Losing Student Media

Tracing one likely effect of voluntary student membership

by Sarah Robson

Logan Edgar, President of the Otago University Students’ Association (OUSA), recently shut himself in a cage for 48 hours. He spent two nights outside in the chill Dunedin air, with a live video stream broadcasting his every move to a small, but curious, online audience. He was interviewed – still in the cage after his first night in the cold – by Morning Report’s Geoff Robinson. He was the subject of discussion on breakfast television and on talkback radio. His cause? Opposition to voluntary student membership (VSM).

Just a couple of weeks earlier, Edgar was facing criticism following the recommendation in a Deliotte review, commissioned by OUSA, that Dunedin student radio station, Radio One, be sold off. There was an uproar. In protest, the station went off air for a week. Since the news broke, more than 3000 people have joined the Save Radio One Facebook page. Their cause? Opposition to the threat VSM poses for the continued funding of an icon of Dunedin’s student culture.

While nothing is set in stone in relation to Radio One, the reality is students’ associations up and down the country are looking at ways to cut their costs. If the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill passes, students’ associations will need to decide what services they can afford to keep providing, and what can be sacrificed if VSM is imposed nationwide. Student media is one of those services under scrutiny. Will all forms of student media – magazines and radio stations alike – be facing similar sorts of threats of closure or funding cuts? Is this the death knell for student-run media on campus?

As universities have been founded in New Zealand, students’ associations have been founded alongside them. Established to represent the interests of students in the face of large and looming university bureaucracies, students’ associations have been seen as a central part of student culture. Along with funding student media, students’ associations provide welfare services like foodbanks, advocacy support, and they give grants to sports clubs and cultural groups. Student magazines and radio are two of the most visible services provided by students’ associations.

When a student enrols at a tertiary institution, he or she automatically become a member of the students’ association on campus. Most students are oblivious to the fact they paid a membership levy to join an association, until it is pointed out to them on their fees assessment or invoice. This model of universal student membership exists at every students’ association in the country, with the exception of the Auckland University Students’ Association (AUSA), which went voluntary after a referendum in 1999.

The Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, originally a member’s bill sponsored by ACT Party MP Sir Roger Douglas, makes joining a students’ association optional: it’ll be something you an opt-in to, rather than opt-out of. With the support of National, debate on the bill – now under the guardianship of soon-to-be-retired Heather Roy – is through to the committee stage. It’s unlikely the bill will progress much further before the election, thanks to there being only three sitting days left for member’s bills to be debated, and the filibustering efforts of Labour MPs. This doesn’t necessarily spell the end for VSM, as the bill can be transferred to another MP, with debate continuing when parliament reconvenes after the election.

The move to VSM threatens the ongoing survival of students’ associations and student media. Under the current system, students’ associations have a guaranteed revenue stream, through compulsory membership levies. Under VSM, there is no such security of revenue. Students’ associations will need to get students to sign up willingly, and charging a levy may not be the best way to tempt them to become members. Enter deals with institutions to provide services, and alternative income sources, which may be few and far between, depending on an association’s cash reserves or investment portfolio.

Most student media is funded partly by the respective students’ association and partly by advertising. The introduction of VSM will limit the capacity of students’ associations to continue to fund magazines and radio stations. Some students’ associations have already started reviewing services, setting priorities and assessing where savings can be made. Can that money funding student media be better spent elsewhere? Is student media a necessity, or is it just something that is nice to have, if it can be afforded? The reality is that the withdrawal of students’ association funding will leave many magazines and radio stations crippled.

There is a reason for student media. “They do for the student population what the media does for the general population first and foremost,” says Tim Watkin, former news editor at both Chaff (Massey University in Palmerston North) and Craccum (University of Auckland) in the early 90s. “[This] is provide a voice, ask questions, cover daily life and reflect society back to their readers – and hopefully challenge a few concepts as well.”

Student media, perhaps more so than the students’ associations themselves, has been a rallying point for culture on campus. “It’s that place where students get to reflect themselves and where that culture is played out, where the debates are held, where the music’s discussed, where the politics is held to account, where the bad jokes and often not much better writing is all put out there,” Watkin says.

Jackson Wood, editor of Victoria University’s Salient in 2009, says that student media is the most visible arm of the students’ association. “It helps create community, and a sense of belonging in an otherwise disparate student body that has very little to tie them together. No matter if you’re a BA student or a BSc student, you can always bitch about how bad Salient is, or how stupid the current president is, or that it’s a bit shit that fees are going up again.”

Wood says it’s the job of student media to entertain, educate and challenge students. “They should act as a check on the power of the students’ association and they should nurture young journalists,” he says. “In terms of entertaining, they should be a creative outlet for students to satarise politics, parody mainstream media and point out quirks of student politicians.” This, though, must be balanced with a more serious role, “to keep their students’ associations honest, as well as the universities and the government.”

Striking the right balance between the informative and the entertaining is crucial, says David Large, 2007-2008 editor of Critic, New Zealand’s oldest student magazine, at Otago University. “It’s important to let members know what the association is doing and what its plans are for the future, but that alone would often make for a rather dull read, and it might as well be an association newsletter,” he says. “Student magazines and newspapers succeed – read: appeal to readers – where they can merge the four fallbacks – news, reviews, features and funnies – into a cohesive publication, with a strong editorial voice, while still offering space for student feedback and commentary.”

One of the most important roles of student media – if not the most important – is to be a watchdog on the students’ association and its executive. Student magazines and radio stations play a huge part in ensuring students’ associations are accountable to the people who fund them: students. Student media should be like a press gallery in miniature. “That was certainly how I treated it. And it was great,” says Watkin. He helped set up “very rigorous and critical” volunteer news teams at both Chaff and Craccum, whose job it was to give the student politicians as hard a time as possible and make sure they were accountable. “Student media has that exact same role to student politicians as we in the general media have to general politicians.”

Staff and volunteers in student media should be “cynical idealists,” says Large. “Given that there’s no official place for an ‘opposition’ or shadow student government, student media sometimes has to take that position – to question everything the student executive does, even if those questions don’t make it into print or onto the air,” he says. “If student media doesn’t ask questions, it risks being seen by its readers and listeners as a mouthpiece of the association.”

Wood sees it as an issue of transparency. “Like all bodies of power they need to be watched, scrutinised and questioned. If student mags and radio aren’t keeping an eye on their execs, then the students at those universities probably have pretty shit student media,” he says. However, the very abuses of power and misuses of student money that have been uncovered and reported on by student media have since been used as justification for VSM. During the first reading of the Education (Freedom of Association) Amendment Bill, there were four instances where the misdemeanours of various Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association (VUWSA) exec members were used as examples by ACT and National MPs to illustrate why students shouldn’t be compelled to join a students’ association. Maybe if stories about money being blown on vans or psychic hotlines hadn’t been published in Salient, students’ associations wouldn’t be facing the prospect of VSM.

“It really pisses me off when people – mainly student politicians – assert that if we hadn’t reported on it, then the prospect of VSM wouldn’t be looming,” says Wood. “Student media’s reporting of the antics of students’ associations should not be seen as an argument for VSM, but rather a robust way of holding these bodies to account.”

Some student magazine editors have come under pressure to change the way they have reported on their associations. This hasn’t gone down so well. Wood recalls that as he was coming into the role of editor at Salient, he was asked at the budget setting meeting if he would write “stupid stuff” about VUWSA. “I replied, ‘of course I will, if you do stupid things. If not, then you’ve got nothing to worry about’.” There’s no way Wood would have not reported on VUWSA’s refusal to lay a wreath on Anzac Day – a story that made national headlines. “If ACT hadn’t quoted Salient about the mess-ups of the exec, they would have come down even harder on Salient for trying to cover it up.”

As Large sums up, “it would be self-censoring for student media to deliberately not report on a negative issue, for fear of losing future funding. If the reporters and editors for student media are professional enough – as has been my experience – they’d cover the story to the best of their abilities.” The editors of student magazines have a duty to their readers: it’s their job to tell students how their money is being spent, or misspent, and how their interests are being served by the organisation that purports to represent them.

Though many aspects remain uncertain, one thing is for sure – VSM will mean that student magazines and radio stations will be running on much tighter budgets. As the stoush over Radio One shows, students’ associations are looking very carefully at what services they can and can’t afford to provide in a more limited funding environment. Tough calls will need to be made.

“The bigger mags are better suited to dealing with VSM because they have the clout, the advertising dollars and the history to stand up to their associations, but smaller publications might get shafted,” Wood says. Editorial independence may even be curbed, in exchange for cash. “VSM may encourage the mags that aren’t monitoring their execs to do more,” he says, “but sadly it is likely that associations – who see student media as a threat – will cut their funding or make them their lap dogs in exchange for funding.”

Large thinks it is inevitable that some magazines will simply disappear. “Unless there’s a student executive that values the intangible cultural benefits of having a student magazine – students knowing that they can have their voices heard, have a venue for discussion, and gain valuable writing, reporting and editing skills – I’d expect to see smaller magazines, or even unprofitable larger magazines, simply cease to exist.” The magazines that can rake in the advertising dollars, though, might stand a chance. “I’d expect that profitable magazines would always be kept running,” Large says. “Unfortunately, it’s much easier to see positive cultural value in profitable organisations.”

Given the slow and uncertain progress of the bill through parliament, it’s been difficult for students’ associations to plan for the implementation of VSM. However, the wheels are in motion, with most students’ associations in negotiations with their respective universities over service agreements and contracts. “Student media is one the many services we are discussing with the university that we believe should continue to be funded if VSM is introduced,” says VUWSA President Seamus Brady. “It’s an essential part of the student experience and contributes a lot to the vibrancy of campus. It’s also an important mechanism to keep VUWSA and Victoria accountable to students.” However, Salient and Vic’s student radio station, VBC 88.3FM, can expect to be working with smaller budgets. “VUWSA will always continue to support student media, but under VSM, we will have less income and the level of funding it receives currently receives will not be sustainable,” Brady says. “Both Salient and the VBC 88.3FM sell advertising, but neither is capable of being fully financially self-sufficient in their current forms. Student media at Victoria has existed in various forms with varying levels of resources for close to a century, so I am confident that will continue. We just need to it ensure it remains to be independent and adequately supported.”

Kent Gearry, President of the Massey University Students’ Association (MUSA) in Palmerston North, says the practical implications of the introduction of VSM are huge. For Chaff and Radio Control, VSM will mean a greater focus on generating revenue through advertising and sponsorship. Gearry says they still want to be able to support student media, however, he admits it will be hard to cover any potential financial losses. The outlook is a little more bleak for one of the country’s smallest magazines, Satellite, which serves the student population at Massey’s Albany campus. Albany Students’ Association (ASA) President Sumrie Tachibana says they are currently working with Massey University to secure a service agreement, and as part of this, they have requested that the university continue funding ASA’s student media. “If they come back with ‘no’ then we will not have it anymore, simple as that,” Tachibana says. “To provide a service, we need people. We employ an editor and a designer – together they make an equivalent full time position. If we can’t fund people, then we can’t fund student media.”

Bigger publications with long-standing traditions and reputations, like Salient and Critic, might stand a chance under VSM – students at Otago and Vic consistently rate their respective magazines among the top services provided by the students’ association. Radio stations have often been a bigger drain on students’ association finances than magazines, potentially putting them at greater risk of going under with VSM. A lot will depend on how much students value their magazines and radio stations, and whether they are prepared to put up a fight to save them if they are under threat. Craccum, the country’s biggest student magazine, has managed to survive under VSM, but only just.

Auckland University’s Craccum has been dealing with the realities of VSM since 1999. Budgets are tight, editors are underpaid and resources are few and far between. The magazine relies heavily on advertising for its funding, mostly in the way of selling full-page, glossy colour ads. Craccum serves the single largest student population in the country, and it beats out both Salient and Critic in the circulation stakes – it’s size and notoriety make it an attractive prospect for advertisers, putting it at an advantage over a lot of other student magazines.

Despite the favourable advertising conditions, 2009 Craccum co-editor Matthew Harnett says the magazine has never managed to run at a profit – the difference between advertising revenue and operating costs continues to be covered by AUSA. “Without the monetary support of AUSA, it wouldn’t be possible to produce Craccum.” Although it could be argued that catering to advertisers is a modern inevitably, even within student media, Harnett says this is no guarantee of adequate resourcing. “Essentially we had the worst of both worlds: we had to cater to advertisers – essentially by not alienating them and therefore moderating our content – while still dealing with a chronic resource shortage.”

Thanks to VSM, AUSA can’t afford to finance or resource Craccum to the same degree that other students’ associations can support their magazines. “Both my co-editor and I brought in our own computers form home to produce the magazine, and were between us paid an honorarium much less than the minimum wage,” Harnett says. “We were lucky to be paid at all: Craccum contributors certainly were not.” As a comparison, the editors of Salient and Critic are paid a reasonable full time salary – though they aren’t paid for the many hours of overtime they work – and they have budgets that allow them to appoint paid news and feature writers.

“Craccum had a far harder challenge in attracting the calibre of writer that students at the University of Auckland expect and deserve,” Harnett says. “Craccum’s reputation helped to some degree – writing for us could be considered almost a type of internship – but there is truly no substitute to paying a postgraduate student to research a feature, like the 2009 editor of Salient was able to do. Would we have liked to spend time examining the government’s tertiary education policies with anything more than a cursory glance? Of course. Could we afford to? No way.”

What’s happened to Craccum over the last decade is the best case scenario for student media under VSM. “Craccum’s size, popularity and notoriety mean that it hasn’t – yet – gone under,” says Harnett. “Smaller student publications, or ones whose funding and production isn’t an integral part of their students’ association’s constitution, will have much greater difficulty staying afloat. Even if they do, they’ll face an uphill battle to attract the volunteers and resources to make magazines that do a half-decent job of informing and entertaining the student audiences they serve.”

The worst case scenario? The disappearance of student media altogether. It may be that Logan Edgar’s 48 hours spent outside in the cold, locked in a cage were all in vain. Perhaps his protest was just 18 months too late to save students’ associations, and student media, from the now almost inevitable implementation of VSM.