Untitled Rant: Why care about student journalism at UCL? (Subject to Change)

Robert Delaney

The question posed above is one I often face when confronted about my role as co-Editor-in-Chief at The Cheese Grater. Curious friends, mostly those from outside the university sphere, ask me what the point of student journalism is. What is the raison d’etre behind it all? And I don’t blame them. Student journalism is a thankless task, with a lot of work and very little reward. I should note that such questions are never posed in a discourteous manner, I try to make friends with nice enough people. Nonetheless, this line of questioning is legitimate and thought provoking. I do often find myself wondering as to why anyone should care about student journalism at this (somewhat) fine institution, and that’s coming from me, someone who cares deeply about all of this nonsense.  

So, why don’t people care about student journalism? I wish to start answering this question by outlining the three types of people who exist in the world of UCL.

First, we have those who dislike student journalism as we report on their wrong-doings (I’m looking at you Rugby, Hockey and Finance Society). These people read our condemning articles as it has a tangible impact on their lives (they can’t go to Scala on a Wednesday for two weeks), but ignore anything else published as it doesn’t fit into their jam-packed schedules consisting of ‘training then pub, then more training and more pub’.

Next we have those who don’t engage in the culture of the university, which is probably the largest camp. These boring types think of the number 3.14159 when someone mentions Pi and think The Cheese Grater is some type of parmesan appreciation society for pretentious weirdos (they aren’t far off with the last part to be fair).

Finally we have my favourite group in this triad, those who actually quite like reading student publications. If you have made it this far into the article, this is most likely the group you belong to.  

This tripartite categorisation, UCL’s unholy trinity of sorts, was not always the case however. The student body used to be somewhat of a homogenous, student publication loving, mass. If you have ever had the displeasure of visiting the media office above the Bloomsbury Theatre, in which anyone using the microwave room can observe you typing away through the glass walls with broken blinds, you will have seen the old front pages of Pi pinned to the wall. The formerly bi-weekly student-ran publication was the primary source of UCL-related news for students in the pre-internet age.

I like to imagine that UCL during the golden-age of the newspaper looked something like this:

Envision the nice middle part of the Main Library – which for those of you who work in Hell (The Student Centre) is the round bit with the statue from Inception – filled with suited and booted students running around, so engrossed in reading their student newspapers that they haven’t noticed the wall ahead of them. I can only think of it as a glorious time! Bring back the papers I say!

I’m being overly nostalgic here, but the point I’m trying to prove is that student journalism was once a thriving artform. In our modern times, to meet a person who has heard of The Cheese Grater or Pi Media is quite rare. So, what happened? Why don’t people care about student journalism anymore?

There’s a few answers to this question, but the most obvious is the internet. That’s right, damn you Sir Tim Berners-Lee! Whilst the internet promised a golden-age of expansion for budding student journalists, what has transpired is quite the opposite. The proliferation of constant journalism on the internet has seen the decline in relevance for physical newspapers. This isn’t innately a bad thing, I don’t want to come across as a nostalgic conservative. But as the way in which we consume media changed, journalism as a practice shifted too. People, on the whole (I am generalising a lot here), are no longer interested in long-form journalism. I sound very old writing this, but in the age of Tik-Tok and Instagram Reels our attention spans for consuming content has drastically reduced. This is just one of many reasons why student journalism has fallen out of fashion. Our pieces are long and infrequent, the opposite of what the all-mighty algorithm permits. A lot of people aren’t interested in spending their limited free-time between seminars, assignments and lectures doing more arduous, long-form and quasi-academic-ish reading.

However, as stated, the above point is just one of a dozen reasons why student journalism is somewhat outmoded at UCL. I have a few friends who write for Varsity, the University of Cambridge’s outstanding ‘Guardian-esque’ bi-weekly newspaper. Varsity is well-read in both its online and physical form; people get excited to read about university news, sports updates and opinion pieces. So, why isn’t this the case at UCL? 

Ultimately, the way in which UCL has been constituted as a university means one can opt out of engaging with university life. The lack of a college system, or isolated campus setting, means that there is no necessitated market for news. We aren’t crammed together as students in a tiny town or isolated campus, and most of what goes on doesn’t impact all members of the university ‘community’. This also means that the budget of student newspapers is comparatively low. In Cambridge or Oxford, when something happens in student politics for example, everyone needs to know exactly what’s going on. In a small city, built around the university, such events are of the utmost importance. At UCL, most can’t name a single sabbatical officer (besides us at The Cheese Grater, we are constantly surveilling their every move…). Moreover, our campus is in the heart of London, so to escape from Bloomsbury life one can walk for five minutes in any direction and completely disconnect from the world of UCL. With the opening of UCL East last month, this atomised university will only become more disconnected, with our relatively incohesive student body expanding to zone 3.

So, I have outlined a few reasons as to why student journalism at UCL is quite outmoded, but there is no point in me writing all of this without offering any type of solution. Firstly then, why should we care about student journalism? As I have just argued, UCL is quite a disconnected university, yet the impact Student’s Union (SU) politics, institutional decisions and departmental shortcomings have on our lives is a lot greater than we seem to think as a student body. The impact the SU has on our lives as students is perhaps the most underestimated. The (in)famous UCL bars, the cheapest in central London (if not the entire country), are core to socialising at UCL. They are run by the SU. Nearly every society is affiliated with the SU, which allocates society funding, rooms, meeting times and, most importantly, The Cheese Grater’s printing grants. The SU Sabbatical officers are also paid officials for whom we vote to represent our interests to upper management within UCL. The decisions taken by the union have a tangible impact on the lives of students, quite like a government or executive body of a corporation. UCL upper management and the university’s teaching departments also hold huge power in the lives of students. This power cannot go unchecked.

UCL is fundamentally a democracy, at least at the student level. We vote for committees, referendums and those who represent us in the upper echelons of the SU. Why then should these elected officials go unmoderated? One core mechanism of checking the power of such figures is the press. The purpose of investigative reporting is to do exactly this; to hold to account those in positions of power when they step out of line (which is almost constantly). The reporting of basic news is also crucial in drawing attention to any ongoing events at the university, good or bad. Without student journalism, there would be no interrogation of Michael Spence’s Stalinist Politburo, no reporting on UCU affairs (which, as we saw with the marking and assessments boycott, impacts student’s lives immensely) and no satirical denigration of institutional actors who engage in numerous forms of malpractice. Ultimately, the student press is essential to the survival of student democracy at UCL. 

We must then ask, how can student journalists invigorate the student base into caring about our work and democracy at UCL? I have just written about why it is imperative that people care about what we do, but how can we make anyone actually listen? I believe that the lack of engagement with student journalism is as much our fault as journalists as it is the fault of any other factor I’ve mentioned thus far. Ultimately, we need to take steps to publish more work on engaging UCL affairs. I am not advocating for a transformation of The Cheese Grater into a Daily Mail type publication specialising in hit pieces (we wouldn’t be able to afford the legal fees), but I would love to oversee the publishing of more frequent UCL-related content. I don’t want us to be like The London Tab however. The Tab is as close as a student publication can get to a Murdoch-funded BuzzFeed.

Moreover, it is important for us as editors to ensure pieces stay relatively short. Whilst I have most certainly not done this here or in this issue more broadly (shoot me, I dare you), I think that the accessibility of student media and journalism can be greatly enabled by the curtailing of pressing news items and investigations. I also wish to bring back printed editions. I know, I’m a dinosaur, but there is something quite nice about picking up a free magazine and reading it on the tube on the way home instead of intermittently checking your DMs when you briefly connect to station wifi on the Central Line going eastbound. Ultimately, I think the best way forward for all student journalism, but specifically The Cheese Grater, is to frequently publish a hybrid concoction of longform and short form journalism, both online and in print. This way, we can engage potential readers on all fronts. In essence, this is my battle plan for the war on apathy.

So to conclude, student journalism isn’t in the healthiest place at UCL. It isn’t all terrible however. The Cheese Grater produces outstanding journalism every year without failure and always wins something at the Student Publication Association Awards. Other media societies are doing well too. Yes, I will even give Pi Media some credit. I am lucky enough to work alongside a brilliant editorial team, within a great student media community, who are also trying to make student journalism more pertinent in student life here at UCL. All media societies, including The Cheese Grater, are on an upward trajectory in every sense of the term, but as always, there is more to be done!