Working for a student newspaper can be fantastic: You have great access and unrivalled opportunity to report on your university, your student union and your fellow students. This comes with a healthy balance of risk: You could upset your lecturers, your publishers, and even risk getting kicked out of university. Learning how to strike a balance is vital.
Some of the challenges of student journalism would be familiar to anyone who has worked on a local paper. The UK’s biggest university has only 36,000 students, and most have many fewer.
Reporting on a small community means mistakes will come back to haunt you: Get the name of the student union president wrong and you’re likely to hear about it.
The unique difficulty in reporting for a student paper is your dual role. By day you’re a student, signed up to follow all the rules and obtain your degree. By night, you’re an independent voice holding your institution to account.
These roles can be in conflict, and if your university also funds or publishes your paper, things can quickly get sticky.
There are a few guidelines every student journalist should bear in mind. It’s rarely a good idea to report on your own tutors or friends. If they’ve done something newsworthy, help out a fellow hack and give them the byline – they’ll likely return the favour down the road.
Few stories are worth jeopardising your relations with your tutors, who may be your referees when it comes to getting jobs.
If there’s any way you can publish your paper without university funding, this is a great step towards editorial independence, though conflicts with your university can still cause trouble.
A staffer on the Oxford Student, published by Oxford University Student Union, recounted a story they planned to run on the Vice-Chancellor’s expenses, using information obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
‘When we approached the university press office for comment they said we were exaggerating and in the end we ditched the article,’she said. ‘It’s probably not a good thing, but from our point of view it wasn’t worth the hassle.”
With independence comes the risk of getting caught in student union office politics. In 2003, up to 10,000 copies of Leeds Student, the newspaper of Leeds University Union, were pulped after printers at the Yorkshire Post took offence to a pull quote – ‘Tony Blair is not even worth being called a cunt’– in an interview with rock band Mogwai.
But the article’s author, Andrzrej Lukowski, now a music editor for Metro, said a dispute between the student union executive and the newspaper had more to do with the spat.
‘It wasn’t the real reason,’he said. ‘You get tensions building up over time between people in unions who aren’t used to dealing with criticism, and you get people on the student newspaper who aren’t familiar with the concept of compromise.”
Upsetting your university can risk your degree. Patrick Foster and Roger Waite were nearly thrown out of university for a story. As first year students they ran a story on flaws in Oxford’s IT system, which allowed them to view live CCTV pictures. The university pursued them and suspended them for several months, though on appeal this was reduced to a fine.
Waite, now a reporter at The Sunday Times, said: ‘It actually worked out for us quite well. Patrick and I were able to get work experience on nationals off the back of it. But in terms of the story itself, it wasn’t a big enough deal to get kicked out of university for.
‘It’s your job to hold the university to account – whether financially, morally or legally. You really are the front line. That includes tracking people down and taking them to task.
‘But you must be aware of what is and is not right, and what your defence will be if they come after you.”