staff and the atmosphere in the office during this time, Law said that, while he did not witness the decline firsthand, he recognizes that covering RAF “took a huge toll” on the team he worked with.

“It was very stressful. I think a lot of us were burnt out through that experience, and even just trying to run the newspaper—not just the RAF thing but trying to run the newspaper, because we weren’t just focusing on that—took a lot out of us,” he says. “This industry, even at a student newspaper, it takes a toll on people. I think when a lot of people left The Runner, we were done with it.”

On Oct. 16, 2014, the paper’s lack of staff and regularly published issues resulted in a threat from the KSA to withhold its funding. The letter, written by then-Vice President Services Steven Button, stated that The Runner’s publisher, the Polytechnic Ink Publishing Society, was in breach of its autonomy agreement for failing to provide annual audited financial statements as well as failing to publish a minimum of 18 issues in a calendar year, with at least one coming out per month.

“The KSA is also concerned that, to its knowledge, a practice has developed whereby the position of Co-ordinating Editor is no longer elected by student Contributors, as required by the PIPS bylaws (see in particular bylaws 40 – 43). If correct, PIPS would also be in breach of clauses 20 and 32 of the Agreement,” reads the letter, which also requests proof of the most recent editor election. In response to this, an election was called and Kier Junos was elected on Jan. 1, 2015, putting an end to the DiMera era.

Staff Resurgence and the MOU

Alan Davis addresses a forum of critics in the university who disagreed with a memorandum between KPU and Trans Mountain in 2015. (File photo)

With the election of Junos, and with Thompson hiring half a dozen new staff members within a short period, the paper started getting back into a healthy rhythm. After just a few months, The Runner was busy covering another scandal, the proposed signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Trans Mountain Expansion Project and KPU that would funnel the project’s money into scholarships. However, after receiving scathing criticism from the community, the university withdrew from the MOU.

Junos not only covered the initial MOU announcement and much of the follow up, but also moderated the subsequent open mic between KPU President Alan Davis and several angry students, staff, and faculty.

“That was important for The Runner, I think, because it was a great example of how we were able to report on something very relevant to our community that a lot of people cared about, and showed that we’re an important institution on campus,” he says. “We were there to tell people the story and that’s what we’re supposed to do.”

Junos spent much of his time as editor working on internal documents for PIPS and crafting the paper’s mandate as “a place where journalism students or any students could learn journalism skills.” He also started some long-running initiatives like livestreaming the annual KSA debates.

The Runner’s Coordinating Editor Tristan Johnston pictured in Aug. 2016. God help him. (Kier-Christer Junos)

“The paper kind of came to life again. People were flocking to it and really interested in writing. Myself and the executive editor at the time, Samantha Thompson, really worked together to build the paper,” he says. “Those issues before we started curating a staff—they were paltry. There weren’t many pages in them. The paper has really come a long way since then.”

On July 1, 2015, former staff writer Tristan Johnston was elected editor of The Runner. He remained in that position until June 30, 2017, when I was elected into my position as editor in chief.

The Runner in Recent History

During his tenure, Johnston focused on giving the paper a Globe and Mail-style editorial approach. He put together The Runner’s 2015 federal election issue, which he describes as his “magnum opus” as editor because of the challenges his team had to overcome to get interviews before press time. Later, during my tenure, Johnston would help break yet another fraud scandal at KPU, this time about the Kwantlen Public Interest Research Group.

Kwantlen Public Interest Research Group (KPIRG) administrator Richard Hosein sits at KPIRG’s temporary office for the day on July 21, 2016. KPIRG worked in a Fir building classroom at Kwantlen Polytechnic University Surrey throughout July 2016, because of renovations in Birch building, the location of their other office. (Kier-Christer Junos)

That piece, published in March 2018, brought to light that KPIRG had filed a notice of civil claim against its founder and former executive director, Richard Hossein, for allegedly defrauding the organization of $111,521.33 in student fees. This month, a referendum question asked students if they wanted to redistribute all remaining KPIRG fees into scholarships and bursaries, in part because the KSA determined that KPIRG breached its autonomy agreement due to the alleged fraud. The question passed with 965 “yes” votes to 192 “no” votes on Feb. 15.

“I am proud of that one,” says Johnston, about bringing the KPIRG tip to The Runner. “I feel like I was sort of doing classic journalism in the sense that I got that heads up from talking to an inside source.”

I won’t talk too much about what I’ve done as editor over the past year and a half, mostly to avoid embarrassing self-indulgence, but our team has made a lot of great progress together since 2017. In that time, we have changed our policies and bylaws, redesigned the paper and its website, and published a number of pieces that deserve recognition. One such piece, “No More Stolen Sisters”, an article by our former community reporter Ashley Hyshka, explores the impact of the Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women Inquiry on Vancouver. It has won both an Amnesty International Canada award and a John H. MacDonald Award for Indigenous Reporting since being printed around this time last year.

There have been too many other notable stories to list here, but our coverage has been consistently impressive and only seems to be getting better. Hopefully, by the time this paper turns 20, we’ll have more good news to share.