student journalism

Publish or perish: Why student journalism matters

It would be most apt to say I stumbled upon student journalism. In Michaelmas of my first year in Oxford, whilst others were enthusiastically writing opinion articles or applying to be section editor for one of the student papers in Oxford, my evenings were spent making friends and getting adjusted to life in Oxford.

But once one term had lapsed, I felt like I wasn’t making the most of my Oxford experience by not having gotten involved with an extracurricular activity. Around then I saw people reshare posts about The Oxford Blue being established. “A new voice for a new decade”, it called itself. It sounded exciting and ‘cutting edge’, something my inner American was missing, and a few weeks later I was a fresh-faced and wide-eyed News Editor. 

My first article was entitled “Magdalen College elects first female president”, in Hilary 2020. It was an “easy one”. I had a press release from the college, and I just had to paraphrase it a bit, add an image, and make sure it fit The Oxford Blue style. Except I was agonizing over it for hours. My Google search history consisted of journalism blogs and Wikihow pages on ‘how to write a news article’. When it was finally published, it was an ecstatic feeling. I remember proudly sharing the link and feeling a sense of accomplishment. Reading it back now is incredibly humbling, because the mistakes are popping off the screen.

Eleven terms of student journalism later, I am back to being a News Editor, after working my way up, down, and around the journalism scene. I’ve been on the staff for all three papers in Oxford – The Oxford Student, Cherwell, The Oxford Blue. I founded The Oxford Tab in 2021. In total I’ve authored over a hundred articles and probably edited two or three times that. And I’ve definitely ruffled feathers. Lots of feathers.

Be it the university, colleges, the Oxford Union, or the SU, student journalism is an independent check to those in power, and that’s why it upsets them. Last year, Former Editor-in-Chief of Varsity Jacob Freedland dubbed student journalism a “middle finger to authority”; and whilst it’s not intended to be provocative for provocativity’s sake, one of its primary functions is to provide public accountability for institutions, campus ones included. Freedland said to me: “There’s just something amazing about the freedom to mock, ridicule, or report on important figures that would otherwise get a free ride. It’s a cornerstone of student life.” He and I had a long chat over coffee last term about all things student journalism, bonding over similar struggles and indulging in the drama of it all. 

On that note, what was almost more significant than writing my first article was receiving my first legal threat. In 2021, when I headed The Oxford Blue, I was working on an investigation into an illegal party at the Oxford Union under Tier 2 lockdown restrictions. ‘Partygate’, if you will. I worked with over ten sources from inside the Union over a month-long period, and published the story after a long internal battle with other editors and the Editorial Board, who were (rightfully) worried about a lawsuit. The unfortunate thing about student newspapers is that they are so precariously run that should a lawsuit materialize, it would bankrupt the entire paper.

As soon as we published, as expected, an email landed into the inbox accusing the paper of defamation, asking for an apology to be issued, and threatening further legal action should demands not be met. We stood our ground, knowing that we had published information that was factually accurate. Nonetheless, there was a constant fear that senior editors might be personally legally liable. Since then, the Union and officers within it have sent tens of legal threats and thrown around fabricated defamation accusations under the guise of ‘fact checking’.  

And it’s not just the Union. One of my fellow editors was sent a legal letter from a prominent Oxford college. In this instance, we sent a reply after consulting a mentor of hers who was a former editor of a national paper, and no further action was taken, though she was banned from entering that college’s grounds. Another editor was sent a pre-action letter after writing a comment piece about Oxfess. 

…the impact of student journalism has far-reaching consequences.

The university I have to give a certain degree of credit for being more affable than in the past. Gone are the days when Cherwell was banned for publishing an undergraduate sex survey, and editors were fined by the proctors for publishing certain stories. Nonetheless, safeguarding their reputation is incredibly important to the university, and they will go far to ensure this takes place. For instance, when I wrote “Oxford University staff guilty of sexual misconduct towards students were allowed to keep working” earlier this year for The Telegraph, the university double checked several times that I’d be including that there was action taken in certain complaints – the staff just weren’t removed. Whilst working on another story that remains unpublished, I was inundated with phone calls and emails from the Press Office. 

This is because the impact of student journalism has far-reaching consequences. A few months ago, a student journalist who went on to win the Polk prize for his story wrote a piece in Stanford’s The Stanford Daily, titled: “Internal review found ‘falsified data’ in Stanford President’s Alzheimer’s research”. The story was republished in national and international newspapers, and led to resignations from within the administration. Former Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Student and incoming Journalism Masters Student at Columbia University Alex Foster said, “There is no better way to hold university institutions, societies, and its governance accountable than student journalism.” And whilst national newspapers sometimes cover university affairs, Pieter Snepvangers from The Tab added: “No one else has the knowledge or contacts student journalists are able to build up.”

But despite its utility, journalism is in mortal peril worldwide. In the past couple months, Buzzfeed News shut down, VICE News scaled back massively, and Galdem Magazine has come to an end. In the UK, over 250 newspaper titles have been lost in less than 20 years. Britain now has fewer local papers than at any time since the eighteenth century.

“Student journalism is a lot like local journalism – really important and often under-appreciated,” current The Oxford Student Editor-in-Chief Ayomilekan Adegunwa noted. The biggest problem, I think, lies with funding. In the time that I’ve been at Oxford, I’ve seen Durham’s Palatinate have its funding cut from the SU, forcing it to fundraise to stay afloat independently. The same happened with LSE’s Beaver. Oxford’s Cherwell is set to lose its decades-old office this year due to financial struggle, given it finances itself independently via subscriptions. After COVID-19, over half of the UK’s student newspapers fear closure due to budget cuts, and most have had to drastically cut down on their print issues. Oxford’s The Oxford Student has itself had to go down from printing weekly to fortnightly, though we still receive funding from the SU. Snepvangers told me candidly, “I do fear for the future of student journalism. For the past decade, we’ve been able to combat declining print readership with students reading our stories through social media sites and particularly Facebook. As students increasingly move towards TikTok, student journalism will have to adapt to stay relevant among our audience.” The same is unfortunately true of national newspapers such as The Times, who, whilst I was on work placement, were running a workshop for their editors on how to more effectively use social media. 

Not only is the student journalism scene in Oxford a microcosm of journalism nationally, it’s also a pipeline. Over 40% of British newspaper columnists are Oxbridge graduates and oftentimes from independent schools, slightly less in editorial staff. Whilst this is a problem, it also bestows upon Oxford a great responsibility, to train the journalists of the coming generation and to expand access to those from all backgrounds, especially those from state schools. The Oxford Student’s Head of News Martin Alfonsín Larsen told me, “I got involved with student journalism to improve my writing, ideation and editing skills.”

“Student journalism is a lot like local journalism – really important and often under-appreciated”.

Former Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Student Lauren Shirreff is now an Editorial Graduate at The Telegraph. She said, “[Student journalism] is important because it genuinely improves your career prospects so much. It gave me skills and experience to get onto my grad scheme, but even if you don’t want to go into journalism it helps too.”

Former Editor-in-Chief of The Oxford Student Madeleine Ross is on the Trainee Scheme at the Mail Online. She also attributes her current job to her involvement on the student paper. “Writing that much and editing is the best way to get better at being a journalist and also teaches you other things, including when in a story to ask for comment or how much to annoy a press officer. The variety of opportunities available is unique and allows you to figure out what you most want to write,” Ross said.

But perhaps student journalism ultimately matters because it’s fun. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people who like writing, editing and keeping up with the latest. Former Editor-in-Chief of Cherwell Pieter Garicano said exactly this: “Getting involved with…any of the many other student papers is worth doing even if you don’t think journalism is your thing. Possible at any commitment level, it’s a great way to meet people from other colleges, see another side of the university, and have lots of fun along the way.” Shirreff also added, “Writing about bops or your college cat is still well worth it,” 

It sure reigned true for me. The social, pub trip and crewdate opportunities are endless. Former Oxford student journalist and now Assistant Editor at Conservative Home William Atkinson sarcastically concurred (as he always does): “Student journalism is an excellent excuse to drink a lot of wine in mid-table Indian restaurants and to commission your friends to write your sixth piece that term on the evils of the Oxford Union”.

In some ways the camaraderie represents how the student journalism scene in Oxford is flourishing. Tens of students apply for the chance to be an editor, tens more write their first-ever article, and many graduate and go on to work at some of the biggest global media houses. Like clockwork, the cycle continues – and alas, as a finalist about to leave in a few weeks, I know I will miss it.

Image credit: Own image via Anvee Bhutani.

Image description: Anvee Bhutani in Radcliffe Square, standing in front of a large Cherwell banner.