Edge of the sword, tip of the tongue

A look at the history of student journalism, and where it's headed in the internet age.

Step onto any Australian university campus, and you’ll find all manner of things among the sandstone, bluestone or brown brick facades. One of the things you’ll probably spot pretty quickly is a copy of the local student magazine. There are roughly forty of them out there – generally one for each campus – and they come in all manner of shapes and sizes. They also have a range of accompanying backstories – there’s a long history and contemporary culture behind them.

That history stretches back around a century. The oldest currently existing student magazine is Farrago, at the University of Melbourne, founded in 1925. Over time, student magazines have played important and sometimes controversial social roles, small and big. That history stretches from playing a big part in the 1960s commentary around the Vietnam War, to being accused of inciting shoplifting in the 1990s.

So, how do student magazines work?

“Student action and debate has long been a staple of public life, and the coverage and commentary in student media has long distilled that”

Student magazines are generally led by a team of editors. Sometimes they’re elected, sometimes they’re appointed, and sometimes people just kind of find themselves as editors almost by accident. They’re supported by student contributors, some of which might have formal roles – big, established magazines often have a volunteer staff of over 100.

They have enormous potential to shape the development of students. Some of Australia’s most notable writers, public figures and politicians have come out of student media. Laurie Oakes edited Honi Soit – and so did some members of The Chaser. Christos Tsiolkas and Nam Le edited Farrago. Nick Xenophon, now in the limelight amidst South Australia’s election, famously edited On Dit – the beneficiary of a dodgy election.

These magazines provide an opportunity for young writers and journalists to cut their teeth. That might mean finding their first big scoop, or seeing their first major piece or creative writing in print. That opportunity is particularly notable today, as the parts of the world of journalism become tougher to get into and more and more demanding.

They also play a more direct role, being among the biggest and oldest media outlets outside the mainstream media. That means they often aim to cover the voices or issues that are under-reported elsewhere. They obviously play an inherent role as a platform for the voices of young people and students, who often are indeed under-represented in the media. Student action and debate has long been a staple of public life, and the coverage and commentary in student media has long distilled that. University campuses serve as many people as some city councils, with student media often the only major outlets covering them.

All that gives student media a sizeable opportunity and potential role, and at times that has been controversial. In the 1960s, student magazines worked to reveal the shortcomings of the Vietnam War, the death penalty, university administrations and anti-communist measures. That’s probably a contrast to today, where outlets play less of a role in being actively political. “In 2017, it’s hard to imagine a student newspaper creating any sort of political waves,” wrote Sally Percival Wood, who recently published a book on Australian student media in the 1960s.

“The rise of the internet, social media and blogs has led to a decline in the importance of the campus as a physical space”

These fights between student media and the establishment are sometimes less broad. In the 1990s, La Trobe University’s Rabelais published an article teaching students how to shoplift. It was picked up by other student magazines, but the government wasn’t happy. It was banned on the grounds of allegedly inciting shoplifting and faced protracted legal actions.

Roughly two decades later, Farrago published a student’s account of a negative experience interning at the Herald Sun. The reaction from various players in News Ltd was swift and serious. Meanwhile, Honi Soit would face a backlash from its own SRC, which ordered its Vagina Soit front page to be hidden. The cover, deemed pornographic in some quarters, sparked fairly critical debate.

Despite all these, the biggest debate of all, perhaps, is around student media’s continued role. The rise of the internet, social media and blogs has led to a decline in the importance of the campus as a physical space. It’s also led to a decline in the uniqueness of student media as a publishing platform for students. There’s a lot more opportunities too – to reach new platforms, to find new stories and to try and tap into more audiences. Whether they do that, and deliver more parts of a rich history, remains to be seen.

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