Following the furore in the national press last month about Cambridge’s The Tab‘s ‘Rear of the Year’ competition, Tom Payne, an editor of Exeter’s fortnightly broadsheet Exeposé, argues that student tabloids take focus and funding away from quality investigative student journalism.
Up and down the country, there’s a student media phenomenon brewing – the emergence of the university tabloid. Publications and websites similar to The Tab are producing quick, ‘fun and fast’ alternatives – or perhaps even bitter rivals – to the traditional student broadsheet.
As the editor of the University of Exeter’s own venerable fortnightly, Exeposé, of course you’d expect me to fervently tow the broadsheet line. As it happens, there are aspects of tabloid journalism I have to admire: searing editorial, shocking exposés, and a sense that – no matter how strident the backlash – you’re innovating, thinking outside the box and clearly having fun with it. Those are the things that not only keep you sane on press days, but can also (so I’ve been told) put your paper in good stead for a national awards sweep at the end of the year.
However, while so many student tabloids promise to deliver ‘fun and fast news’, few seem to do it well and I don’t believe there are many students who have ever read their University tabloid un-ironically. In this case the gutter press, and all associations that go with it, seems to cast a gloomy shadow over the student tabloid.
In complete fairness, tabloids are hard to produce. Although it would be unfair to say this about every student tabloid, in many cases scintillating investigations and provocative comment pieces are delimited by irrelevant and crass feature material. The (Cambridge) Tab’s ‘Rear of the Year’ has been used as fodder for the national media, and it’s easy to imagine how other similarly racy features could feed into anti-student sentiments.
It seems that, when it comes to many tabloids, activist student culture rests on its hyper-masculine laurels and surfeits on irrelevance. This is both damaging to university institutions and wider perceptions of student culture. But what makes the stalwart broadsheet any better?
Traditional student newspapers can often acquire a certain degree of arrogance amid student bodies. Seen by many, perhaps, as the cold, authoritative bearers of honest truths delivered accurately and professionally, there’s a fine line between provocative editorial and truthful, fair reportage that students want to read.
The tabloids pride themselves on a readership of students, who, for one reason or another, prefer easily digestible, off-beat news and features – light entertainment, quirky graphics and loud, irreverent headlines. Amid debates over readership, branding and style, the student tabloids seem to be overlooking an essential part of the debate; the importance of the role of student media in itself.
Now of course, there are few things more rewarding than holding your Student Union to account. Newspapers with long, respected histories within their institutions – typically the broadsheets – will invariably boast a proven track record of effective campaigns, investigations and thoughtful comment articles. With that kind of history, it becomes easier to sustain a venerable position as a campaigning voice of student activism. And that is, as the criteria for national student media awards constantly reminds us, among the most important aspects of student journalism.
It’s also fair to say that there’s also scope for a great deal of variety within the pages of the broadsheet student paper, from lengthy, inquisitive features to experimental, off-beat articles in the Arts sections, the broadsheet suffers from no limits on style, tone and register. The tabloid does not have a monopoly over humorous, light entertainment; the broadsheets can have fun too.
Tabloids are hard to get right. We should cherish alternative, experimental forms of student media if produced correctly but, as it stands, many student tabloids do not seem to be fulfilling their potential. Too many offer low quality content, leaving readers with an invariably skewed and limited impression of student life. This is not true of all student tabloids, of course, but it seems like quite an easy trap that many have fallen in to.
When it comes to variety, diversity and activism, the traditional broadsheet stands, as it always has, head and shoulders above its red top alternative.