November 20, 2020 (Updated )
When Kate Procter was elected to the position of editor at Forge Press at the University of Sheffield, she never expected that she would go a whole academic year without printing a single issue. Then, COVID19 happened, and students’ unions across the country were forced to slash budgets across all areas. The paper, which has been in print since 1950, suddenly found itself facing a 92 per cent cut for the academic year ahead.
“With what we’ve been given, we can’t even print one issue [this academic year],” she tells Journo Resources, “and we would normally do one every fortnight [in term time]”. Last year the paper received a budget of £10,500 from the students’ union. This year it received less than £1,000 – and Kate says they can’t even afford licenses for the Adobe software needed to layout the paper.
What’s more, Kate fears the money could never come back.”I’m not sure if we’ll be able to print again. I definitely don’t see [the budget] being ten grand again. And talking to other teams [across the country], student media isn’t going to be the same again.”
Earlier this year students at Palatinate, the newspaper at the University of Durham, also ran an open letter signed by alumni such as Jeremy Vine, Dan Rivers, and Bill Bryson, in a petition to keep the paper printing after budget cuts. However, despite a subsequent crowdfunding campaign, current editor Imogen Usherwood tells us she’s unsure if they’ll be able to print in 2021.
Fears Funding Could Never Be Restored To Pre-Pandemic Levels
And these aren’t the only papers struggling. New research from the Student Publication Association (SPA), the body which represents student newspapers and magazines, suggests that half of all publications fear they could stop printing entirely during the next 12 months.
While some of the UK’s student papers are run as independent companies or are supported by universities, the vast majority are support by grants from students’ unions, which have faced huge holes in their own funding, due to the lack of events on campus.
“And talking to other teams [across the country], student media isn’t going to be the same again.”
A survey of the SPA’s members also found that 49 percent of publications with a regular print run were not able to publish at the start of the year, with 75 percent of those saying they were either “slightly” or “very concerned” that their publication would never print regularly again.
Almost all papers facing a students’ union budget cut feared that funding will never be restored to pre-pandemic levels.
‘Invaluable For The Journalists Of The Future’
“We are extremely concerned about the findings of this study,” says Owain Evans, the previous chair of the SPA who led the research. “Student media is one of the most vital institutions on our campuses, ensuring students’ voices are heard and universities held to account.”
Over the past few years alone, student outlets have broken the news of the Warwick group chat scandal, a Doomsday cult targeting Kingston students, and hundreds of first years set to start first year without accommodation – all stories which made their way to national newspapers.
“This will leave the future generations without a space to hone their skills.”
However, there are fears the implications could go much wider than just student papers. “We believe that, without reassurances that funding will be restored as soon as feasible, some publications will inevitably cease to operate,” Owain continues. “This will leave the future generations of our industry without a space to hone their skills.”
In a statement, Durham SU’s activities officer Anna Marshall said she “did not see this [funding cut] as a permanent decision” and the union would be “committed to supporting [them] and helping them to improve in the digital sphere” where there is a “hunger for online news”. Imogen also confirmed the paper had received a £3,000 grant ring-fenced for digital.
For their part, Sheffield SU activities officer Joel Kirk said the savings had played “at vital part in keeping the SU’s doors open” after they were asked to make £2.3 million in savings. He also stressed that budgets would be constantly reviewed.
However, many involved in student media claim that it is vital print editions continue.
‘Printed Editions Still Play An Important Role In Student Life’
“The thing about doing the paper is that it’s not just like a normal, national paper,” says Kate, “because the point of it is to also give students the opportunity to learn and improve and actually make something. Even just making the paper for ourselves is enough to justify its worth.”
“I think, first and foremost, we’re a student paper,” agrees Imogen. “We’re giving people who’ve never interacted with publishing or journalism the chance to see their name in print and that’s really cool. The chance to edit things and the chance to layout newspapers – and that’s not a skill they’re going to have had before they were at uni.”
“In what can often be an elite industry, which is infinitely easier to get into if you have connections, student media breaks down those barriers.”
“Student newspapers are invaluable for providing journalists of the future from all backgrounds with a taste of the profession and also, of course, keeping students and the whole university and college community they serve well informed,” echoes Ian Murray, executive director of the Society of Editors.
“Holding those who run our universities to account is part of the wider role the media plays in public life as a whole. The denigration of such a role is in no one’s interest.
“The printed editions still play an important role in student life as do the printed versions of newspapers in the wider world, and it is to be hoped that after this pandemic has passed as many titles as possible will return to providing printed copies of their excellent work.”
Ben Warner, the new chair of the Student Publication Association adds: “In what can often be an elite industry, which is infinitely easier to get into if you have connections, student media breaks down those barriers.
“Without a well-funded, well-supported student media, the next generation of students will find it harder and harder to break threw the barriers holding them back.”