The death throes of student newspapers
In 1995, La Trobe University student publication Rabelais ran a feature entitled The Art of Shoplifting, which highlighted student poverty a decade before it became an election platform. Now it and student media publications around Australia are facing relative poverty themselves.
Since Voluntary Student Unionism was introduced by the then Liberal Australian Government in mid-2006, Australian student media have been starved of funds.
VSU was introduced with the aim of removing the obligation for tertiary students to pay for and be members of student unions. The Punch interviewed representatives from three student publications and the response was the same: VSU has curtailed the potential of student media to add to a vibrant university culture.
2009 Rabelais editor Leticia Quintana is unapologetic. “The thing I got the most flak for I wasn’t expecting to because I thought it was so funny,” she began. Rabelais ran a series of stories that made light of the attached college’s DC link file sharing system. The stories, entitled ‘Careless Whispers’, resulted in the file sharing system being shut down.
“Basically this means that hundreds of students have been deprived of pornography, free music, television and illegal movie downloads,” she said. Quintana did not intend to cause the system’s cessation but “it made for great news.” Rumours that the college kids would retaliate by throwing a brick through Quintana’s window did not eventuate. “People are reading (Rabelais), they’re getting pissed off, but they’re not doing anything,” Quintana said. “I guess it’s a sign of the times.”
As a federal policy, VSU has had an impact on student newspapers Australia-wide since its introduction. The effects at the University of Adelaide’s On Dit, which once housed Sydney Morning Herald political correspondent Annabel Crabb and Punch editor David Penberthy, have been stark. Circulation has halved from 4000 to 2000; editors are now unpaid, it appears fortnightly instead of weekly and has been forced to shrink from tabloid to a magazine size. Just one editorial team contested the incumbent team for the 2010 position.
An underlying theme of the VSU debate was a belief that a by-product of the policy would be to remove power from student media, and this appears to have happened. Student magazines were seen to be inherently left wing and therefore generally opposed to the Howard Government. It’s an idea that UTS Vertigo editor David Bennett is familiar with: “Your magazine will always be influenced by your audience. Students naturally are more left wing. Not all students, but some, and so you have within the publication a point which everything revolves around.”
In a response to a Punch survey of student media editors on the effects of VSU, current On Dit editor Steph Walker said: “When we can give all views, we publish articles to that effect – when we cannot, we do not publish. For issues such as censorship we are happy to publish the one view when we see it as being rather black and white. We have published pieces on, say, abortion, but we always have retaliatory articles to equal out the voices. As the current Editor I believe that editors be apolitical and independent. While we may not always adhere to this ethos, we do our best.”
Perhaps student media simply has to adapt – in the same way that legacy media is – to decreased budgets and a shift online? Not so, argues Leticia Quintana, as increased digital consumption has been a gradual one for media businesses who have had time to manage the transition. “Completely cutting off the funds for something is never going to be helpful for it,” she said. “The whole idea behind VSU was not a positive one.”
VSU seemingly has a remedy in the Student Amenities Fee, the proposed $250 deferrable payment that will be compulsory for every tertiary student but won’t be directed into student activism or unionism. The fee is supported by the Group of Eight universities and the National Union of Students and has been reintroduced into Parliament by Youth Minister Kate Ellis after being defeated in the Senate in August. There is no suggestion that money from the Student Amenities Fee will be directed toward student media but it may free up pressure on their funding bodies, which tend to be students associations and university grants.
Back at UTS, David Bennett from Vertigo is considering that VSU has been, in some ways, a positive influence on the publication. “In some ways it’s a good thing as well, because you have people fighting against this lack of funding which does produce a good product. But it doesn’t increase the ability for us to think creatively, to have deep and meaningful articles that get to the basis of issues that we pick up in the university community.” Until 2006, Vertigo editors were paid and this is a fact that Bennett laments.
“To sit here thinking that I could have (an estimated) $15,000 in my bank account at the end of the year, for what I’ve done, is a dream. I don’t think it should be a dream, I think it should be a reality, because we do put our heart and soul into it… I got through to half way through last semester completely exhausted, because I’d worked like a dog with everyone else.”
Incoming On Dit editor Connor O’Brien envisions a publication that responds to issues of the broader Adelaide community as well as those of the student body. In a pre- (or post-) VSU world O’Brien would produce a student publication that had high quality pages and a strong visual direction, a product that stood up critically as well as to its target audience. O’Brien is optimistic: “If it’s done well, student media can change the way that students look at their campus. It can give it a personality it wouldn’t otherwise have.”
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