Bring back BULL: The death of print media on campus

I miss Bull and you should too

Artwork by Aviva Green Artwork by Aviva Green

In 2014, I was as keen a first year as they come. At the end of semester 1, after settling into campus life, I wrote a list of goals for my time at Sydney Uni—an array of activities I thought would enhance my experience, help me make friends, and mitigate the inevitable regret I’d feel after a six year degree.

One of these goals was to become an editor of BULL magazine. It’s a goal I’ll never achieve.

***

USyd’s campus media is nowhere near dead. Honi is still kicking, strong as ever. SURG has seen a resurgence of popularity in the past few years. PULP, though still in its infancy, has run investigations that have won nationwide attention. Hermes, the University of Sydney Union’s literary magazine, is the oldest journal in Australia. It competes with Arna, an annual literary journal published by the Arts Society. Before ceasing print publication in late 2015, Mon Droit also gave a voice to conservative writers, who felt alienated by mainstream campus outlets. And USyd Update, the University’s first student video organisation, proved that there was space for new, grassroots projects to be successful—it was the fastest growing student media outlet in the country during 2015 and 2016.

Many other universities have seen their student media outlets shrink since the introduction of Voluntary Student Unionism in 2006. Some have detected a theme here: as with the mainstream media, it’s print publications that have suffered the most. Flinders University’s Empire Times closed in 2006, only to be replaced by newcomer Libertine in 2008, which itself died in 2011. In 2013, Empire Times made a comeback and remains on stands. At the beginning of the year, UNSW’s print magazine, Blitz, quietly announced that it would be ending print publication.

It’s been three years since BULL was shut down by its publisher, the USU. Students who began university after 2015 have probably never heard of the magazine, let alone picked up a copy. So what was all the fuss about?

BULL was a creative monthly magazine, launched in 2006 in its modern form. It was printed eight times a year, with six student editors and a USU design team, and was best known for photojournalism and longform features, which suited its long production cycle. There was full page photography and artwork, printed in colour, first on glossy paper and then, from 2015 onwards, on matte paper. The magazine featured regular sections, from ‘The Time I Tried’, to ‘Shutter Up’, to ‘Udder Bullshit’.

It was always focused on feature articles and evergreen stuff,” says Mary Ward, who edited BULL in 2015, its final year.

“It was print campus media for people who didn’t care about campus politics.”

For that reason, BULL was often seen as the more accessible version of its SRC counterpart, Honi Soit—now USyd’s only regular, student-run print publication—a publication described by a former BULL editor in Hijacked as “beholden to egos, cliques, politics and editorial snobbery”.

Ward, who is now a lifestyle reporter at the Sydney Morning Herald, remembers visiting the BULL stall at her first OWeek in 2012. The magazine was her first foray into student media, and she says that, at the time, it was “definitely better promoted [than Honi]”.

“Anecdotally, I would say there were more BULL stands but that could’ve also been where I was walking.” It certainly makes sense—the USU has more funding than the SRC and operates more as a business than a union. So it had the tools and the incentives to market BULL aggressively.

But this commercial mindset also means the USU thinks in terms of profit and loss. And BULL fell on the expenses side of the ledger: according to the USU’s Director of Marketing and Infrastructure, Alistair Cowie, it cost over $10,000 to produce annually.

And yet BULL’s circulation was dwindling. Eventually, the USU decided they couldn’t justify the outlay. BULL’s print cycle was slow; it had no immediacy, and struggled to keep up with the fast pace of culture in the internet age.  

So, just like that, without student consultation, BULL was put out to pasture. The USU Board voted, in camera—that is, in a secret session—to end publication.

Soon after, the USU gave up the licence to BULL’s domain name, meaning most of the magazine’s online content is now inaccessible. Some issues have been published on the print hosting website Issuu. But only editions from 2011 to 2015 have been uploaded. The library carries issues from 2009, but four years of BULL’s history have been lost.

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In 1987, Alistair Cowie was a first year at the University of Sydney. He had four print publications to choose from. Cowie says he read them all.

The Union Recorder was Sydney University’s first news publication edited by students. Dating back to 1921, the publication preceded Honi Soit, which first hit the stands in 1929. The Recorder chronicled decades of student life, and was put together by three student editors. It fluctuated between weekly and fortnightly print cycles.

There was also The Daily Bull, short for the daily bulletin, an A4 newsletter advertising the events and services provided by the USU. “It showed you what was happening today, listed what was on special in the bistro, what happened at Manning at lunchtime, what club and society meetings were scheduled,” he says. “And it always had a joke of day.”

The short-lived bi-weekly Union Eyes publication was introduced in Cowie’s first year, but would only last for two years. In this era, colleges were putting out publications, literary journals flourished and individual clubs had their own print newsletters.

And of course, Cowie would devotedly pick up a copy of yours truly.

Then, in 2006, came VSU. The SRC, the USU, and its clubs and societies lost millions of dollars of funding. The Union Recorder was remade as a short-lived annual, and the USU’s sole and flagship publication became a monthly magazine: The Bull. With fewer pages and lower quality paper stock, it was a less expensive publication than The Union Recorder.

“Then it grew again and became the BULL we knew until a few years ago,” Cowie says.

It’s easy to wax nostalgic about the days before VSU and the personal computer. The truth is, much of the content that was once in print still exists: it has simply migrated online, where the kind of daily updates published by The Daily Bull now find a home on Facebook pages or USU press releases.

Though Cowie says he loved BULL, he is positive about evolution and change. “It’s important to not keep something just because it’s been there for a long time. If it’s not working, look for some other way.”

John Hopkins, who edited Honi in 1991, is surprised that Honi is still in print. “‘For how much longer’ is probably the question.”

In the days of The Union Recorder, Hopkins says the SRC’s newspaper was much more political, as the hard-left controlled the SRC and “controlled Honi in many respects”.

The Union Recorder was a lot more conservative in the way it approached issues but Honi was very much the more radical magazine.”

Hopkins says his team ran on a ticket to make the paper more tabloid-like in style and “a bit more fun”.

Now a lawyer and CEO, Hopkins says he remains “nostalgic for old print”.

University Historian Julia Horne adds that print publications allow a reader to flick through and grasp what people are doing on campus. In her role, she penned an homage to Honi Soit for the library’s website in 2016, after the Rare Books & Special Collections unit digitised the archive.

“A digital platform can make it a little bit more difficult to quite quickly reflect on campus culture in the way that print can,” she told me.

Labelling herself a “dinosaur” and a “print person”, Horne says she is fond of picking up a paper where an editor has curated the content for you, giving a cohesive sense of the things that are happening and what they mean. “That’s a little bit harder to gage on an ever expanding digital platform.”

In 2018, Honi Soit is the sole independent student-edited print publication on campus.

***

The USU signed BULL’s death warrant, making the decision to, in Cowie’s words, “go where people are, which is mainly online”. Enter PULP, an exclusively digital platform, notorious for its gif-laden Buzzfeed-style listicles.

In its first two years, PULP was edited by two students in salaried positions. This year three editors were hired, and managed a group of 87 contributors.

The 2019 editors will each be paid $12,333 ($43,334 per annum, pro rata, on the basis of 14-hour weeks during semester), compared to BULL’s $3,000 honorarium paid to each of its six editors. Next year will also see the USU set out formal KPIs for its editors, instead of the traditional “expectations”.

This year, PULP scored its very own website; previously, it was just a tab on the USU’s homepage. But a glance at the traction of its Facebook page shows engagement is still low, with articles rarely breaking more than ten likes. There are some big exceptions, though: the article announcing the 2019 PULP editors received almost 100. This points to PULP’s status as the darling of the MECO and stupol social scene—and little else.

This insularity is understandable: rather than walking around campus and picking up a copy from stands, the new outlet requires people to seek out the Facebook page itself, or be friends with enough people who engage with PULP’s content. As Ward puts it: “[BULL] was inherently less cliquey because it was print media.

One of BULL’s greatest strengths was the voice it gave to writers who had no interest in the stupol world of Honi. PULP has stuck with this mission for accessibility: it has introduced weekly face-to-face pitch meetings, where reporters bounce ideas off one another and flesh them out with the editors.

Similarly, PULP has been able to attract new contributors with cold hard cash. As Cowie explains, “We pay contributors a small sum to thank them for their work.” Writers receive $10 for a regular article and around $20 for breaking news.

Content wise, it’s clear the USU hopes PULP can cover much the same ground as its predecessor. USU President Liliana Tai says she hopes the publication “is able to provide students with information about student and USU activity on campus, provide political news as well as pop culture analysis, and publish opinions from a diverse range of student experiences.”

But it would be wrong to presume that PULP is simply BULL transplanted onto a website. When the medium changed, so did the range of possibilities for content and packaging. There’s no clearer example than PULP’s focus on video content. Tai has championed the move to multimedia programming, and in 2019, one of the three editors will be dedicated solely to video production.

In general, PULP hopes its contributors will receive a taste of the work demanded by the modern media landscape. Current PULP editor Noah Vaz says that the skills learnt from managing an online publication have been invaluable—from CMS management, to creating a website, to doing regular reporting on readership statistics.

If PULP can sustain a commitment to multimedia, it will be a first for USyd, where digital content makers have consistently struggled. That’s not for want of demand: USyd Update, the now-defunct video producer, flourished at first, publishing 80 videos at its peak, in 2016. But once its initial leaders moved on, the organisation collapsed.

Similarly, this year’s Honi editorial team promised it would “stoke the fire of student media with weekly videos [and] captivating podcasting stories”. As it stands, ‘Heat for Honi’ has published eight non-election videos this year and zero podcasts. PULP hasn’t done much better. According to Cowie, PULP’s 2018 editors agreed that one video a week was a realistic target. The reality was one video a month, ten over the year so far.

And where PULP has added different styles and formats to the BULL model, it has also taken away. Much of BULL was centred around illustrations, 2015 BULL editor, Tom Joyner, told me. “We had softer content around campus culture, a lot more photography and illustrations … more of a visual component.” Take, for example, Joyner’s photo essays on identical twins and student housing, to name a few. PULP, in contrast, last published student photography in 2016, with a piece by Karen Lin on how to curate the perfect Instagram feed.

The 33 photographers and artists who worked for BULL in 2015 have had scant role to play.

“PULP doesn’t have the same unique identity that has grown out of [a decade],” Vaz says. “One of the goals and challenges of both the USU and the PULP editorial team will be actually finding out what that identity is—what is going to make it distinct from other media.”

He says that identity doesn’t necessarily need to be editorial content, but also could be visual style or the way the publication markets itself and creates a brand. “[For] other solely online news outlets such as Buzzfeed or Junkee, in their first years, crafting an identity was a priority beyond just publishing content.”

Cowie says the outlet is still a “young beast” that still has the chance to reinvent itself from year to year, unlike its more established peers. “Honi changes culture every year too,” he says, “but there’s a long history there.”

“The [Honi] ship has sailed in the same direction but has veered side to side,” he says, while PULP is still setting its course.

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As much as PULP is defined by its predecessor, BULL also shaped its competitor: Honi.

The two publications played vastly different roles, each more or less sticking to its lane—BULL with its considered, slow journalism, Honi with its fast, weekly print cycle. Where BULL was pop-culture oriented (my first print article was a BULL piece about television bloodbaths), Honi held University institutions to account and had its finger on the pulse of student politics.

But the dichotomy wasn’t always this clear. Former USU Vice President Rhys Pogonoski, who began uni in 2008 and spent eight years at the University of Sydney, still calls the magazine ‘The Bull’, although the name was shortened during his time on USU Board in the early 10s. He says The Bull attempted to embrace the news cycle in its early days, challenging Honi at its own game.

In those days, before The Bull became “irrelevant”, Honi would “slag on The Bull a lot”. He says the USU’s publication worried Honi, which cared enough about The Bull to make fun of them from time to time.

But the overall effect was positive. Pogonoski thinks Honi had more to be accountable to when The Bull was around. “If Honi had fallen off the rails … I think The Bull would’ve picked up the slack and challenged it as a publication to be valued on campus”.

BULL also gave Honi an incentive to be different—something to react against. Pogonoski says he saw Honi take on more of an activist role over his time on campus, pushing an agenda and promoting “political viewpoints in the interest of [the editors].” It’s possible this radicalisation began as something to mark Honi from its less political competitor.

As The Bull grew into BULL, abandoning news reporting for pop culture, Honi’s niche changed. It doubled down on news. During the years where BULL and Honi co-existed, the latter paper regularly had two or three or sometimes even four pages of news.

Honi was more responsive to what was going on,” Pogonoski says, citing ‘09 to ‘11 as his favourite years of the paper. “[In those years] it was biting and it was edgy and it was not answerable to anybody.”

But, once BULL was dead, the pressure was off: and in the last three years, Honi has taken over some of the acreage once grazed by BULL. Photo essays, prose and poetry, for example, have found a place in Honi. This year, Honi did not have a regular news section, instead choosing to break news online. The paper was also printed in full colour for the first time, and emphasised creative design elements in what was once a sparse, monochrome layup.

With no print competitor, Honi has the freedom to straddle both worlds—newspaper and magazine at once.

But for some, there are parts of BULL that Honi will never revive. Ward, who also edited Honi in 2016, points to culture articles that Honi’s heavier tone would just not accommodate. “We had a great group of women who would contribute really good fashion commentary each month,” she remembers.

And for Joyner, Honi will always present higher barriers to entry: though there are sections of Honi that anyone can read and enjoy, says Joyner, much of the news, analysis and even features, require an understanding of campus life. “You have to be a bit more engaged in student affairs and that’s certainly not everyone on campus,” he says.

Having two print publications on the stands fostered a better campus culture, and also reflected and promoted higher student engagement. “The more vibrance and diversity in student voices on campus the better,” as Joyner put it. As a microcosm of the community at large, university is the perfect place for print media to thrive, and it’s a shame that even a pop-culture skewed magazine for a small, specific audience with tailored content couldn’t survive.

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It’s a fact of life that things change. USyd is different now; more and more students are spending less and less time on campus thanks to a whole bunch of factors, including a competitive, insecure job market and unaffordable rental prices in the Inner West.

Unless free food is involved, those who are on campus often don’t have incentive to participate in campus life. Manning Bar sits empty. Women’s Collective meetings, which used to attract 60 odd people, can now barely crack a dozen. And there are lower pick-up rates for student newspapers.

It’s a fact of life that things change, and it’s sad. A lot of students will never know what it’s like for more than one student publication to sit on the stands.

But my hope is that the USyd community changes to not only support this old rag but also a more diverse range of student media. There is still room for new outlets, whether you want to restart USyd Update, kickstart a crime podcast, or create a Mandarin news site. If it could happen anywhere, it’s here.

A shorter version of this article appeared in print. The article has also been corrected to reflect Cowie’s first year of study.