If you ask an editor what makes for a good article, they’ll reel off a list of features which almost always includes originality. Every now and then, though, a socially conscious newspaper should publish articles that do nothing more than remind the readers to think about a topic which is so familiar that they actually forget to think about it. Today’s editorial, on the topic of editorial independence, is just such an article. It aims to start a conversation that seems obvious when we remember to ask the question: what does editorial independence mean in student journalism?
Of course, you know all about editorial independence and how crucial it is for a good publication. Second in importance only to freedom of the press, editorial independence is the ability of a paper to make editorial decisions independent of influence by interested parties. Without it, there can be no trust. Or rather, where there is trust without editorial independence, the paper perpetuates a partisan echo-chamber at best and, at worst, acts as tantamount to a propagandist interest group. When we evaluate a paper, then, the first question always has to be is it editorially independent.
But for whatever reason, this question is rarely asked about student newspapers like The Oxford Blue. There are many interests that a student newspaper may wish to be independent of, from government to business. However, the interests that we must be most concerned with are those a student newspaper is most likely to report on, especially if it’s likely to be its readership’s main source of information on the topic. In this respect, we needn’t be so worried about national organisations as our readers have more than enough other sources to recognise partisanship in these cases, even if such bodies cared enough to constrain us to begin with. Instead, the editorial independence that is important to us is independence from other organisations within the student community: such as societies, university or college governance, and the Student Union.
In this light, it is easy to see that most student newspapers up and down the country have got it wrong because they are not independent of their respective student unions. The vast majority of major student newspapers, from The Glasgow Guardian to Exeposé in Exeter, receive significant funding (often in kind) from their student union. And while some of these, like the Epigram in Bristol, claim independence, funding or headquarters in the student union buildings surely provide some incentive to hold off from leveling criticism against their benefactor. To underscore the point, it is not uncommon for student newspapers to be evicted from student union buildings or for editors to be removed by student unions. And while the reasons for such actions are often well-justified, such control is bound to make editors pause for thought before publishing articles that contradict student union stances, even in morally acceptable ways.
In Oxford, we are lucky. Whilst there may be as few as four truly independent student newspapers in the country, we have two: Cherwell and The Oxford Blue. This gives our journalism scene a kind of editorial independence shared by few other student communities, but that does not mean editorial independence is guaranteed. There are other ways that editorial independence could be compromised. Sometimes a reporter may put networking or maintaining a journalistic relationship ahead of the interest the student body has in the story they are working on. Other times, someone in the paper’s staff may be involved in a society at the centre of a key piece of news, doing everything they can to defend them. And of course, there’s always the possibility of a writer simply protecting a friend by suppressing a story.
This brings me around nicely to the question of The Oxford Blue’s own editorial independence. Are we perfect? Almost certainly not, and in all likelihood nor will we ever be. But what we can guarantee is that we are always the best we can be, and we will always strive to do better. On this, we willingly bet the trust that our readers have in the paper, not to mention our personal reputations as writers and editors. As part of that, we remain open to criticism, using it to get better wherever possible. The Blue was founded on the vision of an independent paper for the digital age; “A New Voice for a New Decade”. This vision is still alive and well, so while we can’t promise we’ll never slip up, we can promise to do everything we can to write in the interest of the Oxford student community, and no one else.