Vitality for student media

Despite the doom and gloom encircling graduate job prospects, I’ve managed to get a job. Not an unpaid internship, not a training scheme or temporary contract work. Against all expectations, I’ve gotten a good old fashioned job.

I’m sitting in an empty bedroom in Sheffield, waiting to see what happens next. It’s got me thinking about the things I’ve been spending my time on and what they’re worth.

Now that the principal audience for journalists is online (particularly in younger demographics), student media’s emphasis on printed newspapers in particular has come under criticism.

For the past year, my life has been largely defined by two things; my MA in broadcast journalism at the University of Sheffield, and my work with our student media, Forge.

Working with the people of Forge over the last two years has been nothing short of a pleasure.

The nature of student media is often misunderstood, as bigger publications like the Guardian and Independent take aim at student issues and our traditional outlet structure (an old-fashioned printed newspaper, radio station, and if you’re lucky, a TV station) attracts criticism.

Students, staff, the public and even our own volunteers sometimes lose sight of what student media is and what it is not.

A live debate, one example of the kind of hyperlocal, agenda-setting content student media groups can produce.

For instance, Forge is now involved in almost every big SU project. We cover sabbatical officer elections, Varsity, awards season and a whole host of other occasions, delivering live and recorded shows on TV and radio, creating liveblogs, printed pullouts and more.

The Forge Varsity 2016 team, which includes dozens of volunteers working to produce live TV, radio and online output, as well as teams working on highlights videos and reports for a fortnightly newpaper.

These days, it’s very easy for SUs to retreat into a cocoon of democratic jargon, which turns off normal students and leads to a disconnect between the engaged minority and the indifferent majority. Student media done right can bridge that gap.

Staff members don’t know whether to treat us like fellow staff or students. We may complain if the former, but we also complain if we aren’t allowed the freedom to organise our own projects. That pristine freedom is what makes student media different from a course in media studies.

Those involved in student media should be allowed to fail, to try different ways of working, to leave a legacy with the organisation and to conceive entirely new projects. It’s vital that we take on big projects, but it’s also vital that we don’t sacrifice our degrees in the process.

The fourth estate in trouble

If the media industry wasn’t so hard to break into, student media wouldn’t be in such a precarious place. As it stands, unpaid internships are the norm, which most students cannot afford to undertake.

I couldn’t. I saw no shortage of things I’d like to do, and had no problem with giving away my labour for free, but I just couldn’t afford to pay for a bed in London. Parallel with the erosion of local news organisations, this spells trouble for journalism.

It’s an old idea, but there’s still some truth to the claim that journalism helps prop up democracy, checking on the institutions of government just as they check on each other.

If journalism is still the fourth estate we like to tell ourselves it is — keeping a valuable check on power — it needs to be diverse. An echelon of journalists filled only with those who were rich enough or well connected enough to get through the gauntlet is not what we want.

Strong, open student media which takes everyone, gives training, offers big projects and freedom to develop, is one way to defeat the trap.