Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Student media: SA’s ugly duckling

Submitted by Lionel Faull

On National Press Freedom Day last October, Daily Dispatch deputy editor Andrew Trench gave a lecture at Rhodes University in which he mentioned the “juniorisation” of South African newsrooms.

As deputy editors go, Andrew is pretty young himself. But his point was that there is a yawning gap in age, skills and experience between the crusty old warhorse-journalist generation of yore and the wide-eyed, bushy-tailed, scrubbed-and-shiny lot fresh out of university. Andrew argued that this “juniorisation” — caused by cost-cutting in newsrooms — was a threat to the credibility of the country’s journalism and, in a roundabout way, a threat to its freedom.

“Shit-shiner” Llewellyn Kriel’s bye-bye at the Sowetan occurred (in part) because he was outspoken in drawing attention to the lack of skills and training that junior reporters demonstrated on a daily basis. I think I know what he means: when we Mandela Rhodes scholars were presented to our patron, Madiba, last month, there was a large media contingent in attendance. I was interviewed by two young women from Die Burger, whose first question to me (a big interviewing no-no) was: “So, how does this make you feel?”

My argument is that “juniorisation” is not a bad thing — everyone must start somewhere — but more resources must be invested in practical student journalism at university level. Such an intervention would ensure that young journalists arrive at their first job with a much better grounding in the fundamentals of journalism than they do at present.

I studied a BA at Rhodes University, majoring in both journalism and English literature. During my third and final year in the journalism department, I was part of a group that conceptualised and planned the launch of a student newspaper called the Oppidan Press. Our publication was to rival the long-term student publication Activate, formerly Rhodeo, which we believed had grown stale. Our initial start-up budget from the SRC was a whopping R100. Our first print-run was to cost 44 times that figure; we went on to publish a dozen more editions in 2007, all paid for through advertising.

While we received a lot of assistance — mainly advice — thanks to the individual goodwill of many people, we were given very little institutional support by the journalism department, the SRC and Rhodes admin. The Oppidan Press survived through sheer willpower and deservedly enjoys more security today. Our achievement has been to invigorate the student media scene at our university. What is more, in the two years of our existence, we have given hands-on editorial and managerial experience to 50 young people who would not have had this opportunity before.

My point is that student media have a crucial role to play in the future of South Africa’s journalism, yet it is a sector of the media that is paid very little attention and, in most cases, is not taken seriously at all.

There are four suggestions I would like to put forward:

1. Partner with academic departments
At Rhodes, as at many other South African universities, student newspapers receive their funding from the SRC’s annual budget, which in turn comes from the powers-that-be in the administration. While this source of funding is better than no funding at all, it means that university governance structures have student publications by the short and curlies.

I would argue that student publications at campuses with a department of journalism (or the closest equivalent) should receive 50% of their funding from the academic department at the very least.

The first reason for this is because the department is more likely to nurture the principles of a free-speaking publication than the university administration would. The second reason is that student newspapers are the most immediate and obvious practical training ground available to the academic department, and as such should receive more resources and skills investment.

2. Create a student media association
There needs to be much more knowledge-sharing between student publications. At present, there are a few sporadic and low-impact attempts at doing so, such as the annual Captivate conference held at Rhodes University and an editors’ forum on a blog (which has probably disintegrated through disuse by now).

The problem is that the editorial staff at student publications tend to change entirely at the beginning of every academic year. This creates a leadership vacuum in which any long-term cooperation initiatives cannot happen. The answer is for the student media to form an association and employ one full-time executive coordinator (preferably with a background in student media) on a fixed contract of, say, three years.

Of course, this costs money that would need to be procured using a fair degree of pragmatism. All association members could pay an annual fee, as the initiative is first and foremost for their benefit. The rest of the money could be found with the buy-in of a combination of national media and educational institutions — both public and private — in whose best interests it is to foster a vibrant organisation of South African student journalists who will develop in time to become South Africa’s finest.

3. Build partnerships between universities
Not all universities and technikons in South Africa have their own student-run publication. Fort Hare doesn’t, and that is only an hour-and-a-half’s drive away from Rhodes, which has two student publications.

Surely with the accumulated knowledge we have here at Rhodes it would be possible to offer our colleagues at Fort Hare direct, hands-on assistance, including sharing our training programmes, our advertising (advertisers could buy ad space in both publications simultaneously) and our best and most relevant content? These partnerships would be further aided by the existence of the student media association mentioned above, which could steer the partnership in the long term.

By increasing the number of student publications across the country it extends the opportunity for tomorrow’s leaders to engage and interact with the media in the societal microcosm that is the university. Fast forward 10 or 20 years and more leaders will both understand and appreciate the need for independent media in society generally.

4. Rewards and recognition
At present, there is no nationally recognised student media awards system. What better way to raise the profile of student journalism than to expose the public to some of the best work being penned by the country’s bright young journos?

An awards ceremony would provide the incentive student publications need to aspire towards excellence. It would also raise the profiles of the universities that host award-winning student publications. Universities would lap up the publicity and (maybe) give some more play to the leash by which their student publications are held.

The prizes could be merely symbolic (big, shiny gongs) or financial, or both. Were financial rewards to be introduced, this could be directly reinvested in the newspaper’s equipment, facilities or training.

Finally, in the absence of a genuinely inclusive national student publication, I am sure that an annual edition of South Africa’s best student journalism would be hot property across all campuses and would also be relevant as an insert in the country’s mainstream media. Furthermore, advertising profits from this publication could be ploughed back into the costs of administering the awards.

Who would fund the awards? In the absence of a smiling, open-palmed philanthropist who just might see the value (and publicity) of recognising the work of the future custodians of South Africa’s fourth estate, perhaps the money could be sourced from a variety of media institutions that are best-placed to benefit from the steady flow of switched-on journalism graduates each year.

Lionel Faull is broadening his mind with a master’s degree in English literature, but his ultimate destination is training and developing young journalists on the African continent