Issue #4 “This was a lot bigger than we could have imagined”

A conversation with Emma Sandri, a former news editor at the Eyeopener. Plus, Yarden takes a look back on the past 98 days.

Photo by Yarden Haddi

When Emma Sandri joined the Eyeopener, a student-run paper at Ryerson University, she began reporting on a major scandal involving her university’s student union. The executives were using a credit card to spend thousands of dollars towards things like alcohol, Airbnb and hotel bookings, and restaurants. The revelations were damning enough that they quickly fell into the government’s radar. But the aftermath was bittersweet: getting the story out there would ultimately take a toll on Emma’s well-being. And it even threatened the very existence of student-run publications like the one she was working for. Now that she has moved on from the Eyeopener, we asked her to reflect on the biggest story of her journalism career thus far and to fill us in on what she’s been up to nowadays.

Ziv: Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you’ve been studying.

Emma: Sure. I’m going into my fourth year of journalism at Ryerson University [in Toronto]. I am doing a double minor in criminology and politics and I’m studying for my LSAT if that helps at all [laughing]. I worked at the Toronto Star Radio Room and I’m the intern at the Queen’s Park press gallery right now. I was the news editor of the Eyeopener for a while. 

Ziv: How did you end up at the Eyeopener?

Emma: It started in first year. I wanted to try my hand at the real world of journalism in university. I learned a lot from my professors, but I was looking to actually start building my portfolio and I heard that the Eyeopener was a great place. I decided to send [the paper] one of my stories and it grew into a relationship with the news team there. I would take on a lot of pitches from them throughout the weeks and I became the reliable reporter there. I eventually decided to run, in my second year, to be a news editor and that’s how I actually got onto the paper and started writing about all things Ryerson. I was [at the Eyeopener] from January of my second year, in 2019, to just this past April of 2020 when I left. 

Yarden: Let’s talk about the Ryerson Student Union’s (RSU) credit card scandal, which you and the Eyeopener team did a thorough job of uncovering. I am a student at Ryerson and I was following that very closely. Every day it seemed like a new revelation was surfacing. That’s a big story for campus journalism. Tell us about how it unfolded.

Emma: I had stumbled onto the story when I was just a volunteer reporter, at a time when I was working on another RSU story. I had gotten a tip that I should start looking into these credit cards [that the executives of the RSU had]. And, at first, I thought it was interesting, but I didn't think it would be very big because of course everyone has conspiracy theories about the student union and people say things that are not always verifiable or always true. We started looking at this tip more seriously when I joined the paper as an editor. I was lucky enough to build a relationship with the source who trusted myself and two other co-editors at the time, Sherina [Harris] and Raneem [Alozzi], to actually give us pictures of the documents [of credit card statements]. That’s when we knew that this was something that was actually very serious. We wanted to give the student union executives the ability to respond to the statements and to verify them without our story being quashed. That was our internal struggle in the lead up to when the story was published. It all kind of came to a head when one of the student directors started to read those statements out loud at [an RSU] board meeting. With that public eye on the executive, we were able to get them to confirm the validity of the statements. When we published that story, we knew that it was important. Student comments started to roll in saying [things like]: “I can't believe [the RSU] spent my money like this”, [and] “I want a refund”. We knew this was very important to students, but we didn’t know how important it would be to the rest of Ontario. When the Toronto Star and the CBC started asking us for interviews, that’s when we knew that this is bigger than Ryerson. When [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford tweeted about it, we knew that this was a lot bigger than we could have imagined.

[Read Emma Sandri’s original article published in the Eyeopener.]

Ziv: You must feel proud about your work in uncovering all the different developments of that story. 

Emma: I am proud of the work my co-editors and I have done. Definitely. But it is want to hold people accountable and you want transparency. That’s the job of a journalist. But then to see that information used [by the Ford government] to put forward the Student Choice Initiative [SCI]... that really hurt our own paper. Without student fees, the Eyeopener wouldn’t be able to do that kind of great reporting. So there were a lot of bittersweet moments. Yes, we were very proud of the work we had done, but it also really hurt that that was used to almost potentially shut our own paper down. 

Note: In January of 2019, the Ford government announced the SCI to give post-secondary students, in Ontario, the ability to opt-out of paying “non-essential” fees for things like student newspapers. On November 21st of that year,  Ontario’s Divisional Court unanimously decided to strike down the initiative after deeming it “unlawful”. Read about the decision here.     

Ziv: Back in April of this year, you tweeted a thread that you were leaving your position as news editor at the Eyeopener.  You said: “During my time at this amazing paper, I’ve...struggled a lot” and you mentioned how you were balancing your responsibilities there with your other life goals like studying for the LSAT. As consumers of the news, we read journalists’ stories but don’t really get a glimpse of the emotional toll that their work has on their lives. 

Emma: Over the past two years that I had been at the Eyeopener I had been a news editor, which we recognize in the paper as one of the most [difficult] jobs because there is literally always so much going on. You have to drop your own personal life and your own schoolwork sometimes to cover breaking news stories [and other types of stories]. I had put so much of myself into that over the past year and a half to two years that I really felt that there were other parts of my life I was really missing out on. And, of course, that takes a toll on you mentally when you’re always working. There were very few moments where I had time for myself, for my family, for my friends. It kind of came to a head in [my] last semester when I had started to see my grades slipping and my own personal relationships slipping as well. I realized I needed to take a step back. I shouldn't put my entire life on hold or dreams to go to law school on hold just to report campus daily news, which is important, but it shouldn’t be my sole identifier for my life. So I decided to take [a break] over the summer and I have not been putting so much pressure on myself. I need to learn not to do everything that I can. It’s okay to just do a couple of things, you don’t have to do all of the things. 

Ziv: Fast forward to now: you are currently an intern at the Queen’s Park Press Gallery. Tell us a little bit about that. 

Emma:  I love politics. It’s my other minor. I heard really good things from people who had interned there in the past [and of it] being a really great place to learn from veteran reporters who have a lot of experience from asking tough questions and [building] relationships with politicians. So that’s what I decided would be a great fit for me. It’s been great. I get to watch the scrums every day and ask questions, which is something I’ve been trying to push myself to do. 

Ziv: Looking back on it, what would you tell the version of yourself who walked into the Eyeopener on her first day? 

Emma: Honestly, I would say have more confidence. There were times where I didn’t think that I was as talented or as great as a reporter as the other people there or I didn’t think that my ideas were very good when I was pitching. So I would say have more confidence because looking back on it now, in my opinion, I’ve done some pretty good work. I would also say to myself not to get too caught up in the day to day [and] to look at the bigger picture. Things always kind of work themselves out. Learn to let things slide. 

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

The past 98 days have seen some of the most intense political and social action in recent decades. Yarden created a short film encapsulating recent events and would like to share with you its message of hope.

About the creators:

Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.

Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.

Made with chutzpah in Toronto.