By Caroline Rodriguez-Charette
As The Leveller wraps up its tenth volume, we wanted to look back at how this student-led newspaper all began. With its first issue published on Feb. 9, 2009, The Leveller was founded as the passion project of three grad students: David Tough and Daniel Tubb from Carleton University and Doug Nesbitt from Trent. The Leveller caught up with two of these founders, Tough and Tubb, to hear how it all happened.
Where did the idea for starting The Leveller come from?
David Tough: The initial idea was to have a similar version of Arthur, Trent University’s student newspaper, at Carleton. Arthur was very left-wing and had long essay-type articles, like in magazines. It was unabashedly pro-labour and was critical of the university administration. The Charlatan, Carleton’s newspaper, was very dull at the time and adhered to a very conventional mainstream model. Knowing I was at Carleton and that I’d previously been the editor of Arthur, Doug Nesbitt asked me in 2008 what I thought it would be like if there was an equivalent paper at Carleton.
Daniel Tubb: The idea was to do something like the Arthur which was critical and on the left but also had culture and campus and community news, which was missing [at Carleton]. But it was also very explicitly to be a vehicle to get political messages out and cover things that the other papers weren’t covering.
What motivated you and the other founders to start the newspaper?
David Tough: A few months later, in early 2009, the Carleton teaching assistant (TA) union was in bargaining and voted against a strike, which really weakened the union’s bargaining position. The university abolished tuition indexing and the union had to accept it and go back to work with a weaker contract. Doug and I revisited the idea again, and I contacted Daniel Tubb, who I knew of from Trent. The idea just took off from there.
Daniel Tubb: By losing [tuition indexing], every graduate student at Carleton since then has paid way more tuition than they would have if we hadn’t lost it. Why did we lose it? The union was doing a really bad job of communicating the message and the media landscape at Carleton at the time was The Charlatan, which was somewhat right-wing.
Both David and I had come from Trent, and David was editor for the Arthur student newspaper there when I was an undergrad. Somehow I got roped into being on the board for a year. We had fond memories of Trent, and at some point, David invited me and Doug Nesbitt to Mike’s Place with the idea of starting a newspaper like the Arthur. I can remember being in Mike’s Place – it was a lot darker and dingier back then, and I don’t know why I said yes.
You’re avoiding writing your master’s thesis by making a newspaper, I suppose. It filled a void – it was something I wished I had when I started at Carleton. When I started at Carleton I never knew what was going on, and so the listings at the back were things that I would have wanted to know about, to get involved in.
How did the first issue come together?
Daniel Tubb: So we started it with an ambitious timeline. We put [the first issue] together with various stories, ads that may not have actually been paid for. The first editorial said, “If you have read the paper in any semblance of the expected order, you will have noticed by now that we at The Leveller don’t put a lot of stock in being objective. We like to editorialize at least a little all of the time.”
It was an editorial vision that David really had, and the layout was mine. I sorted out a lot of the back end stuff. A lot of the format was modelled after the green of The Onion and some of the layout was The International Socialist at the time.
It was fun, and then we did it again, and then we did it again, and then we did it again, and by the end of that, we were kind of exhausted that summer, it almost didn’t continue.
What challenges did The Leveller face in its first year as a newspaper?
David Tough: Early on, The Leveller was pretty casual, and a lot of people came together at the start who didn’t really have that similar politics. We all thought that The Leveller should be left, should be critical of the university admin, pro-labour, etc, but a lot of what turned out to be core issues for various people were just kind of hanging in the air. Within a short time, they exploded, and the first group (me included) kind of drifted away.
Daniel Tubb: The first issues were all done over the Internet. People would send stories and there would be a lot of fighting over email. Then the summer happened and there was a big flare up over, I think it was the title for one of the articles, and it just spiraled out of control.
How did The Leveller rebound after that summer?
David Tough: Erin Seatter, copy editor and proofreader of The Leveller in its first year, really took charge of bringing it back. It was a lot more organized and editing was not only done in a more regimented way but done together. When people disagreed, they argued it through. It was a much better system, though not for the faint of heart. Basically it would be a full weekend of arguing over how to approach given issues, often making changes line by line, phrase by phrase. It made it a lot harder to fight because everyone was in one room.
The early Leveller may have had more personality, like Arthur, but the true Leveller is the one that developed after the first year, which was a more consistent, official voice of the publication. I tend to think of the first year as a kind of pilot project, and think of the real start of The Leveller as the way it worked in September 2009.
What would you say was the most rewarding aspect of putting The Leveller together?
Daniel Tubb: My first year at Carleton, I remember being very lonely and then The Leveller created a community for me in Ottawa that I didn’t have before. It was a lot of fun and I got to meet a lot of cool people. I also learned how to write quickly. In academia everything takes years to write but at The Leveller, we would put everything together in two-three weeks. I loved co-writing – where you write something and someone revises it, then someone else edits it and then it would get its final edit. I wish my real life was that way because it’s much faster and more fun.
Did you think The Leveller would still be around 10 volumes later? Do you still follow it and what are your thoughts on what you see?
David Tough: I think once we got the grad levy in 2010, I was pretty confident The Leveller would survive. I wasn’t confident that it would come back after the dissolution of the initial group in early 2009, but since then, I haven’t doubted it. I don’t read it all the time, but I like what I read and was very happy to see the development of the Sans Culottes [The Leveller’s french section].
Daniel Tubb: I hoped it would, but I didn’t think it would, especially not after that summer, the summer after we finished, I thought it was done. I think when we got the GSA Levy, I figured it would be around for a while because it creates stability and funding to make the thing exist, which that first year didn’t have. That was mostly to get some funding to take the load off all of things that aren’t that much fun to do, like accounts, delivery, making sure everything’s paid for, all those kinds of things.
I sometimes go read The Leveller to find out what’s happening in Ottawa and Carleton, so I love the fact that it has continued. I always thought of it as a place where you can learn a lot, and then it would be another generation’s time to take over.
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 6 (Mar/Apr 2018).