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BULL Recedes Six Years Shy of a Century

Rebecca Wong wades through the legacy of Union publications at the University of Sydney.

Picture of a bull with a gun to its head.

The Union Recorder was Sydney University’s first student-edited news publication. Dating back to 1921, and notable for coining the phrase “been there, done that”, it documents more than eight decades of student activism, along with the myriad misdemeanors of straight-laced private school boys with Prime Ministerial ambition (for more on this, see pages 6-7).

Six years shy of a century later, without editorial consultation and in a confidential meeting, the USU has decided to axe its only print publication, BULL Magazine.

Rachel Hills, who edited the Union Recorder in 2002, cites the experience as an important learning curve.

“I started writing about student politics towards the end of my tenure… I think mostly through UR actually, I’d critique the Union and things that were happening on the Board.” Hills notes that Union oversight of the magazine was “fairly minimal”.

According to Hills, though the UR was less radical than Honi, it had its fair share of controversy. “Part of the reason that we had to have the head of the Women’s Committee look over our issues was because on one of our covers, there was an image that was considered to be sexist. That was the issue that I edited, and I was trying to comment on female gender roles.

“It’s kind of ironic, because I write about feminism now, and I wrote about feminism then, and I certainly identified as a feminist at that point in my life,” says Hills, who lives in New York and recently published her first book, The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and Reality.Honi led the charge about the UR being sexist and put posters up all over the university.”

“One of the useful things as a student journalist were those pieces that I got to do where I was interrogating things that were happening on Union Board. So even though I don’t presently work as a political journalist, I think that the kind of observation reporting I got to do on those machinations is something that you can really only do on campus when you’re that age, because that’s the political environment that you have intimate exposure to. I learnt some useful lessons about reporting from doing those stories.”

In the face of funding cuts arising from the introduction of voluntary student unionism, the UR was effectively wound up in 2005. The Daily Bull, formerly a newsletter advertising the services and events provided by the USU, was rebranded as BULL Magazine, replacing the UR as the union’s flagship publication.

While it seems clear that BULL was subject to greater Union oversight than its predecessor, the extent to which this compromised the editorial independence of the publication has perhaps been overstated. Though a USU representative subedited every article and sat in on editorial meetings, the role was described by one editor as “always pretty administrative”; it was about keeping track of pitches and articles.

From 2012 to May 2015, the editorial liaison was USU Marketing and Communications Manager Louisa Stylian.

“She provided quite a bit of editorial feedback, and that’s actually something I found hugely helpful. I thought she had a really strong sense of what worked well in the mag,” says John Rowley, who edited BULL in 2013. “I felt like she was more of an editorial mentor than a voice for the USU.”

Two editors cite instances where articles didn’t make it to print because of their critical stances on the Union. Alex McKinnon, who edited BULL in 2011 and has since gone on to be assistant editor of popular news website Junkee, remembers:

“Someone pitched to me the idea of comparing food prices at Union outlets to prices off campus, which I thought was a really good idea. And it didn’t get through, I mean as you can imagine the markup on things sold at campus outlets would be quite high.”

Another editor states that, “we didn’t want to bite the hand that fed us. I always saw working on BULL as similar to working in the real world—where someone else subedits your work and your publication has marketing agendas.”

Prior to this year, much of the publication’s design was outsourced to the Union’s Sales and Marketing Department, whose conception of the paper seemed to differ drastically from the students’.

“There was a really intelligent feature about people’s apparent progressivism in racial politics… yet their refusal to sleep with people that don’t look like them in their sexual lives,” recalls Eleanor Gordon-Smith. “And the cover was a penis wearing a KKK hood.”

While noting that the fuzzy chain of command made it difficult to challenge such decisions, Gordon-Smith emphasises that any issues of editorial autonomy fell squarely at the feet of board directors, “rather than some graphic designer who’s just doing their job”.

The overall impact of the USU’s proposed media alternative on the independence and viability of student publications is mixed. Stylian declined to be interviewed for this article. However, in a Facebook comment, she decried the board’s failure to consult with the current editorial team, writing “rest assured I would have fought for you”.

A new section of the Union’s website will be devoted to multimedia news and campus culture coverage, with two part-time editors being paid an hourly rate in line with the applicable workplace award agreement. Contributors will be paid a fixed rate.

The decision to increase remuneration for student journalists has been met with near universal praise. It is an uncomfortable truth that, generally speaking, only those with the luxury of 12-hour timetables and considerable financial support from their families are able to undertake editorial work for an effective hourly rate of less than $1.

BULL has been a place where a lot of many dedicated talented people get to cut their teeth in a pseudo-professional environment,” says Gordon-Smith. “So I think recognising that and leaning in to it, for instance by paying people, is a really good way to make sure it keeps doing that.”

USU Board Director Ed McMahon told Honi that an editorial policy will be drafted by a working party chaired by elected Directors, and that the student editors will be in charge of the broad editorial vision of the site. That said, several students have expressed concerns that paying contributors may give the USU a bit too much editorial power in terms of the content students may be incentivised to produce.

Much of BULL’s content, such as photojournalism and long-form features, is particularly suited to the production cycle of a monthly print publication. It is unclear how much continuity will exist between BULL and the new site.

The shift to an exclusively digital platform, and salaried rather than stipended positions, suggests an attempt by the USU to inject a sense of professionalism into its publications programs. The impact of this shift on the relatively radical institution of student journalism is, at best, questionable. As McKinnon observes, “student journalists have more of a capacity to be feral than they would if they were writing for more respectable publications.”