A year in the content mills

Mary Ward gives USU digital publication, PULP, a performance review.

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It has been just over a year since the USU announced they would be taking their student publications program into “new territory” by ceasing to produce the monthly BULL magazine, and moving towards a “100% digital news format”.

There was significant backlash, mainly due to the absence of student consultation, but the Big Names of Courtyard stuck with their decision to move from agriculture to industry and, this year, digital news outlet PULP launched.

One of the most interesting things about PULP for student journalists was the promise to up the $3,000 honorarium for six editors to a roughly $10,000 a year salary for two ($40,950 per annum, pro rata on the basis of 14-hour weeks during semester). Whitney Duan and Aparna Balakumar won the gig. Balakumar resigned at the end of semester one to go on exchange, and was replaced by Swetha Das.

So, what have the editors of PULP achieved?

Between its launch on March 3 and the writing of this article on October 7, PULP has published just 109 pieces. Over the course of last year, BULL published 228 print pieces (plus a handful of online-only pieces).

Some months were much stronger than others – the month of May saw PULP run 25 yarns, including then editor Balakumar’s Wesley College Rackweb investigation, which spawned Fairfax co-writes and drew significant attention to the issue of sexism within the University’s residential colleges. But even if you allow for the operation only starting in March, and the editors not being paid over exams and the mid-year break, this publication rate seems really low.

It would be understandable if every article published on PULP was one of their few longform standouts (Duan’s explainer of the growing tensions within the Sydney University Liberal Club springs to mind) or an interview with big name talent which would have required an email chain of PR wrangling to attain (of which there were a few), but they aren’t.

The hypothetical “average article” published on PULP is a 400-word, Minion-GIF-laden culture piece, not written by an editor, with some sort of reference to Lemonade. When Honi asked Duan and Das if they thought PULP had any weaknesses this year, they responded solely with “not enough articles on Beyoncé”. It would certainly not be the breaking news the USU sold PULP on last September – only 15 of the articles published this year were straight news, and that figure includes non-breaking investigations.

When asked why PULP had failed to publish much news over their term, Duan said the ghost of culture-heavy BULL was affecting their performance.

“I guess it’s hard still being seen as the new BULL because many still think we don’t do hard news and timely investigations,” she said. “It means we get less scoops and news contributors.”

You could put PULP’s low publication rate down to a strict moderation of its editors’ stipulated 14-hour work week, but Duan and Das told Honi they “definitely work more than 14 hours a week” and it “doesn’t just happen while [they’re] in the office during business hours”.

Duan told Honi “a lot of the problems with PULP” could be solved by expanding the editorial team, but examining the salary-to-editor ratio of student publications on campus queries this.

Although this probably isn’t the test, with two-and-a-half times the total salary (a stipend of $44,000 shared across 10 editors), this year’s Honi team has produced close to 11 times the number of stories PULP has. On $2,000 less total salary, last year’s BULL editorial team managed double PULP’s publication rate.

Of course, there are things to commend PULP on. Led by three women of colour, the publi- cation pays its writers a small amount for their work (which is more than this humble rag can claim to), has fostered a small but (as Duan and Das described) “loyal” community of readers and writers, and its highs are homepage-of-the-Sydney-Morning-Herald high.

But, as the USU interviews candidates for next year’s editorial team, it seems not unfair to say PULP was mainly an underused, missed oppor- tunity, churning out content that was, frankly, run of the mill.

READER ENGAGEMENT

The USU has been oddly reluctant to give PULP its own website, allowing it to instead occupy a section of the USU’s. This meant the platform was only ever going to get readers through social media sharing. In its first year, PULP has managed to win just under 900 Facebook fans. This is comparable to BULL‘s 1,600, but remember PULP lacks a print presence.

With such a low like-count, PULP articles only reach a wider audience shared to the USU’s own Facebook page or, as is possibly not a great model for engaging a wide range of student contributors, a particularly popular campus personality is the author of a piece, in which case they will be tagged in its social share allowing their friend base to boost the article’s reach. Does this, and moving away from a physical campus presence, create a more insular (at its most charitable, elitist at its least) readership than BULL ever had? Maybe.

STUDENT CREATIVE PARTICIPATION

An edition of BULL engaged the work of 25-30 writers and artists. The 2015 BULL team had 33 photographers and artists on staff, and 57 writers. Each edition had around 30 articles, ranging from short reviews to 2,000 word features. PULP has a “core reporters” Facebook group of 17 (excluding editors). “We made sure we had a small but dedicated team of contributors and reporters in a new structure that rewards student journalists,” Das and Duan said.

Although PULP was originally sold as an opportunity for students to create multi-media digital work, short of a couple of USU-themed quizzes, it’s mainly published text. Artists and photographers have not had much of a place in PULP this year, with the (notable) exception of Karen Lin, whose guide to having an aesthetically pleasing Instagram feed featured the publication’s only example of student photography.

THE ROLE OF USU MARKETING

By all accounts, PULP operates much more freely of the USU’s marketing and communications department than BULL ever did. Das and Duan told Honi they were “surprised” by their autonomy, and are only required to have content checked by the USU’s Director of Student Publications for legal issues before they hit publish.

However, PULP certainly isn’t clear of any interference from their student union sugar parent. Due to their placement on the USU website, PULP articles sit alongside USU press releases about the future of religious clubs. At a less overt level, it would not be unfair to say that PULP’s reviews of campus productions put on by USU-funded societies like SUDS, MUSE and the revue societies are not exactly critical, and most of their interviews – San Cisco, Benjamin Law, Dr Karl – were in some way connected to the appearances of those personalities at USU events.

The author of this piece was an editor of the USU’s previous student-run publication, BULL magazine. She was a co-signatory to an open letter denouncing its closure in 2015. But she’s over it, she swears.