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March 8, 2010 | by  | in Features |
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Student media: What might become of us under VSM?

Salient Editor Sarah Robson looks back at the long history of student media, the awkward relationship that exists between magazines and the students’ associations that fund them, and prospects for student media under Voluntary Student Membership.

The magazine you hold in your hands right now gets a whole lot of its funding from VUWSA. Did you know that? This situation is true of many student magazines across the country. This reliance on students’ associations for funding makes magazines like Salient particularly vulnerable in the event Voluntary Student Membership sweeps through tertiary institutions across the country. If the umbilical cord between student media and students’ associations is severed, can magazines like Salient survive?

Like the New York Times, but not

Most people spend no longer than four years at university. Few realise the extensive history that precedes their arrival at a particular educational institution. Few realise what has gone before, and the events and controversies that have shaped students’ associations and the universities themselves. Even fewer understand how these often chequered histories impact on their experiences as a student in the present.

The collective memory of students here at Victoria is short, and traditions are hard to come by. This is where student media—in our case Salient—is useful. The shelf full of bound copies of Salient in the office is the collective record of over seven decades of student experiences and history at Vic. Student media has stuck around through thick and thin, documenting for all to see the fuck ups, controversies, and sometimes successes, of the students’ associations and tertiary institutions they report on. In many respects, student media is like a ‘paper of record’. To go out on a limb here, Salient is to VUWSA and Vic students what the New York Times is to, well, modern Western history.

From the outset, Salient has been driven by students, and has endeavoured to be “an organ of student opinion”. Otago University’s student magazine Critic takes the honours for being the longest-surviving student publication, turning 85 this year. Auckland University’s Craccum first went to print in 1928. Salient, Critic and Craccum continue to dominate the student media landscape, and remain the three largest publications on university campuses across the country. But what future is there for student media under VSM? Is there a future? Will student media, as one of the few true student traditions, survive in some form or other?

It’s not all bad puns and controversy

The purpose of student media, at the most idealistic level, is to inform students about what is happening at university and in the wider community. Salient’s founding father A.H. Scotney announced in his first editorial in 1938 that “the spirit of the times demanded that any suggestion of Olympian grandeur or academic isolation from the affairs of the world should be dropped and should be replaced by a policy which aims firstly to link the university more closely to the realities of the world; and secondly, to comment upon, rather than report in narrative style, the activities of the college clubs”.

Addressing contemporary issues intelligently and with insight is something Salient has always strived to do over its 73-year existence. Student media has more freedoms than most other news outlets. It can push boundaries and cover stories barely touched on by the mainstream media.

Over the years, the purpose of student media has evolved into much more than simply a source of student-relevant news. Simon Coverdale, Craccum co-Editor in 2007, says that most students see student media as a form of entertainment or escape.

“If you’re reading a magazine in a Monday morning lecture, or on the bus home, the chances are you’re not finding out about some new institutional policy on campus.

“You’re trying to drown out the hum of the engine, the drone of your lecturer, the clatter of your own internal monologue telling you that you are going to fail this course and lose your girlfriend.”

Analiese Jackson, Editor of the Massey University Albany magazine Satellite, says that student media “gives students, regardless of whether they have aspirations to be world-famous journalists, or just want a platform for freedom of expression, a chance to express their views through the power of the press”.

Student media’s true realm of influence is on the university campuses where the magazines are distributed. Salient is made by Vic students, for the consumption of Vic students. Beyond the university context, student media barely rates a mention. It doesn’t feature on the radars of most members of the general public—unless of course it is making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Former Salient Editor James Robinson says that part of the problem for mainstream perceptions of student media is its portrayal as—or willingness to play—the clown.

“This is multi-faceted, but sometimes by seeking controversy, rather than attaining controversy through a strict adherence to telling the most unpleasant parts of issues, news, stories—it becomes the slightly clownish drunk in the corner of the room, rather than the edgy outsider who might drink a bit too much, but is willing to say what others won’t. There’s a fine line and a big difference between those two.”

Making trouble for the sake of making trouble is not advisable.

“When student media goes to battle, it needs a clear point and objective, it can’t keep being controversial for controversy’s sake,” Robinson says.

“For the most part, student media does what it does really well. It is just when it makes headlines it can damage itself by perpetuating a stereotype that plays against acknowledgment of how good it really is.”

In bed with the exec?

For as long as Salient has been around, it has been funded by VUWSA. The inevitable costs of the magazine have been covered by the association’s members. That’s you. This means Salient is accountable to those who fund it—students. You are the primary stakeholders in the magazine. We’re answerable to you.

Despite the reliance on VUWSA for funding, Salient has retained its editorial independence. This is guaranteed under the Salient Charter, which is part of the VUWSA Constitution. Confused? Basically, Salient has the right to “criticise and comment on the performance of the association and its officers”. This means if the VUWSA exec does something questionable with YOUR money, we can freely report on it, so you—the VUWSA members—know what’s going on.

Should Salient hold back on reporting actions of the exec that may have a damaging effect on the reputation of the association? “I’m inclined to say no,” says 2007 News Editor Laura McQuillan.

“It’s comparable to Sean Plunket not reporting government scandals on Radio New Zealand because they pay his wages.”

There is a fine balance between being a mouthpiece and critic of VUWSA.

“I think the VUWSA exec realise that if they fuck up, Salient can, will and should report on it. Because even though VUWSA funds Salient, the students fund VUWSA, and that’s who Salient has a responsibility to,” McQuillan says.

Not made to make money

Magazines like Salient were never meant to make money. While Salient does get some of its income from advertising, the magazine still relies on the funding from the association to keep it running in the style to which it has become accustomed.

In the event VSM comes in, and Salient’s funding from VUWSA is slashed, can it survive on a shoestring budget? Craccum has been doing it since 1999. Despite the minimal budgets, Craccum has consistently produced a high-quality magazine over the last decade. It placed second last year (behind Salient) at the Aotearoa Student Press Association (ASPA) Awards, and won the Best Publication title in 2007.

But making a good magazine doesn’t come without its struggles.

“The primary limitation is money, and the ability to fund more staff and writers, and things like working pens. Once you get used to that, it’s actually pretty fine,” Coverdale says.

“The culture at Craccum has generally made very good use of limited resources—in fact it probably helps during the whole [process of] thinking outside the square, and doing something better than what you normally would’ve done with, say, a working pen.”

In the event VSM does eventuate, Coverdale thinks the big three magazines will survive—in the short term at least.

“They have the weight of history and tradition behind them, as well as very large universities and—comparatively—large advertising budgets behind them.

Critic and Salient will just have to get used to dealing with the kind of budgets that Craccum has had for so long.”

If VUWSA funding is withdrawn, advertising revenue will be key to Salient’s survival.

“If Salient was no longer funded by VUWSA, you could initially forget accountability to students and their interests and legitimacy. The magazine’s entire legitimacy would rest on economics,” Robinson says.

“No dosh from VUWSA means that immediately Salient needs to run like a business.”

One association where a successful business model has been implemented is the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA). OUSA owns a company, Planet Media, which incorporates both Radio One and Critic. An advertising and sales team sells ads for both entities.

When an appropriate business structure is in place, perhaps enough revenue can be generated from advertising to sustain magazines. But this is not without its problems.

“With no VUWSA money, Salient all of a sudden must respect the power of the advertiser a lot more,” Robinson says.

“Serving student interests as explicitly would be more difficult, because you’d be trying to put together a magazine that is friendly and enticing for corporates to want to place quarter-page plugs for cellphones.”

For small publications, like Satellite, the situation is more dire.

Jackson says “with absolute certainty” that “without funding from students’ associations” magazines like Satellite would cease to exist.

“Being in the Auckland region, we are competing with three other student mags in the region,” she says.

“From an advertiser’s perspective, the most viable place to advertise is with the magazine with the most potential reach, meaning that while the Craccums and Salients of the world would receive a lot of revenue from advertisers, the little guys lose.”

There will be tensions to negotiate if student media does have to become more reliant on the whims of advertisers. Accountability to students will become less of a concern in an environment where the drive for more advertising revenue dictates the shape and nature of the magazine itself.

Would the kids miss it much anyway?

Would it be that much of a shame if student media disappears off the face of the planet? The answer to this question lies in the quality of the publications being produced on campuses up and down the country.

“It depends on how good the student media is, and how much they [the students] care about it,” Coverdale says.

“If the students care deeply about it, then it will probably be the last area to go. If it’s awful and no one reads it, then I guess it won’t be such a loss to students.”

Student media plays an important role in students identifying themselves as students.

“I think part of the appeal of the magazines as they are is that you can go and pick them up from the stand and feel like you’re part of a special group—it’s a way of identifying yourself as a university student,” Coverdale says.

Robinson believes Salient would be missed.

“There would be an outcry. Maybe some wouldn’t miss it. But most people read Salient.”

He adds, “Salient gives the university some colour. It gives it a history, a document and some attitude.

Salient, Critic, Craccum—the big three in my day, were and are great magazines, and a point of pride compared to other universities’ efforts. Students don’t take this into account, or might question it, but I always thought Salient was a great reflection on the average intellect of Victoria.”

Whether you use Salient as toilet paper, or read the magazine cover to cover every week, it’s important to know that it is your money that keeps Salient trucking along. This is your magazine. Make the most of it while it lasts. Even if you just use it to wipe your bum.

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About the Author ()

Editor for 2010, politics nerd, panda fan and three-time award-winning student journalist.

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