Tim Watkin - guest speaker, Auckland

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Well spoken

This is Tim Watkin's speech from the 2004 Aotearoa Student Press Association (ASPA) awards, in association with the NZ Listener.

I first heard talk of ASPA, or an organization something like it late on a Friday night in 1990. I was lounging in some old couches in a student association building somewhere. It might have been Canterbury, but I can't be sure.

It was a student media conference - an annual end of year event then paid for by the Student Arts Council, that gave student newspaper and radio types a bit of training before they embarked on another year of conflict, controversy and consciousness-raising. The old heads would hand on wisdom to the new blood and with any luck those new ones would get a loose idea of what de-fa-ma-tion meant. Often, they didn't.

I was only a news volunteer and dj on Radio Massey in those days, so if my memory serves, it was actually the radio news folk I was sitting with that Friday night. BFm weren't there of course. Even back in those days they were way too cool and independent for the rest of us. But the other stations had a notion to share news. To have national student news bulletins, alongside the local campus fare.

In a rare moment of solidarity, we decided that, although we had different ideas of what news was and what the student media was for, we could do something pretty impressive by working together.

There were attempts at getting it started in 1991, I think, but they didn't get far. It was the next year before we really tried to make the idea work.

There was this new thing called the internet being talked about, but we couldn't figure out how to make use of that. However we did have the technology to record sound off our office phones. So every Friday morning stations would send news items to each other down the line.

Well, that was the plan. It was uneven to say the least - some weeks everyone sending, some weeks only one or two.

Still, the idea had captured my imagination. I began wondering how we could start sharing news amongst the student newspapers and mags.

At the end of 91 I was appointed news editor at what was rather grandly called Massey Media News. I was responsible for three news bulletins on Radio Massey every weekday and a couple of pages of news each week in Chaff.

So I set off for the annual training conference and found other student editors and news editors were thinking the same way. We wanted to share our resources and offer students national news. In the transient world of student media, where staff often last only a year, we wanted a constant standard bearer. We wanted a way that the bigger papers could help the smaller ones and we wanted consistent employment contracts across campuses. After years when newspapers tended to either squabble with or ignore each other, we wanted to be able to talk to each other and share the pressures and pleasures of getting something out each week.

As Nicky Pellegrino, the editor of the Women's Weekly said to me last week, no-one knows the hell and terror of filling a magazine EVERY WEEK unless they've done it themselves.

And as one former student editor reminded me this week, we wanted to nick stuff from each other when we couldn't fill the pages.

It was at that November 91 conference that we coined the name ASPA and declared ourselves into existence, certain we had started something big.

Of course, all we had done was put four letters in a row. It took more than two years before ASPA became a legal entity, in early 1994, and it wasn't easy getting there. We needed support and annual quota money from the student associations, and of course the student politicians were nervous of student papers getting bigger and more professional. They weren't sure about standardized employment contracts either.

So we trailed our thread through the maze of student politics only half believing we'd make it out alive.

We had to work out relationships with NZUSA and NZUSU. We had to lock funding in place. Would we become a trust or an incorporated society? What would our statement of principles be? In true, earnest student fashion we spent a LOT of time on our principles. I remember sitting in the Nexus offices, at Waikato, arguing priorities and word changes for long hours.

That was another joy of being in ASPA. You got to go to conferences in the grooviest places. Like Hamilton and Palmerston North.

I dug up an old training manual this week to find that old statement of principles. I don't know whether you still adhere to it, but I was surprised at quite how practical it was. There's a lot in it about freedom and responsibilities, but it begins:
ASPA, the Aotearoa Student Press Asociation, is a democractically organised co-operative whose members exchange news, promote awareness of issues affecting students, organise a national annual training conference and an annual staff conference, and promote the sharing of skills and strengths in the student press - from writing and desktop publishing, to solving management and administrative problems.
Pretty solid stuff. And we even spelled it all right.

Speaking to some of the editors from those early days, they will tell you of the excitement and passion they felt as we tried to build the foundations of the ASPA empire. In those early days, we even got some traction in the mainstream media. We told newspapers that wanted to run our stories they could treat them like an NZPA story, as long as they gave them an ASPA by-line. So in some old newspaper files somewhere those letters ASPA sit alongside NZPA, AP, and Reuters.

We also designed a logo. It looked like a jack they throw on the road in movies to burst the tyres of a chasing car. But it was actually. The seven-pointed snowflake! In those days there were only seven universities and ASPA was university media only. I can tell you, when Satellite was set up at Massey Albany and wanted to join, and when polytech papers came knocking, there were big arguments about quality control and who was good enough to be allowed in. It was like China joining the WTO - is it better to let them in and bring them up to scratch by working with them, or do we remain aspirational, not letting them in until they've reached a certain standard?
But the snowflake became the symbol for our first award ceremony way back in 93. Where actors fought for their Oscars or golden globes, we battled it out for a snowflake. Winners were given not precious statues, but little plastic snowdomes. The ones you find in tourist shops, which you shake to make the snow fall. Ah, the glory.

I think most of us here who started our media careers on campus do feel a small sense of glory when we look back to those days. We like to think we're better writers now, or better editors, subs or photographers. But what we did then - what you do now - had a certain purity about it. A belief, not in the bottom line, but in the power of knowledge and the privilege of disseminating that knowledge to as many people as possible. A belief that journalism without the constraints of big business could change the world just a little bit.

Much of that world-changing came down to scrapping with student politicians, however. I'm proud to say in my two years in student media - first in Palmy, and then at Craccum here in Auckland - both student presidents faced a vote of no-confidence thanks to the work of my volunteers.

Chaff was a crazy place in 92. The editor Rich Hillgrove turned it into a News of the World-style red top. He wanted scandal, and, to my dismay, he even ran a story once about a monkey taking control of a train.

I was all about serious news, and wouldn't let him near my copy. He controlled headlines though. So we had this bizarre mix of screaming scandal and hype up top, followed by carefully worded, broadsheet-style stories below.

The week winter tourney was cancelled because of a meningitis outbreak, we, with our usual sensitivity, put spots all over every face in every photo in the paper.

Then we ran a story about a bar manager, the campus bar and a missing $20,000. We were very careful about defamation. But not careful enough. The students' association eventually had to settle with the bar manager, but the president's over-reaction in closing the paper down for a few weeks while we wouldn't run an apology led to his rolling. So, lost one, won one.

Then I came to Craccum and learned what crazy really meant. Elected editors?! Richie and Graham Watson, and Angus Ogilvie. I'd found the hub of true evil, which, as a journalist trying to change the world, was exactly where I wanted to be.

We exposed the late-night revelries when someone crapped on the president's desk, the fist-fights, and the speedboat bought for the AUSA water-ski club, which had about 6 members, all of whom were mates of the student politicians. We had an entire issue kidnapped, later found, from memory, at the bottom of the Mt Eden crater. But then a few years later all of the copies of another issue were burnt, so that was child's play by comparison.

The elected nature of Craccum's editorship has called for some creative campaigning over the years, to keep the Watson gang out of the job. In 94 we wanted Penny Murray to take over, and to win over the bloke vote we hung posters in the gents loos of her vamped up, hair tossed across her face, lips pouting and eyes smouldering. It worked, as did the 'vote for the hat' campaign the next year that won Bomber Bradbury his first year in the hot seat.

It's good to remember these names of past editors and staff because, while the student media still often gets hauled over the coals by the mainstream media in occasional fits of moral outrage, it remains a valuable training ground. Somewhere unhewn talent can start to take form.

Even if many of the lessons are more what not to do, than what to do, your time working for student rags is an opportunity to have a go, to experiment, to try to be better than the lot the year before.

My Chaff experience helped me land a job on the Evening Standard. My Craccum experience gave me an idea or two about - and a love of - feature writing, which led me to the Listener.

And I'm far from alone. You probably all know the roll call of people who used to edit the publications you work for. But look around NZ now. News leaders such as Bill Ralston started at Craccum, as did feature writers such as Peter Malcouronne and Alistair Bone. You might not know that Tom Scott did his first work for Chaff. Jim Mora was editor of Critic.

A start in student papers leads down many paths. There's Jon Bridges, the comedian and Sportzah producer. Bomber on-air at Channel Z. Penny Murray, who I mentioned earlier, is now production editor at the Sunday Herald in Glasgow. Here tonight, are people I worked with. Matt Bostwick, now a big-wig in PR. But we've forgiven him for that... Ellen Read, markets writer for the Herald after a few years in the gallery at parliament.

Student newspapers are great places to apprentice yourself in the trade. But the papers themselves are still important, and not just for vocational training.

They are an independent voice. A voice of irreverence and skepticism that is a treasure to the whole industry.

At times I fear that irreverence can become self-serving. Controversy for its own sake and a gag just for the sake of a gag. People ranting just because they have some column space.

The potential is there for student rags to be more than that. And to those of you who are stepping up to run them next year, I challenge you to reach for that. Even when you're trying to fill the last few pages late at night and deadline is coming at you like a speeding bullet, don't go for the easy option. Think harder. Dig deeper. Write better. Have some fun.

In this training manual they quoted Caroline MacCaw a past editor of Critic. She said: "The continued success and strength of the student press is now in the hands of the newspaper staff each year. It is up to you to ensure the training continues, that information, skills and advice is passed on to your successors and the successors of your peers. There is obvious strength in
numbers - stick together. ASPA exists to ensure the student press remains vital. It's now up to you to carry on the work your predecessors have begun."

It's great advice. But I would add this: Try something different. Don't just traverse the same topics as last year. Think beyond the sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll to other issues that effect your readers. Other yarns that can be told.

Tonight we award the student journalists - writers, cartoonists, photographers - who have pushed themselves that little bit harder to come up with something special.

I rang former Salient editor Andrew Chick this week. Birdie to those of you who remember him. He was Salient's production editor at those first ASPA awards, when Salient won only one snowflake. Craccum and Chaff, I would add, cleaned up that year. But Birdie was determined that next year when he was editor, Salient would do better. And it did - three of four, he thinks. But he was most disappointed that he didn't win best editorial. The great Simon Collins, then editor of City Voice, was the judge that year, and Birdie carefully chose four right-on, intelligent, worthy editorials that he was sure would appeal to Simon. Sadly, he didn't win and still holds the grudge.

No, not really. But the point is these awards meant something to us when we kicked them off 11 years ago, and I hope they mean as much to you now.

Congratulations to all who entered, and especially the winners. Have a great night.