Home About

Eating Student Media Lunch

Joe Sheppard



If you like absolutely anything about Salient, keep reading. But if you have ever hated reading Salient, if you’ve ever had a single criticism of the way any issue has been produced, about its content or tone, about its lack of representation or its failure to communicate with students, it’s even more important that you read on. Apathetic students get the blame for many of the bad things around many campuses, but even the least interested readers still want the same thing as everyone else: a good magazine. Unfortunately what that constitutes is difficult to say and open to debate. With the likelihood of an independent national magazine for students before the end of the year, the question of what we can and should expect in a student publication is more salient than ever.
One of the brains behind the proposed magazine is former Victoria University student Neale Jones. His reason for starting up shop is simple. “I think a nationwide student magazine is inevitable. With things like Studentcard and just media in general showing their interest [in students] I can see it as inevitable that there will be some kind of private, national alternative. The question is: who does it?” Jones’ business partner Jeremy Hunt agrees that there is a market for such a magazine. “There is a demand there from advertisers and from agencies, and if it’s a free publication it could complement the existing student [magazines] very well”. Jeremy Hunt and Neale Jones will be familiar names to people who have been reading student magazines in Wellington in recent years, as they were both involved in Lucid, the independently owned student magazine that ran from 2001-2003, which began as a reaction to Salient. They also make up a great deal of the editorial and commercial drive behind the www.varsity.co.nz website. These two publications amount, Jones believes, to the only genuinely independent student media in the country; independent in both the political and financial senses. But rewind for just a second – when did student magazines become so commercial? Since when did student journalists start caring about black lines and capital investors over ideals and integrity?
Ultimately they don’t, argue Hunt and Jones. Hunt, a PhD student (in corporate acquisitions, of all things) and part-time lecturer in business strategy at the University of Auckland, is quick to point out “there’d be a lot easier ways to make money, put it that way. And at the same time it’s got to be commercial.” Jones also doesn’t mince words about the issue of money, saying, “I have always, and I reiterate, always, seen the money-making side of [the magazine] as providing the ability to make a good magazine. My goal is to make a fucking good magazine and try to make a living out of it.” When he started out with Lucid, he says, his choice was either menial work at a bar or Starmart outlet, or something fun and worthwhile with a magazine.
Money is still very important to all magazines though. The fact that another publication would bring competition to the market is unquestionable. Everybody I have spoken to agrees that competition would encourage higher standards of writing in all journalists. It may also provide a means of keeping the media honest by allowing each paper to criticise the other. (Jones describes a monopoly of the press as “dangerous”.) Neither of these justifications for competition can be overestimated in the quest for free, democratic journalism.
What objections could there possibly be to another magazine, then? Well, many people that can remember the early days of Lucid are critical of the petty rivalry between the two papers. Right from the first editorial, Lucid openly criticised Salient, and particularly the editor at the time, Nikki Burrows. These were mostly rants and rumours, but the occasional article was researched well and argued strongly. Salient’s policy of not writing about Lucid at all was initially not so much about the usual rule of competition (don’t mention your opponents), or even due to the personal angle that the attacks took. Rather, Burrows says that Lucid was appearing too irregularly to allow relevant responses from them, and, more importantly, she felt that there were more important things to write about.
All of which incensed Lucid even more, because their raison d’être was anathema to censorship, and to being shut out from debate. Burrow’s policy, however, did not extend to the letters’ pages. In all fairness, for every letter critical of Lucid, there was another that encouraged them. Still, Burrows stooped to the level of her competitors in a few responses to Jones’s letters to the editor, but on the whole she maintained her policy by not mentioning Lucid in any articles.
Patrick Crewdson, former editor of Otago University’s Critic, comes from a city that in which student media thrives: two magazines (the other is the polytechnic’s gYRo); a bNet radio station; and the infamous student-oriented television show, Cow TV. Critic and gYRo “don’t really view each other as competition”, and similarly, in Wellington there is little real crossover between the Victoria media and the Massey Wellington magazine, Magneto. Still, he has his reservations about competition. “I don’t think you actually get rational comment from the other magazine. We get something like you get on TV these days with TV1 and TV3; you get petty incidents being blown up and made into news because it reflects badly on the rival.” This charge could certainly be levelled against Lucid; however, the importance of competition must overshadow this qualm, which really boils down to the standards of the individual editors and writers at the time, and thus cannot reasonably be avoided.
More serious is Crewdson’s concern about advertising. Like Salient, Critic depends on a large amount of money, “to the tune of just under $40,000” a year, from their students’ association. If an independent magazine was competing for the advertisers that pay for ads in magazines financed by students’ associations, the big losers might end up being the students – the very people all parties, whether independent or public, have insisted must come first. “The idea makes me kind of uncomfortable as a former editor, because I don’t like the idea of something carving into Critic’s popularity.” Says Jones: “I can’t think of a single advertiser – I could be wrong – who was advertising with Salient and came over to [Lucid].” Jones and Hunt believe that since their new magazine will be national, it will open up a new market, with advertising possibilities that just aren’t available to local magazines, in a similar way that www.varsity.co.nz did.
The advertising issue has threatened students’ associations in the past; Jones claims that Lucid was “thwarted” in its attempts to expand and cover various other campuses for precisely this reason. The Presidents of both Auckland and Victoria University Students’ Associations have assured me that they would not greet any new magazine with hostility, though, and nor would the New Zealand University Students’ Association (NZUSA), whose co-president, Fleur Fitzsimmons, tells me that they’d probably just “wait and see” what happens. The NZUSA has never really been commercially centred, mainly focussing on lobbying and national representation, and has’t had a magazine since the 1980s. Moreover, there is nothing in the charter of any university magazine that I have seen that says that it shall be the sole publication on campus. General values of democracy and freedom of speech are central to this point.
In fact, Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) president Amanda Hill welcomes the challenge. ‘I don’t think that VUWSA’s interests are going to be hurt by a lot of things. I’d like to think we’re very resilient.’ Of course, it is easy to say this when your magazine does not have to exist solely off advertising. In that respect, any free independent publication will be starting behind the eight ball, with no subsidies, let alone a historical tradition or audience. Hill and Jones both admit that Salient has made incredible losses in the past, and is commercially unviable. Hill elaborates from the Associations’ point of view: “Actually, cancel any reference to running at a loss. We never think of it as a loss, we think of it as a subsidy. I’m using the wrong term. It took me a long while to figure out the finances of the publications, where exactly we put our money into it. It was in that gap at the bottom. [She laughs.] That’s considered the VUWSA subsidy.”
Essentially, the subsidy means that Salient can afford to have the equivalent of nearly four full-time paid staff. If students’ associations flexed their financial muscles to the extent that an independent publication with smaller capital investments couldn’t match, it would make life impossible for them. Furthermore, if students’ associations were to see Jones’s magazine as a threat, uniting to combat this, through the Aotearoa Students’ Press Association (ASPA), is a real possibility. In practical terms, perhaps the biggest challenge facing an independent magazine is as psychological as it is financial. “I could get a couple of grand together and start Lucid tomorrow,” says Jones. “Well, not tomorrow – when I get a couple of grand together. [He laughs.] But as I said, I worked for free for so long that I just couldn’t do it. It’s all very well to do something for the love of it, and you have to continue to do it for the love of it, but love doesn’t pay the bills. And you have to pay the bills.”
Jones is proud that Lucid managed to compete successfully with Salient. “I don’t know if [it] was causal or coincidental, but I noticed that since Lucid appeared, Salient got better.” Like Hill, I wish him and Hunt all the best in every endeavour.
Early last year Lucid suddenly stopped publishing, and interviews with Hunt, Jones, and other people involved with the magazine revealed a financial dispute. There has never been a word written about this, and the research I’ve done into it suggests that it has the makings of a great story. However, that tale will probably never be told, unless Jones himself prints it. This is because students simply don’t have a right to know about it: as an independent, limited liability company, Lucid is ultimately answerable only to its board of directors. While it has always called itself a “student magazine”, since it was written by and for university students, Lucid was wholly funded by advertisers, as opposed to every other tertiary student magazine, which receives financial assistance from their student associations. If anything happened to these publicly funded magazines, you’d read about it in a jiffy, but you won’t hear about Lucid’s accounts any sooner than any other private business’s.
The question of what defines a student publication needs addressing. Can something like Radioactive, for instance, really be called student radio, if it is no longer owned by VUWSA? Jones thinks that it can. Lucid was accountable to students, he says, as it had some sixty volunteers. But this is clearly not the case, as Lucid has shown, because it really only answers to the people that fund it: that is, its advertisers and its board of directors. While Salient has in the past relied on VUWSA’s subsidy heavily, the alternative, to rely on advertisers’ support, has to be desired less because it kills accountability to students – and accountability to students unanimously seems to be sacrosanct in any student media. Nobody has ever messed with what students want.
The real test for a magazine’s responsibilities and obligations comes in the rare and extreme instance of sacking an editor. Editors are, of course, employed by the students’ association executives that fund their publications, however, the editorial appointment process has also courted controversy. Lucid ran an article in issue three entitled “How to Get a Job at Salient”. It heavily suggested that Nikki Burrows’s second appointment as editor was crooked, and that there was room in the editorial selection panel – made up of the VUWSA president, a Ngai Tauira representative, a Salient representative (usually the outgoing Editor), a University staff member and two elected students – for corruption. It was an unusual situation, because Burrows was the first instance of a back-to-back editor at Salient since the 1970s, as well as being relatively controversial and polarising of opinions, but technically fair – none of her detractors has ever questioned that. Burrows herself admits that it would be a good idea to have more people on the panel to make it more representative, and that some special considerations might have to be taken if an editor decides to run for consecutive appointments, but stands by the appointment process, saying that the alternative, to elect an editor, is not a good idea.
Electing an editor? That sounded a bit odd to me, and yes, according to Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA) president Kate Sutton, their magazine Craccum is one of only two in the world that elects its editors. (The other is in Russia, apparently.) AUSA prides its election process as giving it “complete editorial freedom” and leaving all decisions “completely up to the students that vote”.
Hill, like Burrows, thinks that the Salient appointment process is representative enough, because “the person being appointed is being appointed by a largely elected group of people”. Her reservations about Craccum, namely that editors will be elected on the basis of popularity and not merit, and that the job of editor should align with “employment issues and confidentiality”, are generally reiterated by most people outside of Auckland University. Jones favours election, but with a screening process that would weed out technically incompetent candidates and only allow editors capable of doing the job to stand for election. Along with other former Lucid writers, he has argued, and still argues that an editorial selection committee can easily be infiltrated by a faction, since student elections for political offices are easy to control due to low student interest, and thus an editor can be selected for reasons other than merit. That still doesn’t mean that election is better though, as it would be easy enough to appoint some kind of adjudicator that all parties agree on to resolve disputes, as is the case with contractual problems between the editor and the executive, according to the Salient charter; whether an elected editor could be offered such a procedure could be disputed.
Part of the VUWSA constitution, the Salient charter deserves much of the credit for Salient’s success, in terms of content as well as employment relations. The first point is the most important: “The Editor shall determine the form and content of Salient with complete freedom from political interference.” Lucid always contested whether this point was true in practice, however, they could never provide their readers with any better assurances themselves. Crewdson, who spent two years as the editor of Critic, considered the issue of political interference from the OUSA in an editorial last year. He compared the relations between student journalists and their politicians to those of the reporters “embedded” in Iraq with US soldiers, and asked whether, “seduced by a customised, sand-swept Iraqi version of Stockholm Syndrome, the embedded reporters allowed the quality of their coverage to suffer”.
On the other hand, the close relations could be said to result in a closer community and more balanced journalism because of it, and Burrows for one credits her time on the VUWSA executive as a good step for a journalist to take, as it means that they will have a better knowledge of how it works on the inside. Ever the diplomatic politician, Hill believes that the close relationship between magazine and association is friendly enough, and speculates that “if such an amount of dissatisfaction was expressed about Salient, then we would start looking at how we could use the publications committee”. Crewdson suggests that this is one of the similarities between student media and mainstream media. When I asked him recently if he thought that student publications with satisfactory charters actually have complete political independence, he replied, “In principle. But there’s always overlap and there’s always pressure. Helen Clark calls up Mark Sainsbury at TVNZ, the political editor, and she puts pressure on him not to run a story… In some ways it’s a microcosm of the real world.’ The conclusion to Crewdson’s editorial would not be out of place in a daily public newspaper: “That nobody does, or could, exist to arbitrate the dispute over ownership of that issue [i.e. is the criticism fair?] increases the onus on us to act with professional distance.” The issue is one facing all media sources.
Some magazines and associations deal with their potential conflicts better than others. In 2002, for instance, a lawsuit was brought against the board of directors of Waikato University’s Nexus magazine by Moananui Rameka, a member of the Waikato Students’ Union (WSU) executive. At Chaff, Massey University’s student publication, the staff of 1979 were fired by the executive, for writing an article which, according to a retrospective article in last week’s edition, led “the entire catering staff of the University” to strike. Whatever the issues are about, and whoever can and cannot technically act with authority against an editor or a magazine, it has always been agreed that it must be done in the interests of students. To use the Nexus case again, the board of directors in charge of the magazine settled with Rameka for upwards of $30,000, after the WSU executive had already given him $10,000 to fund his lawsuit.
However, it is difficult to judge the students’ interests, because their body is so diverse, and even methods of sampling opinion, such as the letters to the editor, or a survey printed in the magazine, are statistically flawed. A look at any of the letters’ pages of Salient for the last ten years will show both harmonious and dissenting voices, as well they should, and every year someone will raise the issue, also greatly discussed by Lucid, of whether student magazines are inherently insular, or whether any student can write for them. The issue is a touchy one, and often involves journalism’s worst enemies: the vague, unsubstantiated personal anecdote; and the flat-denying editor. As always, Crewdson has wise advice to offer. “You have to be able to balance the imperative to provide students with something they want to read, with being innovative and… leading, I guess – providing the sort of thing that people will enjoy, or will be educated by, or entertained by if they read it, but they don’t necessarily know that they want to read it beforehand. You have to balance giving what people want with giving people what you think they want. Which sounds arrogant, but you have to build taste, as well as cater to it. A good editor will stay in touch with the readership, and work out what they want.” If students want to be heard more than anything else, addressing this must be the first commandment of all editors. This does not mean not lying to students – that is, overlooking angles or leaving things up to students to find out for themselves – but rather means actively being as honest as possible, even if it is embarrassing, to avoid the irreparable stigma of being a clique or “a closed shop”, as one letter-writer put it last year. If the worst that could happen is the elimination of in-jokes from the magazine, or the occasional staff member feeling a bit silly about having worked for the enemy, then it will be a welcome change. So here goes then: I personally wouldn’t work for Salient if I thought that the magazine was not open to all students at Victoria, and if anyone has any problems they can come and talk to me about it personally at the Salient office – I’ll even make them a cup of tea.
What about the mainstream media though? The current trend for mediawatch-style articles is helpful and results in a public that is better informed about journalism. Hopefully this will trickle down into the general student body too. However, the mainstream coverage of student media issues just isn’t very balanced. There are generally only two reasons for reporters to turn a patronising eye to what the student rags are getting up to. Most of the time it’s to comment on the controversial articles that students run. For example, the Sunday Star Times published an article in June 2002 called “Radical Cheek”, which used a recent Craccum piece on how to manufacture good old P as a starting point for a quick lesson on the radical tradition in student media, and how it has changed since the last generation of journalists. It was a fairly superficial article that ran through each newspaper’s moments of infamy, with quotes from current magazine editors and their famous predecessors (including Tim Shadbolt and Jonathan Hunt), and questioned the point of such sensationalism. This style of article is vicarious and voyeuristic, offering little insight into the lives of students or student journalists, let alone any constructive criticism.
The other kind of article from the mainstream media is more rare: it’s when they sit up and say, “Hey, this stuff isn’t too bad.” Such a piece was Warwick Roger’s media column in the December 2003 issue of North & South in which he reported on the recent ASPA awards and ratified their praise for Salient and Critic. While it is good to get feedback from professional journalists, it is essentially only the obviously newsworthy or sensational issues that tend to concern them, and because of this they are not really in a good position to criticise student media on everyday issues. The fact that student newspapers cannot possibly compete with the resources of even the smaller independents makes the increasingly rare mentoring schemes, such as cadetships, all the more crucial.
The only media that student magazines can expect to receive commentary from is fellow student magazines. Mainstream and student media are worlds apart, and although the latter partake in the former, the reverse is not true. Publications that are published similarly in terms of funding, target audience, and makeup of writers, are in better positions to comment on each other. Independent student media can join the debate – of course, anyone can – but it must be just that: a debate. Tolerance for pettiness, especially through unsubstantiated rumours and articles that are blown out of proportion, must be minimal. All of which means that the responsibility ultimately falls on the collective shoulders of the ASPA editors.
The question of what the purpose of student media should be is fundamental to any discussion of any student publication. It is simply not enough to say that it should communicate with the students. The range of other possible purposes – from having fun and entertaining readers to training the next generation of journalists to write responsible news – all speak volumes. However, this does not leave us aimlessly wandering in aporia, for there is one almost factual conclusion that can be drawn, as everyone holds it to be true: a magazine must be representative of its students. As the student populus is so diverse, it makes sense for pluralism, for different approaches to representing such a varied audience. It is impossible, however, for any student publication to represent students if the students themselves feel that they aren’t being represented, and for this reason anything that contributes to such a sentiment must be eliminated.
What does that include? Don’t look at me, I just wrote the article. Hopefully, if I’ve done my job properly, I can finish with this: to be continued in the letters pages.