In late July 2012 the University of Melbourne student magazine Farrago published its July issue in print. It was also published on a flash driven third party website (probably produced by the printer from the PDF file used to print the magazine). At the time of writing this article (mid August), only some of the articles from the July edition have been published on the Farrago website.
‘The Hun Mole: Notes from a Tabloid Newsroom‘ by ‘anonymous’ is not on the Farrago site. It describes the experience of an undergraduate student who completed a brief internship at the Melbourne News Ltd tabloid paper the Herald Sun. Anonymous was outed as Sasha Burden, who describes the Hun newsroom as a culturally anachronistic environment fundamentally at odds with her progressive feminist and LGBT-positive values.
The article can be read as consistent with many narratives that frame a clash of cultures between a gender and sexually diverse, inner urban intellectual elite and a heteronormative, suburban anti-intellectual mainstream. The two tribes distrust and despise each other and increasingly have little to do with each other. We coexist with indifference.
The article became controversial and the subject of intense discussion via Twitter in the second week of August 2012. This clash of cultures framed much of the discussion, which also touched on pertinent industry issues like the future of media corporations in the online age and the ethics of writing anonymous exposés. Despite some flaws, the article is a fair example of investigative journalism that legitimately exposes information in the public interest.
Throughout the discussion, Burden, Farrago and its individual editors were conspicuously silent. It was insinuated by some commentators that they had been politically silenced. There has been little discussion of why this might be the case.
This article aims to examine the broader issue of Burden’s article in the context of the efficacy of student journalism in the online age. My purpose is to examine this article as a rare example of student journalism that has reached a greater audience, and an influential one: many prominent professional journalists and academics participated in the Twitter conversation.
Before I begin though, some disclaimers. First, I’m a member of the intellectual elite, so you can consider what follows in that context. No one in my social network reads the Hun for anything but momentary ironic amusement. Its primary school reading age, obsession with celebrity trash culture and anti-intellectual bogan worldview is anathema to us. I am also a former editor of a university student newspaper.
Second, I briefly worked for the corporate, university side of the student union at the University of Melbourne in early 2012. MU Student Union Ltd (MUSUL) is a subsidiary company of the university that effectively functions as an administrative department of the university. Student representation occurs through the University of Melbourne Student Union Inc (UMSU). MUSUL and UMSU collectively form what is commonly known as the ‘student union’.
My perception of MUSUL/UMSU is of an organisation that is a monumental clusterfuck of incompetence, mismanagement and dysfunction. It appears to have not recovered from the corruption and insolvency crisis of the previous decade. The internal politics are toxic and an entrenched, resentful culture of stagnation and opposition to innovation makes it unlikely that things will ever improve.
Comment was sought from the Farrago editors several days prior to the publication of this article. No response was received.
The Farrago website
Farrago and the student population have been poorly served by the union website for years. In publishing terms, the union is obsessed with print and has never embraced the potential of the internet. Despite printed artefacts being slow and expensive to produce, difficult to distribute and generally inefficient in meeting the information needs of their target audience (students), union staff have for years insisted on producing printed information and have neglected their website.
Developed and built c2008, the current union website is not great but the CMS is adequate and functional in providing union staff and student representatives, including the Farrago editors, with a platform that they can use to effectively publish articles. Farrago has its own section of the site with its own distinctive layout and design.
In March 2009, co-editor Zoe Sanders was quoted as saying that ‘The new editors have big things planned for Farrago for this year – namely, a far more developed web presence, with an online edition of the magazine, podcasts, vodcasts and blogs‘. The current website platform must have been live by this time, but little content from 2009 is now available and these plans must not have been achieved. Since then, use of the Farrago website has been inconsistent.
The failure of successive editors to make the most of their website is due to a lack of technical skill (and a lack of initiative in acquiring it), a lack of online publishing insight, a lack of technical and management support and the enduring and pervasive vanity of seeing your name in print.
I spent considerable time working on the union website in early 2012, including consulting with the Farrago editors to conduct a needs analysis with the aim of improving their section of the site. I altered page templates and made new categories and sections to mirror the sections in the magazine and to allow for additional web-only content, including several blogs.
I created sample articles in each of the sections and taught the editors how to use the taxonomy to assign articles to the correct categories so they would be displayed in the correct sections of the site. I provided hands on one to one training and reference documentation.
In two months I completed more customisation than had been achieved in the years since the site was originally published, including expanding the taxonomy and information architecture to create archives (a major omission that had apparently never featured in the original design brief).
As a result, the union website now has a comprehensive archive system, including 2010 and 2011 Farrago back issues and student council and committee meeting minutes going back to 2008. While this content had been live all along, it previously did not feature in the navigation and had been very difficult to find.
From previous experience working with young people, I know that the so-called digital natives are not necessarily or even commonly competent in the use of digital publishing and online communications tools. They may have grown up with computers and the internet, but they can be surprisingly indifferent about their inadequate skills and disinterested in expanding their expertise. In this regard, the 2012 editors seem typical of their generation.
In addition to possessing little or no skill in publishing websites, the 2012 Farrago editors had little overall strategy for their website. They were initially reluctant to put many articles online and have done this only haphazardly since I left. I advised the editors to use the time between sending the magazine to print and distributing the printed copies (about a week) to put the articles on the website, but this has not happened on a consistent basis.
They suggested using a flash based tool like the one the July issue is published with. I gave them several reasons why this was a very bad idea that would undermine their online efforts. First, because it uses flash, the content cannot be viewed on iPhones and iPads. If you want to reach a student audience that primarily uses these devices, don’t publish content they can’t see. The Farrago editors failed to heed that advice. I’m not the only person giving such advice. It’s common knowledge in the industry.
If you wander around campus for a few minutes you’ll notice that almost every student has a smartphone in their hand, often an Apple iPhone. Work there for a while and you’ll hear them repeatedly complain about the crapness of the union website and the inadequate coverage of the supposedly campus-wide wifi provided by the university. They expect to access information online at their convenience. The university and the union are failing to meet that need.
Second, because the content is locked in a flash file, it is not in the Farrago site under the union domain but under a meaningless domain, ‘printgraphics.net.au’, and is not indexed by Google for findability in search results. Farrago is also using another flash magazine publisher, issuu, for back issues. However, they don’t link to this from the Farrago site, which is another incomprehensible oversight.
Third, by not publishing the article on their site, where commenting can occur and a conversation can be hosted, Farrago failed to capture the audience that developed around the article. If you want to capture an audience and moderate their conversation, you have to make some effort. Farrago will have no idea how many people have read Burden’s article and, by allowing the conversation to happen elsewhere, basically gave away all that traffic and attention to other sites. This represents a significant wasted opportunity to engage with a wider audience and to interact with the experienced media professionals who participated in the conversation.
UMSU publishes and funds Farrago (from revenue generated by advertising in the magazine and federal government funding obtained via the university from the Student Services and Amenities Fee). It is presumably higher now thanks to SSAF than during the lean, VSU affected years of the 1990s and 2000s. The most recent publicly available information about Farrago’s budget is from 2009, when $55,000 of the $58,000 budget was spent on printing. What a waste of money. That could fund a full time online publishing coordinator position to focus entirely on making the Farrago website awesome.
Having not worked at a university for some time prior to 2012, I was amazed to discover that student newspapers still exist in print. I had vaguely imagined that the VSU decimation of union funding would have forced them online as a cost saving measure (if not a desire to embrace the future). I have underestimated how backwards student unions are.
Farrago is a form of vanity publishing that provides social status for a small minority at considerable expense to the majority. Unfortunately, today’s editors seem more interested in perpetuating the inefficiencies of the past than in adapting to the times and innovating to meet the needs of present and future students, who primarily want to access information online.
Print is simply a means of distributing content. It used to be the only way, but now there’s a fundamentally better way that is faster, cheaper and more desired by audiences. You only have to look at the Twitter conversation to see that. Ignoring this is willful stupidity.
Farrago’s silence throughout is puzzling, and I have many questions that I would like answered. Did Burden violate the terms of her enrollment by writing critically about her internship? Is she facing disciplinary action within the university?
Has Farrago aggrieved university leaders by publishing the article? Did the editors fail to get a legal opinion before publishing it? Has the magazine offended the university by facilitating Burden to do the same?
Has Farrago been politically silenced by university management? Or has pressure come from within the union, from the university owned MUSUL side or the student run UMSU side?
Are any News Ltd or associated companies advertisers in Farrago? Have they threatened to withdraw their advertising or their sponsorship of orientation day? Is the Farrago silence politically or commercially motivated?
I doubt that Burden’s behaviour is a serious problem for the university. The accusation that she has damaged the internship system or undermined the chances of future students to experience an internship is weak. This case will soon be forgotten.
The greatest naivety of the case would be if Burden genuinely believed she had a future in mainstream corporate commercial media. This industry is in terminal decline. Thousands of journalists are losing their jobs. The advertising business model is broken and there is no replacement. Share prices are crashing. There’s no future there for young entrants to the industry. Open your eyes and move on.
Farrago’s failure to publish its articles on its own website is a significant issue, and fault lies with the editors and MUSUL/UMSU management in equal measure. To take on the task of editing a student newspaper, the editors should make it their business to better understand the internet, and management should provide training, support and appropriate staffing to facilitate this.
The spontaneous conversation that emerged in relation to Burden’s article is the kind of fortuitous event that publishers dream of, but Farrago was fundamentally incapable of capitalising on this or even coping with it. It failed to host the conversation and, even worse, it didn’t even participate in it. This incompetence could only be excused if the editors were barred from participating.
Farrago is failing to make the most of its Facebook and Twitter profiles, which are used in an insipid and indifferent manner that displays little evidence of effort or imagination. Consequently, Farrago appears to be a quaint, harmless anachronism that lucked into temporary relevance and immediately slipped back into slumber. This lack of relevance may be typical of the genre. Are student newspapers and magazines still relevant now there’s social media and a blog to cover every niche interest?
Farrago’s paying audience (students are effectively paying for Farrago via their compulsory SSAF contributions) deserve better, and so do contributors like Burden. They contribute their time and creative effort to the magazine in exchange for exposure for their writing, but Farrago is not maximising its distribution and exposure. It is failing to effectively manage its content and disseminate it efficiently to its audience.
I suspect that, if asked, many students would say that Farrago is not worth paying for in its current form. To be locked out from reading it online due to your personal preference for mobile devices is ridiculous.
A brief history of desktop and online publishing for digital natives
When I edited a student newspaper, photocopiers and gluesticks were as important as computers in creating content and designing page layouts. I’ve written previously about my history of computer use. Creating a student newspaper c1994 involved writing and editing on computer, printing it out and using scissors and glue to manually paste together a page layout.
Photos had to be developed and printed, and other illustrations had to be photocopied to use. The low quality reproduction made everything dark, and the printing process exacerbated it. It seems laughably amateurish now. Some zines still use this method.
The technology we take for granted today was then in the process of coalescing. Postscript, the technology that makes fonts and images print as they appear on screen, was released in 1984 but took some years to gain widespread practical application. One of the first desktop publishing applications, Pagemaker, was released in 1985 and relied on Postscript. It was acquired by Adobe in 1994.
The Adobe Acrobat PDF file format, used to export page layouts from applications like Pagemaker and lock them into a single file to deliver to printers, was released in 1993. It is an extension of Postscript. When I first used it, c1995, it was a revelation and I told anyone who would listen that it would change everything. Few believed me then but I have been proved right. Around this time I also got access to MS Word v6 (released in 1993), which was the first version that allowed you to add images to documents.
The combination of Word or Pagemaker and Acrobat was a fundamental breakthrough. From about 1995 anyone could create professional page layouts and output them so that they printed as designed whether on an office laser printer or a commercial printer. I used Pagemaker throughout the later 1990s to typeset academic journals and monographs. Pagemaker was replaced by InDesign, which remains the industry standard tool for layout.
Digital scanners began to produce high resolution colour images suitable for print reproduction from the mid 1990s. Digital cameras began to be common from the late 1990s, but at first they did not produce images of sufficient resolution for print reproduction.
The (text only) internet had existed for some time when I started university in 1990, and got my first email address. The world wide web, or layer of content distributed over the internet, became more accessible with the release of the Mosaic browser in 1993. I first saw it in use (in other words, I first saw the the internet with pictures) in 1994. Web authoring software like Dreamweaver (released in 1997) made online publishing much easier.
The entire suite of tools used to digitally create and produce print and online publications came into being c2000, and has been in use for more little more than a decade. If you grew up being able to take all this technology for granted, you’re incredibly fortunate.
When I was on the editorial board of a postgraduate student research journal in the mid-late 1990s, I urged them to ditch print and to go online only, as a few academic journals were already doing. The biggest obstacle to the journal’s longevity was the difficulty of raising a pitiful few thousand dollars to print it. We also wasted far too much time processing subscriptions payments and mailouts.
Eliminating print means eliminating the biggest expenditure a publication has. It’s easy then to abandon sales and give it away, which is far less expensive than paying for print runs. You also save considerable time administering subscriptions. My proposal was rejected and I quit in disgust. The journal limped on and then went online only a couple of years later when funding was withdrawn. I smirked a victory smirk. Right again.
Farrago already owns the domain farragomagazine.com (it currently points to union.unimelb.edu.au/farrago). For a few hundred dollars a year it could buy some web hosting and install the free WordPress CMS and build a new website. They could then point their domain name to the new site and be independent of the union’s site.
They could abandon print altogether and stop wasting time soliciting for the advertising that partially pays for printing. They could divert most of their budget to employing someone suitably skilled to maintain their site. The editors could focus more on developing the content. The result would be a far superior online newspaper or magazine to what Farrago currently provides.
Students expect access to online academic journals and other digital resources. Why are their own publications still printed on dead trees? Unfortunately, I doubt this will change in the next decade. They simply don’t have the vision or the initiative.
What are the student papers at the other Group of Eight universities doing with their online presences?
Honi Soit (University of Sydney) uses the Drupal CMS for its website, and has PDF archives going back to 2007. Impressive. It has some full text articles online but does not appear to allow commenting on them and it also uses issuu for back issues, which is bad. Pass.
Pelican (University of Western Australia) appears to have no online content and uses issuu for back issues. Fail.
Semper (University of Queensland) appears to have no content online and uses PDFs for back issues. Fail.
Tharunka (University of New South Wales) uses WordPress CMS. I couldn’t find archives of past issues but the site suggests that all articles are online. It is well designed and easy to navigate. Commenting does not seem to be enabled on articles, which is a shame. Pass.
Woroni (Australian National University) uses WordPress CMS. It uses issuu for back issues, which is bad, but has implemented Facebook commenting on articles, which is impressive. Credit.
Lot’s Wife (Monash University) uses WordPress CMS. There are few back issues and these are in PDF. Commenting is enabled using default WordPress functionality but I couldn’t see any on current articles. The lack of archives and comment suggests the site is very new. It’s the most functional of the lot. Distinction.
On Dit (University of Adelaide) uses the Expression Engine CMS and issuu for back issues. It doesn’t seem to post many articles online and the site looks static and lifeless. Fail.
I rank Farrago fifth out of the eight student papers compared here in terms of their web presence. Prospective 2013 Farrago editors would do well to analyse the functionality of Woroni and Lot’s Wife, and the clean aesthetics of Tharunka, and try to improve on them. Use WordPress. Don’t use issuu or other forms of flash. Simple.
If you want to be even more relevant and contemporary, abandon the antiquated static print model of issues or volumes and publish articles as they are written. Develop and maintain a constant stream of content, and initiate and curate a conversation around it using your social media accounts as promotional channels. Radical.
The future of student journalism is online, where the audience is. The failure to understand and adapt to this is becoming a public embarrassment for Farrago and other stragglers. They’re even more backwards than the Hun.