Ben Warner is the chair of the Student Publication Association.
For many journalists, student newspaper or magazine is their first experience of something resembling a professional newsroom. Strict deadlines, the camaraderie of a tight-knit group of volunteers and the pride of publishing something – perhaps even seeing their name in print - are a priceless experience.
But as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, the opportunity for students to develop their journalistic prowess through their campus media and improve their chances of a career in the publishing sector are under threat.
At the SPA, we represent more than 125 student publications around the UK and Republic of Ireland. When we asked about how the pandemic had affected our members, there was an overwhelming consensus that they are worried about their futures.
Three quarters said they are concerned they will never print again. Just over 90 per cent are afraid funding they get from their students’ union may never be restored, and over half said they are worried they will cease to publish completely within a year.
These statistics should concern everyone, from first-years just getting involved, to vice-chancellors and SU chief executives. Without a well-funded, supported student media industry, the next generation of student journalists will find it harder to cut their teeth, hindering their chances of breaking into the industry and widening the gap between those who have connections, and those who do not.
I know first-hand how important student media is because my paper – Forge Press – is where I learned to feel comfortable with carrying out an array of everyday journalistic practices. Student journalism improved my interviewing skills, my nose for a story, and my ability to communicate with marketing and PR teams. I studied journalism as well, but it is the semi-professional experience on my student newspaper where I really thrived, not in the lecture hall.
For many of us within the SPA, and the top journalists in this country, it is a similar story. Student journalism gives people the knowledge and the experience to break into the usually inaccessible media world.
But without a strong base of student media, at every university and college, how will the next generation develop those skills? That first time submitting a Freedom of Information request, or interviewing a band, or filing a Premier League match report – for so many, this experience is grounded in student media, and it is their basis for applying for jobs post-graduation.
For those not trained in journalism, a front-page scoop in their student newspaper, or a Best Reporter award, can be their foot in the door. Without the opportunity to develop that experience, the journalism industry’s efforts to diversify, and to become more inclusive, risk to fail.
There is another important risk associated with the cuts to student publications: the institutions which they could hold to account will lack this extra scrutiny. Some of the biggest higher education stories in recent years, such as racist and sexist abuse on campus highlighted by The Boar, or the fencing in of students in halls as recently as last week, reported by The Mancunion, have their roots in student media before making national headlines.
We are not calling on universities and students’ unions to immediately restore funding to their student publications because these are tough times for higher education institutions. We are simply asking that they are frank and open in discussions with student publications on their campus, that they provide the support they need to make it through this difficult time, and to commit to restoring funding to pre-pandemic levels when their financial situation has improved.
Join us at our next digital journalism conference Newsrewired from 1 December 2020 for four days of industry expert panel discussions and workshops. Visit newsrewired.com for event agenda and tickets.