Is student journalism the way forward for democratising our media?

Existing simultaneously at the fringes of Australia’s media industry and at the heart of campus culture within universities, there is a lot that student journalism can teach us about democratising our media landscape.

Collage by Ellie Stephenson.

When thinking about the characteristics of a healthy democratic society, most would agree that the media plays a vital role. It is the primary vehicle through which information is made public, equipping ordinary citizens with the knowledge to make informed decisions. It serves a watchdog function, exposing the wrongdoing of those in power and holding them to account. 

It can decode complex social phenomena, further aiding in the democratisation of information. It can serve as a public forum, building a sense of community between citizens and facilitating public discourse. It can platform marginalised voices, mobilising the populace to take action on important social issues.

Of course, these are simply ideal conceptions of the media’s role. The reality of Australia’s media and journalistic landscape is that it is deeply flawed, encumbered by financial interests, constant technological disruptions, sensationalist tendencies, and insularity in the voices that are represented. At times, the democratic underpinnings of the media seem lost altogether.

Though things may seem grim, there is, perhaps, still hope to be found. Existing at the fringes of our media landscape are smaller communities of budding journalists, serving niche and underrepresented interests. In some ways, these newsrooms are microcosms of the broader media industry — a training ground for future journalists. But in many ways, they provide a radical alternative to the practices and culture of mainstream newsrooms.

So, what can we learn from student publications about democratising our media?

A radically different alternative

Many student publications have a proud radical history of championing student voices. Many students at the University of Sydney will be familiar with Honi Soit’s long history of challenging mainstream, anti-student discourse, although this isn’t unique to USyd. From the University of Melbourne’s (UniMelb) Farrago, the University of Adelaide’s On Dit, the University of Queensland’s (UQ) Semper Floreat, and the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Pelican, student publications have been at the forefront of advocating for numerous political movements – the anti-Vietnam war movement, women and LGBTQIA+ rights, and Indigenous land rights, among many others.

On Dit, being one of the oldest student publications in the country, has a legacy. On Dit editors in the past have always written about the wars and conflicts and geopolitics of their time,” said former On Dit editor Habibah Jaghoori.

“We have independence in our journalism and we need to take advantage of that every step of the way.”

On Dit Volume 35, No. 11, 1967 (Front cover).

This legacy of challenging mainstream discourse and platforming student interests is often upheld in the issues that student publications report on. Pelican Editor-in-Chief Emma Forsyth described how the magazine covered protests on a number of broader issues such as the Change the Date campaign, climate change, and Roe v. Wade throughout the year. However, Pelican has also been crucial in reporting on campus issues directly affecting UWA students.

“Over the past few years, with COVID and the [anthropology] cuts, there’s been more serious articles to discuss,” she said.

UWA’s education campaign last year. Photo by UWA Education Action Network via Pelican Magazine.

Whilst all editors broadly agreed that the central role of student publications is to represent students’ interests within their respective universities, there were varying definitions of what constitutes “students’ interest”. One recurring concern was the role of politics in reportage.

“While we have views on the issues we’re reporting on, all our reportage for students will just be presenting the basic facts to them. We’re enabling them to see the information, but we’re not trying to force their opinion either way,” said Emma (Pelican).

In contrast, Habibah stressed the importance of taking a position. “Student magazines and publications are always very political,” she said. “On Dit should be a platform where justice is promoted.”

When unpacking the concept of “the political”, Vertigo editor Joe Hathaway-Wilson (University of Technology Sydney) drew a distinction between partisanship and being political: “Non-partisan is not taking a side, apolitical is not touching the subject altogether.”

“I think it’s a great idea to be non-partisan without being apolitical. Student publications should be political without being partisan,” he said.

Editors as elected positions

Partisanship, or factionalism, is also a consideration particularly magnified when it comes to student publications. Part of this is due to the process through which many publications select their editors – through democratic elections.

“In many ways, it makes sense because students’ money goes in the Student Services and Amenities Fees (SSAF), which funds the board of editors,” said Juliette Baxter, Woroni’s Editor-in-Chief at the Australian National University (ANU). She described how, in many ways, editors conceive of themselves as public servants; editors’ honorariums are paid for by students, and they are bound by constitutional precepts to serve ANU students’ interests.

“For the most part during elections, students run on independent tickets [from factions]. Our positions are usually contested, but I think there’s a respectful sense of competition from the candidates,” she said. 

“People vote based on the work and merit of each candidate, rather than it becoming a popularity contest.”

At other universities, especially those with a more active student union like UniMelb’s, Farrago’s editors acknowledged that there would always be a risk of a popularity contest. Although most of Farrago’s editors originate from an independent ticket during elections in a similar way to Woroni, they described their involvement with student politics (stupol) as inevitable.

“When you’re elected, it’s annoying in the sense that you have to become a student politician even though all you wanna do is edit,” said former Farrago editor Jo Guelas.

Although most elected editors across the board came from independent tickets, UQ’s current Semper Floreat editorial team was a unique case; it was put together by the Labor factions at the university.

“I don’t think it’s wrong that you have a political affiliation; we all have political views,” said Semper Editor-in-Chief Billie Kugelman. “I think it comes down to the individual being certain that you won’t allow your faction to deplatform things that need to be platformed.

“I will say that it’s probably not great for an entire editorial team to be comprised of just one or two factions. But I don’t think there’s an issue with being aligned to a particular faction as an editor, as long as you’re open about it,” he said.

Regardless of the influence of factionalism within editorial teams, all editors pointed to the team structure as an important aspect of this selection process.

“You’re automatically part of a team,” said Catalyst editor Savannah Selimi (RMIT University). “It’s a lot of work to edit Catalyst, and I’m glad I get to do it with other people.”

2022 Catalyst Editors (left to right): Vivian Dobbie-Glazier, Beatrice Madamba, and Savannah Selimi,

Student publications and student unions: An unpredictable marriage

While most student publications are constitutionally bound to their respective student unions, Catalyst and Farrago are somewhat unique in that editors are also elected to be office bearers.

“As editors, we recommend to RUSU [RMIT University Student Union] the candidates we think would make good editors. It makes it more contained – if we weren’t part of the student union and we didn’t have to go through elections, it would it be difficult to navigate things like budget and information networks,” Savannah said.

“If you’re editing news, you very much need to have a knowledge of stupol,” said Jo (Farrago). “You’re reporting on student issues, and most of the time that’s related to the student union, or what the University is doing. So it’s really important to know how to live-tweet council meetings or read agenda notes.”

Farrago office, 1991. Source: University of Melbourne.

In ideal circumstances, student unions and student publications have a mutually beneficial relationship. At USyd, Honi has been a powerful force in supporting the SRC’s campaigns against the University’s anti-student policies – our coverage on last year’s Draft Change Plan helped save multiple FASS departments, and this year’s reporting on the abysmal state of Special Consideration helped the SRC pressure management into implementing five-day simple extensions. Likewise, the SRC and USU have been vital in addressing lesser-known issues that Honi has brought to attention, including the lack of a disability space on campus and divesting from unethical sponsors.

Of course, student unions are themselves plagued by a myriad of other issues, which in turn may encumber their ability to support their student publications. At UTS, Joe pointed to the UTS Student Association’s “lack of knowledge” about their obligations to Vertigo as a problem, especially when the publication faced major funding cuts.

“We were very lucky because we got a very generous President and General Secretary,” he said. “But there were conversations going around in Council about whether they actually needed to fight for funding for us.

“Councillors were asking, ‘Is this our problem?’ Of course it’s their problem, it’s what they were elected to do,” he said.

He also noted that the relationship between student unions and student publications are heavily dependent on whoever is in power; student publications particularly struggle when they have to work with a politically conservative union.

“The student union board, the Media Committee and the Independent Media Committee have significant oversight over the work we do,” On Dit editors said in an email.

“For example, our beloved and fellow editor, Habibah Jaghoori, was recently removed as a result of these bodies.”

Funded by students, accountable to students

Perhaps one of the most tangible links between student publications and their student unions is their funding model. Whilst both are funded by students via SSAF, student publications that are constitutionally bound to their student unions are often reliant on their unions for their budget.

“Writing for student publications often allows you to be more experimental and open with your style and ideas than if you were writing for a commercial publication,” said Tharunka editor Laura Wilde (University of NSW). “We don’t have those commercial limitations like selling advertising space or selling copies. It gives our writers more autonomy and allows their voice to come through more honestly.”

Tharunka’s most recent edition celebrated 69 years of publication (via Instagram).

In this sense, SSAF-funded student publications share similarities with other public service media (PSM) such as the ABC and SBS in the broader Australian media landscape. Like PSMs, student publications are better protected from the pitfalls of commercially-funded media, which are often influenced by corporate agendas and incentivised to produce sensationalised news in order to remain financially viable. However, they also face similar issues to PSMs in that they are prone to insecurity in their funding.

“In 2022, we had a situation which had not been seen before, where University management disapproved of Vertigo’s proposed budget, despite the fact that they don’t overlook it directly,” said Joe. 

Although Vertigo’s budget, much like other student publications, is presided over by their student union, an unprecedented intervention by UTS management saw their production budget effectively halved. The magazine, originally slated for six editions over the year, was forced to cancel production on the remaining three editions at the time the cuts were announced. Although Vertigo received widespread support in its campaign to reinstate its original budget, it was ultimately unable to continue with its print run.

At Adelaide University, similar unprecedented arrangements within YouX (formerly known as the Adelaide University Union) have greatly impacted On Dit’s operations and its editors’ honorariums. On Dit editors are required to gain approval from YouX for each magazine to go to print, as well permission before speaking to other publications.

“Thankfully, they let us do this interview with you,” said On Dit editor Chanel Trezise.

Editors from Vertigo and Farrago pointed to ANU’s Woroni as an example of an alternate funding arrangement. Juliette described Woroni as “divorced” from the ANU Students’ Association (ANUSA), as the editorial board negotiates directly with the University for SSAF funding rather than being funnelled through ANUSA.

“It means that we can scrutinise ANUSA without that conflict of interest. We have that freedom,” she said. “But we also have this shared interest to be negotiating for more SSAF funding from the University, especially in the context of declining SSAF allocations to student unions.”

Unfortunately, editing a student publication is not a very lucrative job

In the case of student unions (and by extension, student publications), a major challenge is voluntary student unionism (VSU). Introduced under Howard’s Coalition government, VSU made membership in student unionism optional, significantly reducing the amount of funding available to student unions and thus crippling operations.

Much of the labour involved in student publications is voluntary, and oftentimes occurs concurrently to the regular anxieties of studying and working part-time.

“We try to be conscious that a lot of the work that goes into Pelican is volunteer work,” said Emma. “At the end of the day, we’re all just students juggling a number of other commitments. You can’t really fault anyone for that.”

At Catalyst, Savannah also expressed a desire for the three members of the design team to be paid like the three elected editors, since much of the layup process for the magazine’s five editions throughout the year is dependent on their work.

“I know that we probably get paid the most out of all the universities, but when I was at Farrago I was the most stressed I’ve ever been in my entire life,” said Jo. “We’re all studying. We don’t get paid enough to live off just Farrago so we have to work another job, alongside studying. It’s just insane.”

“We’re editors, but we’re also office bearers, so it almost feels like we’re doing two full-time jobs,” said Farrago editor Charlotte Waters. “I found it overwhelming knowing that as office bearers, our responsibilities are quite nebulous. On top of that, we’re also performing our regular duties as Farrago editors.”

Across the board, editors described a commitment to the underlying democratic principles of editing a student publication. However, they all acknowledged the inherent limitations and material pressures of the role.

“It’s very much not a job you do for the money,” said Laura (Tharunka).

Semper Floreat Volume 5, No. 15, 1936 (Front cover).

Ideal journalistic practices?

Situated simultaneously at the fringes of the Australian media landscape and the heart of campus culture in many universities, student publications exist at a fascinating intersection. Student journalists are doubly privileged in their access to information. As journalists, we are amongst the first to be entrusted with crucial information relevant to our audiences. As students, we are frequently engaging with critical theories and cutting-edge research about the state of our world. Equipped with the practical experience of editing a publication, as well as the academic training to critically examine our social world, student journalists are uniquely positioned to envision an ideal future for the media industry.

“The biggest problem is capitalism,” said Joe (Vertigo). “I think that an ideal journalistic practice is one where that isn’t a factor at all. Where the only agenda behind reportage is to present the facts as they are.”

Juliette (Woroni) also spoke about the insecurity that many journalists face within the industry. “If we could somehow remove the barriers to entry in the industry, things like lower pay or the necessity of existing industry networks, I think the media would be a lot more accessible to a greater diversity of voices,” she said.

“The problem with the media landscape is that it’s so heavily concentrated,” said Jo (Farrago). “We need more diversity in our media, because currently we’re all stuck in this echo chamber of the same narratives being presented.”

“Every decision that a journalist makes is always gonna be informed by something. You can’t have full objective journalism,” said Chanel (On Dit). “And our journalism is informed by ethics and the public good.”

Is student journalism the solution to the biggest issues facing Australia’s media landscape today? Maybe not entirely – it’s clear that student publications are afflicted by unique challenges arising within the university structure. But perhaps there is much to learn from student journalists in creating a more democratic media.