IT’S official: when it comes to ethical journalism, people seem to trust broadsheets and not the tabloids. But it isn’t just at a national level where people look down on red tops. In my experience as a section editor for The Tab in Cambridge (yep, the one with the bums), the number of people who see little difference between the terms “Tab journo” and “terrible, terrible person” is rather alarming. Is this just what happens when the tabloid format is revamped for the student market? Or are readers being unreasonable?
On the surface, the cosmetic similarities with national tabloids can’t be helping matters. A logo that could have The Sun calling for their lawyers? Random words written patronisingly in bold? Terrible (read: hilarious) puns? It’s easy to see how that can reinforce a stigma, and that’s a shame because student tabloids are popular and attract a lot of the top writing talent, so some well-written pieces come out that are pooh-poohed by readers who see only what they want to see: low-quality tabloid tosh.
Having said this, the student tabloids don’t always make life easy for themselves. I’m talking about sex – the same lovely, sexy sex that got The Tab into some sticky situations with the national press when it was first starting out back in 2009. The funny thing is that the broadsheets tend to get away with it – the piece in Varsity (Cambridge’s oldest paper) with the most hits ever is the one with a boob in, and the nationals were pretty nice about it.
So why is sex OK in some situations but not in others? Ultimately, it all rests on how you market it. I booked a burlesque act once for a student night I used to run in Cambridge – while some of Britain’s top academics were sleeping nearby, Cherry and Ruby were busy getting their kit off in my college bar. Whether burlesque and stripping are the same thing is a debate in itself, but my point is this: if, on the poster, I had written “COME AND SEE WOMEN TAKING OFF THEIR CLOTHES FOR MONEY” instead of just “burlesque night”, things might have taken a turn for the nastier. Aside from maybe selling it as a life drawing class, we had opted to shroud our night of mischief in the most socially acceptable guise possible. And it worked: there was a nice little bit of controversy at a local level to raise the profile of our night a bit, but nothing that would smear our names in the national press and render us unemployable for all eternity.
It’s exactly the same with the student press. It just so happens that Varsity’s piece was a tasteful fashion shoot – sepia-toned, smart clothes, Lily Cole-inspired. Whilst Tab Totty undoubtedly widened The Tab’s readership, it has the unfortunate effect of undermining good writing that goes on elsewhere on the site.
The student tabloids may imitate their daddies in this way, but the same can’t be said when it comes to unethical practice. The competition for profit just doesn’t exist in the same way so neither does the incentive to screw people over for a big scoop. (In fact, Cambridge’s last proper scandal came courtesy of the usually very reputable The Cambridge Student, when the then editor was found to have impersonated a senior professor.)
The reason student tabloids are successful is they know who their target market is and what they want: fast, accurate and relevant news, with entertaining features that are often smutty because, truth is, sex sells. Unfortunately, they cross the line sometimes and attract undignified attention, but this shouldn’t shadow what has already proved to be a very successful format that’s putting some high-class content out there. Long live the student tabloid, provided they can behave themselves.
Sebastian Salek is about to enter his third year studying Law at Clare College, Cambridge, during which he will spend the majority of his free time schmoozing media types in fervent pursuit of a job upon graduation. He is Opinion Editor at The Tab and tweets @FollowSebastian.
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After finishing my stint in student media, I couldn’t help but look