CUP was originally formed by the National Federation of Canadian University Students (NFCUS) in 1938 at an annual meeting of student unions from across the country. The NFCUS was a collection of student unions across Canada, and at that point in history, many student newspapers were run by the union of a school’s student body.
With these newspapers largely beholden to union interests, CUP was created primarily as a way for the unions to publicize student issues to schools across the country and build solidarity amongst Canadian students.
The student movement in Canada gained momentum in the 1960s. CUP is credited with pioneering the phrase “agent of social change,” when it was introduced into the Statement of Principles. In the 60s and 70s, CUP members questioned the viability of traditional journalistic “objectivity.”
CUP members instead positioned themselves against the bias of false balance they saw in mainstream media and integrated social justice and advocacy into their reporting. CUP members imagined their role as “reporting on the parade from inside the parade,” as one set of minutes from the 60s states.
CUP's new role as an advocate of the alternative community press came to spotlight during 1971’s October crisis. While most mainstream news outlets were reluctant to print the manifesto of the FLQ because of fears of corporate or political repercussions, the relative autonomy from both allowed student newspapers to critically discuss issues related to the FLQ. The view of CUP newspapers was that by only presenting one side of the story, the mainstream press was failing an ethical imperative to present the full facts for readers to make their own decisions.
Their existence as a voice critical of the mainstream press was not limited to the mainstream’s handling of the October crisis. Individual papers often spoke out against what they saw as unethical.
The social mission continued through the 70s, with CUP providing a publishing platform for the LGBTQ+ publication, The Body Politic when Metro News, a national printing company, refused to print TBP's magazine.
In the 70s, CUP also started its partnership with Campus Plus, a syndicated advertising network that handled advertising for student newspapers. Campus Plus secured national brands as clients who would place ads in student newspapers who were paid for carrying the ads. CUP took a slice of the sales which provided a large portion of CUP’s new budget, allowing it to grow its newswire service to hire new bureau chiefs, editors and reporters across the country.
In the early 90s, CUP distanced itself from the politics of the 60s and 70s in an attempt to become less divisive of an organization to its members. The “agent of social change” clause was removed, and CUP focused its efforts on the national bureau and Campus Plus. With the removal of this clause and the expansion of services thanks to Campus Plus revenue, membership saw CUP decreasingly as the cooperative it was founded as and increasingly as a service for which they paid access.
With the advent of the internet in the new millennium, the newswire became less important to members as they were increasingly able to source their own news from any place in the country at any moment. Many papers, especially large papers, had already been centralizing their own services, such as placing lawyers on retainer, making CUP services less and less useful. Finally, the newswire was made public and CUP lost the few remaining corporate clients that had continued to subscribe. Then, in 2013, Campus Plus declared bankruptcy. It was unclear how CUP would be able to continue to run as an organization losing such a significant portion of its revenue. Also, with the loss of this service, many papers left within the span of two years.
Due to a lack of finances, the bureau was finally abolished and the staff was reduced to one Executive Director and a Board. Currently, CUP has no head office and is administered remotely by the volunteer board made up of members from various student papers across Canada.