Matt Nippert - apprentice hack, Auckland

Monday, May 17, 2004

Compromising values
[A bi-weekly column critiquing student media]

Apologies in advance for those who got up before 9am on Sunday, and to those who listen to National Radio. I'm sure there's not too many of you in either category, let alone both. This column is derived mostly from a discussion on National Radio's Mediawatch programme where a rare glance was cast on student media by its professional counterparts. Not a long glance, but certainly a critical one.

Discussion swirled around the rebranding of Critic down in Dunedin, from newsprint to gloss. Their website even received a pretty makeover, including flash animation. Salient, part way through 2003, also upgraded their production values. All these improvements cost money. The topic for discussion: is this investment in appearance undermining the spirit of student media?

Salient editor Sarah Barnett, myself, and Chris Trotter, left-wing columnist for the Dominion Post and the Independent (the pro-business New Zealand version, not the liberal British one) were hauled out to discuss the issue. Trotter was editor of Critic in 1981, when 5,000 students graced the campus (compared to close to 20,000 now).

Trotter argued yes, student media has gone down the critical gurgler, albeit symptomatic of wider social changes. I argued no. Trotter had history behind him: The glory days of protest during the Vietnam War and the Springbok Tour. Taking a flick through the archives in any editor's office, and you'll find treaties urging Pacific decolonisation, even editorials against the war - the Second World War. (You'll also find potty-mouth-poetry, and reams detailing the joy of LSD.)

Judging from the response the week following Critic's shiny relaunch, Trotter may have a point. A vast majority of letters to the editor decried the new format. (Although, predictably, most complaints concerned how poorly the new version served as toilet paper.)

I guess the real issue is the potential of the medium. The constraints and pressure of commercial publishing means content needs to be popular, or else ratings decline along with income and bankruptcy results in silence. But student magazines aren't in a position to go bust. Their financial outlays are relatively minor, no plush buildings, few travel expenses, practically no paid staff and no exorbitant management board. (There's always students association subsidies to fall back on - and at around $4 per student per year, this is hardly a severe burden if spread amongst all students.)

Therefore there's real potential, on those pages, to push commercial constraints and boundaries. A recent letter to Craccum said they liked the 2004 edition because 2003 only aspired to be Listener-lite. While commercial media is required to be entertaining, student media can also be informative. Which is preferable: a Listener-lite, or amateur FMH? Or more pointedly; which is best for students?

It is important to provide interesting content, but the of raising what should be interesting but isn't right now shouldn't be underrated. The political issues (and dare I say it, the politicians) of tomorrow will come from campus discussion. Are dangerous dogs really our biggest problem? Is the Treaty irrelevant? Student media pages are a good a place as any to hammer these issues out.

Will a reliance on advertising, and a ramping up of production values, ultimately undermine what is an amateur forum where ideas drive the publication, not an eye on the bottom line? Let's take a look at the last two years:

During World Cup season last year, Critic, stonewalled by All Black media handlers, instead chose a foreign team to cheer, interviewing the captain of Uruguay. Craccum talked to John Pilger following his incendiary interview with Kim Hill. Need I mention the Helen Clark feature in Salient last year?

This year, after only nine issues, there has been some entertaining and encouraging signs of alternative commentary and dissent. A review in Latin of the Passion of the Christ in Salient. A strident (although raw) critique of the increasing commercialization of Auckland University in Craccum.

While the Sunday Star-Times took a simplistic approach towards explaining the rise of Don Brash in running a 'Don Brash-Pauline Hanson: Spot the difference' front page, Critic talked to a former leader of the New Zealand National Front – about why he liked the National leader so much. Brent 'Snake' Gebbie, Lower Hutt panel beater, was annoyed because he’d formulated racial policy long before the Brash "ever even thought of it." (Brash even responded with a letter to the editor - a sure sign student media is hitting a nerve.)

There is, however, less activism on campus, less call for revolution from student organs, and even less response from students these days. Chaff editor Anne-Marie Emerson says that "Today's students, the majority of them, have grown up in the post-Rogernomics era. A lot of them are cynical and seem to believe things like protesting are pointless." Trotter does seem to have a point. The great political battles seem to lie in the past.

Has the fire gone out of student bellies? Has the sea of commercialism washed over and eroded the revolutionary barricades of years past? Perhaps the last word is best left for Nick Henry who wrote in a guest editorial for Salient last year that Trotter and other "left" branded mainstream columnists have "taken on a particular function, to act as proxies for the establishment, the kneecapping heavies of the corporate media."

I guarantee the Dominion Post doesn't take that line. I'm not so sure about the Independent.