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What the shit is going on with student media?

Student magazines like Massey University’s MASSIVE have lurched from scandal to scandal lately. Why do they keep doing terrible things? A former student paper feature writer explains.

A cover by Massey University’s MASSIVE recently joined the ever-expanding mushroom cloud of student magazine controversy. It featured a drawing of an almost-naked young student crouched over, wincing at her hair being pulled back, while trying to read a book titled “PSYCH 101.” The drawing accompanied a story on student sex workers.

It evoked national outrage. National Gender Equity Officer, Ella Cartwright said the issue “deserved a cover that was responsible and respectful towards students doing sex work, not one that sensationalises the issue, objectifies the workers and ultimately contributes to a culture of stigma.”

The cover was pulled from MASSIVE’s website and Facebook page, and magazine stands were covered with brown paper and content warnings. But MASSIVE editor Carwyn Walsh, pumped up on some mix of a martyr’s complex and battlefield loyalty, refused to apologise for it when Stuff and VICE interviewed him.

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He was particularly bullish with VICE, explaining that at least he is not a coward, unlike Victoria University’s student magazine Salient, which gave an unreserved apology for an interview they wrote pretending to be the university’s chancellor (student magazines are warzones). He also said that he doesn’t “give a shit” about his job. Except, obviously he does. He’s just saying that because he is very, very cool.

It wasn’t the first time MASSIVE had done something supremely stupid. Last year, it was criticised for its ongoing “Ask Guru” sex advice column, which features an anonymous Guru answering queries from equally anonymous readers. The column is an unmitigated disaster. In one issue the Guru “jokingly” advised a man who wanted to have sex with his girlfriend on campus to starve his girlfriend so that eventually she will “eat his willy.” For a reader who didn’t like the smell of his girlfriend’s genitals, the Guru issued a recommendation to “get out the scrubbing brush”.

Trainwrecks like these often cause frenzies for a time, but die down surprisingly fast. Not enough people connect the dots and ask why these incidents have become almost inseparable to what we think of when we think about student magazines.

In the summer before I arrived at university I read The Secret History. Donna Tartt’s elite Vermont campus setting became my most definitive idea of what university in Dunedin would be like. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I imagined a campus riddled with lounging classics students, obsessive minds and enigmatic plots.

Per usual, reality broke my heart. My bricolage fantasy of berets, black lipstick, and tartan trousers was trampled by Canterbury shorts, jandals, and Scrumpy Hands. To find my ideal community, I had to think harder. I picked up a copy of the student magazine, Critic.

Critic was all satire, in-jokes, hard work and alt nerdiness. I volunteered for the film section. I went to movies for free during the day with little old ladies who snuck in Indian takeaways and chatted throughout. I collected copies of Critic every time I was published in it. The staff at Critic became the apex of society for me. The editor wore detachable collars and faux-fur coats. Everyone was smart, entertaining and weird. They were also several years older than me.

Two years later I was a paid feature writer. The following year a feature editor and writer. In my final year at Critic I was the culture editor and art section editor. I decided to stop there.

Just over six months have past since I was involved in Critic. In many ways I feel the same jubilance I felt in my first year volunteering for it. How could I not? Yeah, it may seem like a bit of a circle-jerk, but student media really can give those involved confidence, community and critical insight. Student magazines also take more risks than many print publications. When they are functioning at their best they are breaking stories, provoking deeper thought and entertaining students.

While I was involved in my student magazine I loathed hearing people proudly assert that they never read Critic, that they only took it as a fire-starter for their flat’s woodburner, or that they did not want their grand entrance into the literary world to be in a lowly student magazine.

But, as an insider reflecting on my time, I now see student media can be thought of as a beast. Student media is imbued with a constant threat of losing control. Although never in a full-time position, I worked in the office often enough to sense it myself.

In the past month, an editorial by Critic editor Hugh Baird has come under fire for its misogynist content. “I’m a huge fan of women’s sports, with beach volleyball being a personal favourite,” Baird writes. He goes on to argue that women in sports are paid less than men because of “disparity in revenue generated” rather than the pay-gap being a case of “unfair sexism”. I imagine Baird also thinks that because there’s a women’s room on campus, there should also be a men’s room, and that reverse-racism is a real and urgent topic. His is a naive, under-researched argument, but placed at the beginning of the magazine its quality and message frames the entire issue.

In the following issue a letter in support of Baird’s editorial began, much like most Stuff comments do, “Why are people so sensitive?” It won “Letter of the Week” and a $30 book voucher. You know, to go towards the writer’s expanding Christopher Hitchens collection.

In my time, I witnessed the pinnacle of student magazine mayhem when an editor I worked for was trespassed then walked off campus by a cop. Later, that editor accepted a settlement package from the student organisation and resigned.

When student magazines go wrong, it’s not just the fault of one young ego. It’s also the fault of student magazines’ problematic structure and culture. Even with a great team, these issues can lead to content disasters and cause long-lasting community upset.

Editors like Baird and Walsh are never really alone in their work. They have a mixed paid and volunteer team. They have contacts for past staff. They are part of, and exist because of, their student organisations (although Critic is editorially independent of the OUSA), which are funded by the universities and therefore student levies.

What editors and writers for student magazines often don’t have is time, or a history of editing, management, and writing experience. Along with a weekly print night, often ending in the early hours of the next day, comes a huge pressure to fill a magazine with content, especially when several volunteer writers pull out at the last minute. This means that important stories and final tasks like writing editorials are the products of binge drinking V  i.e. rushed and without research.

Sometimes too, the bar is lowered and poor content escapes any critical filtering, making its way into the magazine when the best move would have been to cut it entirely (I let this happen once when I was a feature editor but travelling at the time. I still grimace at the article that slipped through).  

Annual staff changeovers also mean that suggested long-term fixes vanish or are actively discarded by new staff who wish to set themselves apart from their predecessors. The old staff get the hell out of there, pray that someone will take their advice, then let it all go. The alternative is being an ex-staffer lingering on the sidelines, like those “moms” who imitate their 3-year-old’s cowgirl dance routines at beauty pageants in Toddlers and Tiaras.

I’m not about to suggest stricter censorship or content bans, even if it would be nice not to find rants by young MRAs-in-the-making in student magazines. But I do think student magazines like Critic and the student organisations they are attached to need to consider changing their student magazines’ structure, process and expectations so that they can flourish.

Writing staff should not be chosen for how well their outlook blends in with mainstream opinions or for being populists. Writers need to be connected and considerate of multiple student voices, but it is not their role to reinforce dominant ideologies with, to quote Judith Butler, an “obedient sense of repetition”, without a critical edge and deeper research.

Paid staff volunteers too  need better training. It was only half a year ago at an editing workshop ran by Blue Oyster Art Project Space that I learnt crucial lessons about editing which experience alone had not taught me. New editors also need to be sat down and told: this is not just about you, this is much bigger than you. And: everything you write goes online, so consider what grandiose opinions you want your name still married to in 10 years’ time.

The time constraints of student magazines need to be seriously addressed. A weekly product may be too much, especially when it leads to compromises in quality and less time to check through blunders. Consistently better content will make for better, long-standing reputations.

Once certain elements are changed, the student magazine may become an environment where full-time staff would seriously consider staying for more than one year in order to implement strategies and preventative measures that they gained from their first year experiences. When you know something is going to be a one night/year stand you don’t take time to get to know it. It’s a different relationship when you dedicate yourself to it for the long term.

I imagine some people might have a different understanding of student magazines. They might see it as a year or so of trying out writing, editing, managing and gaining experiences that cater for self-growth. But, for me, I can’t see student magazines as goldfish doing year-long circuits of glass bowls. I see student magazines with potential for stability and consistency – seemingly banal, but absolutely critic-al qualities.

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