Between most terms, the editorial team at The Oxford Student tends to totally change, as everyone finds themselves a new position, and those who have already risen to the very top take a seat back where they started. It’s not unlike most other university societies in that respect. I’ve been given the opportunity to stay on as Comment Editor for my second consecutive term, which is a rarity, and my reappointment has forced me to consider what we got wrong last year as well as what went well.
The opinion section in a student newspaper is, I suppose, the part of the paper that tends to try the hardest to be like it’s big brother in the national press, and yet it’s also the section with the hardest job in that respect. We are, after all, only students, still working towards the qualifications that society demands we have before our voice is considered legitimate. For the News section, readers don’t demand to know who the writer is, but they care about the story. It’s the same for Sport. At The Oxford Student, we wouldn’t attempt to report national news or games, but limit our catchment area within those sections to Oxford.
It would be better, perhaps, if the Comment section did the same thing. Cherwell seemed to set their ‘Voices’ stall up in that way last term by focusing purely on Oxford issues, at least for the first few weeks. After a while they moved back to a wider focus, similar to the one we tried to maintain throughout the term. I can’t say whether this was a deliberate move by the team at The Other Paper or whether that’s just how the wind blew through their writing team.
The Scab at The Tab, Harry Hodges, blasted us back in May for publishing too much national stuff. Perhaps he had a point, to be fair; we did try and increase the amount of Oxford-related articles as the term went on. For example, the piece I’m most proud of publishing last term was Tatania Cutts’ article on living in Oxford with the challenge of mental-illness and I don’t want to deny for a second that these pages are the place for highlighting and discussing Oxford issues. It’s our bread and butter, but don’t you want more?
Henry Gillow, who wrote some really great articles for us last term on international issues, warned of the danger of limiting our mindset when I asked him for his opinion on our coverage. In his opinion, “If all that students ever think about is Oxford and Oxbridge, chances are they’ll take that attitude to whatever career they end up in.” This newspaper’s Comment section obviously isn’t the only opportunity in Oxford University life for students to consider world politics but Harry raised another point; “The professionals have worked in journalism all their lives, often joining as trainee writers, or working freelance, before moving up to comment and editorial positions. Obviously they have more life experience, but there can be very few with direct experience of the fields they write about”.
It’s important that we give students the opportunity to practice writing high-quality pieces aimed at exploring issues not simply confined to a small place. Those as talented as Henry will be the newspaper columnists of tomorrow. Just like all other skills, writing Comment section pieces that are going to read by thousands is a skill that can only be improved by practice. If we, the editors, place too narrow a limit on our writers’ scope, we limit the opportunities available to fellow students. We offer writers something that is really valuable. The chance to have their work published. It’s vital that we do our best to make that opportunity available to as many people as possible.
What’s also vital, of course, is that the standard of the article is high. I was really proud of what our writers were producing last term and, to be fair, Cherwell’s team deserve praise too. The merits of a piece should be judged on how it addresses the topic, introduces arguments and rebuts others. The topic itself is important but only insofar as it should be interesting and relevant. I’m talking about our legitimacy to publish pieces on the big issues here, topics that are usually interesting and always relevant.
I’ve written a feature in The Oxford Student’s Freshers’ pullout on how to make your voice heard in Oxford. From The Oxford Union to streaking the Oxford derby, there are a plethora of different ways to do it. As it happens, I think these pages offer every Oxford student one of the best opportunities to express their opinion, and that’s why I work here. We’re really looking forward to the term ahead at the Comment section and we hope you are too!