Editorial: the importance of student media

A few weeks ago, a fellow student newspaper contacted the Telegraph, pledging for support for their petition against funding cuts that the publication faces. The paper that faces these cuts is Leeds Student, a flagship of quality student media in the UK, which will now potentially be unable to go to print. I immediately knew that my departing editorial would not be a swansong for this year’s hits and misses. While the situation seems odd, it’s not entirely a surprise – there is a common theme of under appreciation, both external and internal, that plagues student journalism. So, as the final act in the 2013/14 Telegraph epic, I would like to stand up for student media and put my two cents in on why student media needs our support and why we need student media.

It is a well-known fact that journalism is changing (some would argue that print is dead – I refuse to subscribe to that belief) and that it is mainly the small, regional or local papers that are forced to shut their doors and hand in their Dictaphones. Student media has an edge here: they are mostly free and due to the different funding structures, do not (or at least should not) face the same financial pressures that other local publications do – in short, they are not businesses. There are two important things to note here: firstly, student publications have a unique market to fill by providing hyperlocal news – what’s happening in the University, vox pops, match results, Student Union elections – and, increasingly, have a big role in filling the gap in coverage of local news. There is a market for student media and that well is not going to go dry as long as University campuses and local communities still exist.

Another well-known fact: the debate over the impartiality of the fourth estate has been going on since the dawn of time. Media convergence in the UK has become synonymous with Murdoch, while Harmsworth, Desmond and Lebedev run (a large part of) the show behind closed curtains, away from the public eye. Whether for-profit organisations that have to keep the interests of their main stakeholders in mind can truly guarantee and unbiased media and act as a check on the three branches is a perfectly valid question. Now let’s skip back to the fact that most student media is not run as a for profit business. Could student publications then be the one truly independent form of reporting? Even without the national impact, student journalism can perform an important function in the creation of a culture of responsibility and accountability in their respective Universities and Student Unions.

For me, the true argument for the necessity of student media, however, lies in its virtues as a training ground for aspiring hacks. I don’t buy into the whole “being a student reporter is great because you can make mistakes”. I don’t argue against the fact that you can make mistakes – indeed, you most certainly will – but that’s not why an apprenticeship in a University paper

is great. It is great because it gives young reporters the opportunity to experiment in a range of different types of writing and the potential to do excellent journalism before entering the job market. It is perfectly fine to jump from film reviews to news stories to match reports and then land on profiles or opinion articles to scope out what you enjoy doing and to then build your skills. Employability will sky-rocket (that is, if you do take your endeavours seriously and produce work you’re actually proud of). Even if you’re not planning a spectacular career in journalism, student newspapers are an excellent medium for voicing your concerns, showcasing your achievements or introducing something new and interesting to our academic community.

A testament to this is the amount of stories that have been broken by University newspapers in the past few years: the Tab broke the story on a massive hacking of Oxford and Manchester University systems in 2012, ForgeToday first reporting that air pollution in Sheffiled was reaching EU limits in 2013 and York Vision breaking the story on a lecturer being suspended on accusations of child pornography. Last academic year’s Demo2012 was largely live-reported via Twitter by student media, which became a primary source of information over national publications such as the Guardian and the Telegraph. Speaking of the Guardian, one of Strathclyde Telegraph’s former editors, Stuart Miller was on the team that reported the NSA surveillance stories that earned them a Pulitzer this year. Everyone has to start somewhere and for a budding journalist, there is no better place than on-campus media.

I admit that there are endless shortcomings in the world of student journalism and a general sense of under appreciation, both internally and externally. I think every budding reporter has had to struggle with press offices who simply ‘don’t talk to student publications’, ignore, or worse yet, patronise student journalists. There is a lack of courage to undertake investigations from the journalists themselves. There is the constant doubt over what to report on and how to strike a balance between the local and the national. Whether cause or consequence, there is often a debilitating lack of interest from the student body and a lack of motivation amongst contributors, including myself. I am the first to own up to the fact that the publication dates are not regular, nothing ever goes according to plan and we could be doing so much more. Yet I refuse to say that student media is worth any less because of those shortcomings.

I’ve condensed what I have learned this year into ten points. There are many that I have failed to abide by this year but they represent a promise of improvement that I fully intend to undertake. If we all do, maybe we, student journalists, will live up to our full potential and finally fully earn the recognition that student media deserves.

Student journalism: 10 commandments

I am the journalist; thy definition

Otherwise known as take yourself seriously. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your articles don’t matter as much and hence do not merit as much effort. Treat all writing as an opportunity to build a portfolio you can be proud of. Read the PCC and NUJ guidelines for reporters and editors. Find out what those acronyms mean. Present yourself with confidence – you have every right to ask questions, do research and interview people.

Thou shall have other gods: read smart

While loyalty to the publication you write for is great, don’t let that be your only deity in student journalism endeavours. There are others out there, doing work on a similar platform, under similar circumstances – see what they’re up to. Read the local papers to find new stories you could develop further. National papers are probably on your reading list anyway, so why not read them smartly. Notice the style and structure they use and what gives the story impact. See if you can find another angle. Try and analyse how they have sourced the story.

Thy eyes shall be open

Very much related to the first two commandments. Notice interesting events going on in town, go and have a little nosey if there’s a fire engine on campus, go and ask people how their halls experience has been so far, read local papers for stories. Don’t spend the entire year waiting for your editors to dish out stories. There is a special sense of accomplishment in doing a story from start to finish (remember, the editors are after that same sense of accomplishment, so they will keep their best ideas for themselves), so every now and then, go and find your own. Which leads us to…

Honour thy Dictaphone and notepad

What use is a good idea if it goes forgotten? You can’t use your phone to record a quote from your SU president when disaster occurs and the Yard runs out of beer, that’s for Tweeting. Remember the first commandment and live by it. Carrying necessary items is part of that.

Thou shall challenge yourself

Now is the best time to find out what you like and what you don’t like doing. Writer a review for the Music section, do an investigative piece, write an opinion article. It might seem like ‘not your thing’ but you never know until you try.

Thou shall take risks

Your favourite band is in Glasgow for a gig? Ask if they’re up for an interview. Send Alex Salmond an e-mail asking what he thinks about the UCU strike. You might

get shot down but there is no harm in trying (evidence presented on the backpage).

Thou shall be considerate

Self-explanatory. Don’t castigate a children’s choir performance.

Thou shant present opinion as fact

If you say “Tories are a failure” in a news article, you better have polls or administrative errors to back you up, otherwise come up with a wittier phrasing and report to Features for opinion pieces.

Thou shall make mistakes

I once conducted an hour-long interview over the phone without realising that I’d switched the recorder off after 5 mins. Not to mention the Women’s Gaelic Football team pictured next to an article about Cricket. Brush it off and move on, without forgetting that:

Thou shall learn.

} else {