Student journalism: innovative or indulgent?

Helena Snider – Student publications show that young people care

Some critics think student journalism is pointless. Yes, people read The Tab, because, after all, who wouldn’t want to know which Harry Potter character most aligns with their college atmosphere?

The Tab does what it does well: it entertains (apparently over 11,000,000 monthly readers globally, according to their page). Fun, silly, trivial, yes – but not what people generally associate with earnest student journalism.

I’m talking here about the kind of student journalism that you would envisage pre-Tab days. The type that’s earnest, conscientious, noble, and that has a somewhat small readership. In other words: Palatinate.

Imagine twenty or so stressed students sitting in a seminar room on their Tuesday evening, discussing whether a broken window on Hawthorn Terrace constitutes a good news story, and that’s essentially an accurate depiction of what most student journalism entails.

The University doesn’t want a bad press. That’s why recent Palatinate pieces hold such power

So what do student print publications try to do, and why do they bother? With online news easy to access (and often free), it seems needless to have students writing on current affairs when there are experts out there who arguably have better resources, training and wider knowledge.

It might be tempting to launch into a frequently reproduced speech about the importance of students making an impact through investigative-led pieces. Yet I am not claiming that student writing is going to help solve global issues – and this is a fact of which I’m sure everyone on the Palatinate editorial board is well-aware.

I am not suggesting that student journalists, when writing pieces about terrorism, international security, or Trump’s latest shenanigans, are adding anything significantly new or innovative to the debate. Much of the time, student journalism is neither earth-shattering nor widely impactful.

Student journalism provides a voice for the issues that students care about on campus – and surely the fact that students are looking out for each other helps maintain some level of accountability in Durham.

Student journalism is about discovery and sharing for curiosity’s sake

The University does not want a bad press, and this is why recent pieces like ‘Durham University: money-grabbing, shameless, and shambolic’ hold such genuine power in a small academic community.

Concern for whether the University then acts in response almost misses the point. We want a culture in which young people care about things. At some point down the line, it became cool to be dispassionate, cynical and indifferent. This sense of cynicism has long been associated with youth culture.

Older generations characterise us as unhappy and disaffected, and too lazy or self-involved to do anything about it. See any op-ed about the ‘Snowflake Generation’ by a patronising middle-aged man in The Telegraph, and you’ll see what I mean.

Student journalism is the proven antithesis of this view. Student journalism is about caring. It’s about discovering new things and sharing them for curiosity’s sake. It’s about spending hours poring over edits or trying to master InDesign when you should be writing essays in the library.

The benefits of student writing lie in the skills harboured from this research, and also, most significantly, in the process of students engaging in the outside world, through whichever means possible.

Student journalism shows ‘the adults’ that we care and are willing to take responsibility for our future. That we will not be taken advantage of or go unheard. And this is where the power lies. Even if no one reads it at first.

Illustration: Faye Chua


Alexandra Beste – more ‘student’ than ‘journalism’, to be brutally honest

The irony does not escape me here: a student writing an article for a university newspaper arguing against student journalism? It seems I’m making the opposing side’s case for them, just by stringing these words together.

Arguably, however, criticism is best delivered from within, and perhaps the principal aim of this article is to reconsider the self-proclaimed merits of student journalism.

The term ‘journalism’ itself requires clarification. Journalism is bound to the pursuit of truth through unbiased and accurate research and investigation. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find a student exclusively and wholeheartedly motivated by this sense of obligation.

Often, it is only reporting on reported news

CVs need to be filled, and little else looks as shiny as a university newspaper or magazine. And so the emphasis in ‘student journalism’, though we desperately want to place it on the latter word, should really be laid on ‘student’.

Of course, there are certainly students driven by a genuine desire to write, but they cannot fully devote themselves to the cause of journalism. Multiple commitments to academia and other extracurricular activities also demand attention, and unavoidably result in time constraints and a split focus.

Low readership begets wanting journalism

If the roots of student journalism are in question, then so are its fruits. Entirely original, individual reporting appears to be missing in student articles on topics ranging from politics to sports, science, and business, as they largely draw on prior stories or secondary sources for facts, statistics, and quotes.

This borrowing robs the journalistic process of its key tenets. It is no longer about event attendances, interviews, and field research. Instead, we aggregate information and mould it anew. In its most honest definition, student journalism is reporting on reported news.

Here I flip to the other side of the coin – the reader. Or, as I dare to suppose, the lack of one. How often do you see a student newspaper being read, compared to how often you see one merely lying around?

University news struggles to reach its target audience. Palatinate can serve as a case in point. The fortnightly paper publishes 4,000 printed copies of each issue for Durham’s nearly 18,000 undergraduates and postgraduates.

Low readership, if nothing else, must surely reflect an existing apathy towards student journalism. News-enthusiasts turn to prominent, reputable press agencies instead of student papers for their information, while students otherwise indifferent to reporting remain indifferent, despite the propinquity of their university’s papers.

The journalist’s voice shouting into the void is an undeniably disheartening image, especially when taking the students who are turned away from university press writing into consideration. Many undergraduates and postgraduates have ideas, notions, and important things to say – but do not perceive student journalism as an adequate medium. Even as I am writing this very article, I do so with the assumption that only a small minority of students at best will ultimately read it.

Perhaps, however, the matter of student journalism is less a two-sided coin, but rather a double-edged sword. Student journalism begets low readership, which in turn begets wanting journalism, which lacks accountability and engagement with its readership.

If this is the case, then student journalism needs to make greater use of its main assets, starting with local news. By affecting all attending students, the news in and around university gains a relevance, which needs to be fostered through veritable live coverage. This should not be the job of any group of people other than student journalists.

The most impactful reporting emanates from local news: investigative journalism. At its core, investigative research serves as an indirect check on institutions and authorities. Universities, while being centres of learning, are also money- and influence-wielding establishments that require a counterweight to protect the interests and rights of students, faculty, and other members of the university network.

Perhaps there is some unfulfilled potential

Journalism is obligated to truth, but beneath this commitment lies a deeper sentiment for change. However, in the case of student journalism, both the writers and readers often fail to uphold their part in bringing about change. Without proper scrutiny, student readers are kept disengaged and unaware; without active readership, there is no one for the reporters to inform and inspire.

The flaw seems inherent in student journalism, but perhaps the vocation has an unfulfilled potential. And so I leave you with an appeal – an appeal to prove me wrong.

Photograph: Jon S via Flickr and Creative Commons

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