Dutch student media threatened to lose their independence
By ISABEL BONNET | March 3, 2020
Ending its second year, The Amsterdammer seeks to understand the development of student journalism in the Netherlands by taking a look at the past.
Since their inception in the beginning of the 19th century, student magazines quickly gained importance around the country and today, there are roughly 45 university publications in the Netherlands. The Amsterdammer was able to talk to 17 of them.
In 1825, the first student newspaper ever created, De Gekortwiekte Faam, was founded by three students in Utrecht. “If our identities were to be uncovered, we could find ourselves being unfairly graded on our exams” reads their first issue. “Once the professors find out that students are involved in the newspaper, whether they deem the whole thing child’s play or presume that our intentions are dangerous, they will certainly not approve of it”.
Vox Studiosorum and Minerva, two publications that followed De Gekortwiekte Faam, remained uncontroversial and limited. “Students in the old days did not take part in the debate in society,” explained the docent at the University of Groningen Dr. Annelis Noordhof to The Amsterdammer. However, in 1890 Amsterdam saw the creation of Propria Cures, a satirical student newspaper, founded by Marck Burema and Pritt Stift van GeenStijl. It remains one of the oldest student publications in the country, known for covering topics no one else would talk about and is one of the few magazines prosecuted by the Dutch government after World War II for blasphemy.
From student publications to university publications
As explained by Dr. Annelis Noordhof in her paper “The student’s voice : Dutch student magazines in the Nineteenth Century,” student magazines in the 19th century not only reflected a student’s identity, but also formed it. The researcher explained to The Amsterdammer that the growth of universities, both in size and purpose, created the need for a systematic publication for most universities.
“Universities wanted to have their own newspapers,” said Dr. Noordhof. “They wanted professionals to work on the paper. It was a development to [change] a student publication to a university publication.” Student publications’ editorial boards slowly became professionally-run, involving students only as contributors, writers or interns. For the researcher, there are two main types of publications: university publications, which are run by professionals and that she considers part of the communication department, and student publications run by students, often owned by student associations.
Out of the 17 university publications interviewed by The Amsterdammer, the editor in chief is a student for only 31 percent of them, all of which are a part of student associations. Among the non-student association university publications, half of them do not have any students in their editorial positions.
The variety of, and the differences within and between student publications in the Netherlands, makes them hard to define. University papers can either be run by professionals as the main university magazine such as UvA’s Folia, or part of a student association such as Medium Magazine for UvA’s Communication Science study association Mercurius, or Rostra Economica for the Business & Economics study association Sefa.
Student media lose their independence over time
To understand the divergence between student and university publications, Dr. Noordhoof explains that student publications explored the “whens” and “whom” of the university, but the university publications also explained the “whys”. “University papers were independent from the university board, […] they had the opportunity to be very critical,” she added. “This changed in the 2000s, most universities are not independent anymore”.
A study by The Amsterdammer revealed that 87 percent of Dutch student media are funded by the university. However, 70 percent of them consider their publications to be independent. In 2015, former editor of Propia Cures, Bob Polak, told De Volkskrant that what makes the publication different from others is “the autonomy of the editors. That is the big difference with regular newspapers and magazines. The editors are completely independent.”
While the majority of universities paper are financially dependent from universities, some are editorially dependent on the student association which they are a part of. As student and university publications are mainly funded by the university, some rules protect their editorial decisions from the institution’s intervention.
ADVALVAS, the university paper for the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, has never been a student publication. Ever since its creation in 1952, it has been written by professionals. It is one of the oldest university publications remaining in the country. Even though the newspaper is being fully funded by the VU, it is editorially independent. For Marieke Schilp, chief editor at ADVALVAS, reporters can write anything they want. “We have rules that protect us,” she said, “we are fully financed by the university but they have no influence on the subjects we cover or [on] the way we write.”
“Of course we have issues sometimes when someone from the university board does not like what we write,” explains Schilp, who has been working for 13 years at ADVALVAS. “But if they don’t like something there are no consequences.” Similarly, Alfonso Garza, editor-in-chief of UvA’s Rostra Economica, explains that the study association Sefa, which partly finances the paper, has no control over the content, “I doubt the faculty will complain about our content as long as we our honest with our facts.”
The independence cycle
“Students saw that university papers were not independent papers anymore and wanted to create their own,” said Dr. Noordhof. Ever since the first student publications were created in the 19th century, the mergers with student associations or change to a professional-run editorial board, led students to find new ways to be heard.
For Annelies Noordhof, they have become part of the communication department. “They can only publish good news about the university,” she explains. “When students think it (their publication) is not independent enough, they start their own paper.” Our research revealed that the older the newspaper is, the more professionals there are in the editorial positions.
Editorial independence prevents school-sponsored speech and encourages free exchange of ideas. While student-association’s magazines’ editorial decisions depend on the study association in question, some are still free to make their own decisions regarding the structure and the content of the publication.
Ever since its creation in 1958, Rostra Economica was focused solely on economic matters. However, in 2018, Garza found other topics such as politics, history, geopolitics, psychology and philosophy were needed to explain economics. While the paper expanded its content, according to the editor it did not lose its economic approach.
Similarly, Ana Mishkoska, PR Director at IBCoMagazine, believes that even though the publication is not financially independent from Erasmus University Rotterdam, the writers are free to write anything they want.
In 2013, International Communication & Media students at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam decided to create a paper that would be connected to their track. The IBCoMagazine, which is not officially registered as a study association, receives low funding from the University for printing.
While they are free to choose the topics covered, they avoid topics of conflict to maintain the status-quo with the university. “We’re not tackling some topics that are controversial,” she explains. “We are not expressing our opinions, […] we are neutral.” While there is no real explanation for this, the magazine nonetheless covers topics that they believe are relevant to students such as gay marriage or Brexit.
While it was initially progressive to start a student paper, the increase in the amount of publications in the country created new differences: there were traditional papers, which became professional, and progressive papers, which believed they had to intervene in society.
University publications leading the game
In the 1870s, when university boards started changing independent student papers into university magazines, only 2 out of 11 publications remained independent in the country explains Dr. Noordhof.
“The students have grown up,” says the docent at the University of Groningen. “They were seen as children and were not allowed to publish a paper. […] Since the 19th century they have a very important role.” She added, “there are students who only want to study and students who want to have an opinion.”
While it was initially progressive to start a student paper, the increase in the amount of publications in the country created new differences: there were traditional papers, which became professional, and progressive papers, which believed they had to intervene in society. This had an effect on the growth of the amount of magazines created, which also came with the failure of those that did not shift from student publications to university publications.
“Troof”, for instance, was created in Utrecht in the 1970s as an alternative. The paper was very critical towards the university and closed later. BITS Magazine, which opened in 2011, aimed to create a community of students and teachers with its publication. Only two years later, the publication closed.
Similarly, other publications have had to change their status to continue to exist. MOSAÏEK Magazine, a newspaper of the University of Maastricht, was created in the early 2000s and disbanded in 2014. In opened in 2017 again as part of the independent student association MOSAÏEK. In 2018, UvA and HvA’s publication Folia was split when two different university publications were created: HvAna for HvA and Folia for Folia.
Whether student publications need to compromise their independence to survive or not, their free speech must remain uninhibited to create an environment that respects the opinions of students.
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Isabel Bonnet is a 21-year-old second-year student in communication science at UvA. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Amsterdammer. Before its creation, she worked as a photo editor at the Independent Florida Alligator and did an internship at Le Monde.