From the Safer Sex Ball’s CCTV footage scandal, in which a blowjob garnered global attention, to the discovery of multiple cocaine hotspots on campus, there’s been no shortage of attention-grabbing news at the University of Exeter this year.
Founded in 1987, Exeposé is Exeter’s only student newspaper. With 5,000 copies distributed fortnightly, it is the go-to for both local and national news coverage and commentary.
Despite only being launched in Exeter two years ago, The Tab has quickly become the most read source of online news for students, with over 20,000 hits in May alone.
Although starkly different in their tone and content, the two publications still compete daily for the latest stories, shrouding their headlines in secrecy before they go to print and battling leaks in order to protect their scoops.
But is student media today really as political as we are led to believe? We spoke to the editors Tom Payne and Matt McDonald to find out.
How would you describe your political stance?
Probably left of centre. I affiliate with Labour. That’s something that has emerged in the last three or four years, being involved in higher education and the student newspaper. It’s something I didn’t know much about before, but now I feel I have a stake in it.
Do your politics influence the way you make decisions as an editor?
Exeposé is not meant to have political alignment. We go with whatever we feel is right for our readership and the right thing to do.
What are your plans for after you graduate?
I’m hoping to study journalism at postgraduate level, with a view to being a reporter at a national paper. But before I start my MA I have placements at the Daily Mail, The Times and Western Morning News.
Is the Daily Mail somewhere you can see yourself working in the future?
Yeah, I can see myself working for the Daily Mail. I think it’s a great paper that knows its readership, which is reflected by the fact that it’s the best newspaper in the country.
What are your thoughts about going to a paper which is routinely accused of sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and recently, the death of a transgender teacher after they published an abusive column by Richard Littlejohn?
That’s probably the work of a few reporters and subs, and obviously the people at the top, but if you stay true to what you believe then I don’t see any problem. There are always tensions in the way readers react. But while there are a lot of negative reactions to the Daily Mail, they have a group of readers who agree with most of what they have to say, which you get at every national paper.
What do you think Exeposé has done best this year?
The real strength of Exeposé this year has been its response to the competition of The Tab. Rather than maintaining a passive voice, we’ve tried to bring something fresh to Exeter’s news agenda through our more controversial investigations and stories, which have got people talking about issues which they might not have considered before.
One particularly controversial story was an investigation into the use of cocaine on campus. How did you go about obtaining the evidence?
We had to go to a few places we wouldn’t normally have access to. We went into Northcote House with swabs, but couldn’t tell them it was part of a cocaine investigation, so we had to organise a meeting with the press officer. There was sneakiness involved, but that’s part of the fun of student journalism.
How do you respond to accusations that many your headlines this year have been sensationalist?
I admit that we’ve had some fun with headlines this year. But if people saw that as damaging or biased then that’s up to them. All I care about is getting readers, and if we’ve got a good headline or a good story and people want to pick up a copy of Exeposé, I’m happy.
Has your print run been affected at all by the Internet?
Exeposé prints 5,000 every fortnight, and from that we waste about 80-90. However, print journalism is a dying industry, and most people now care about getting their news quickly without having to wait for the papers to come out. So, in the future we could see a decrease in the amount of printed editions, but a rise in our online presence.
The Guild checks and regulates all of your content before it’s published. Has this had a negative impact on your capacity to publish recent updates quickly like The Tab do?
One drawback of our relationship with the Students’ Guild which has been a source of agony and frustation is the bureaucratic mire which prevents us from getting stories out as quickly as we’d like. The incoming editors know that it’s something which has to change, but all good things develop over time and it won’t happen overnight.
Now that your online presence is increasing, do you see The Tab as a rival?
It’s great to have the competition, as more media outlets means more competition and therefore higher quality for everyone. The Tab speaks to an audience which more traditional, broadsheet newspapers don’t always consider. It’s done a great job and will continue to work alongside Exeposé perfectly well.
Is that what you’d say you like most about The Tab, it’s anti-broadsheet appeal?
Yeah, but I like how ironic and sarcastic it can be. That’s very effective, and there’s definitely an audience for it, as there’s an audience for the stuff that we produce.
Is there anything you don’t like about The Tab?
The kind of articles which, although I understand why they do them, are just gifs. Obviously there are readers for that, but to me it’s not what student journalism is about. Student journalism should be a bit more out there, a bit more ballsy. I think that, occasionally, when they claim to be doing things ironically it actually ends up undermining their attempts to break serious stories. As we saw recently, with the news that the Guild president had been barred from the Ram, the comments on The Tab seemed to be rather negative.
How would you like your time as Editor to be remembered?
[Laughs] I don’t think anyone from the Guild or the University will remember it too fondly. But I would like to see it as the year when we really brought Exeter to the front of the news agenda both nationally and in student media terms. Before this year we had just done things as they came along and not really put ourselves out there. But now Exeter is really competing with the more populist newspapers and is even being recognised by national outlets as well. This is something which, journalistically, is really important for the Unversity and is what I would like to think I have changed myself.
How would you describe your political stance?
I used to be quite politically minded back when I was in school; I was involved with the Liberal Democrat party in 2005 and 2006. Since then I’ve become somewhat more distant with identifying with party politics.
Do you think your politics influence your work as an editor?
Not really. With The Tab we’ve always set out to give as much balance as possible in terms of viewpoints. We believe that every student should have the opportunity to write and publish what they want. If we get a good, well-written article, and it’s a bit contentious or controversial, then I’m not going to disagree with it being published.
If The Tab hadn’t come to Exeter what do you think you would have done?
I’d probably be a functioning alcoholic [laughs]. During my Freshers’ Week I went to a social in the Ram for XMedia Online and there were about five people there, and I joined because it was only a quid and I got an Arena card out of it. The thing is, Exeposé claim that they’re independent but they are the University’s society newspaper. They’ve stepped up their game a lot over the last few months in terms of the stories they cover, but other than that they have never inspired the same passion to write and produce news in the same way as The Tab has for me.
Do you see Exeposé as rivals?
A lot of the stuff in Exeposé is examples of students writing stories or reviews on things that The Tab just don’t cover, like the books section or the games section. We don’t really cover those sorts of things, because in general we believe that if you want to read a film review you’ll be reading Empire, or if you want to read a book review you’ll be reading the book section of the Guardian, that sort of thing. We do very different things.
But are they rivals? There are areas of crossover, and I always read through Exeposé to see if there’s anything we’ve missed. [Pauses] I’m trying to phrase this without sounding really arrogant. But because of our platform and how user-friendly The Tab is to reader and editor and writer, we’ve often run the stories which they run a week beforehand. So it doesn’t really feel like a rivalry because a lot of the time it’s just flicking through their pages and seeing the stories which we’ve already published.
What drives traffic the most to The Tab website?
Our widest read articles are always the ones which have certain sexual connotations. You look at the stats over the last year and one of the biggest articles has been on the whole Ram blowjob fiasco. Generally, it’s always something which is contentious and makes people think “ooh I don’t know about that”. That’s what makes the best splash or best story: the things that shock people, which you get with sex along with any other horror story.
Have you ever published anything just because it was controversial?
That’s always an element we’re thinking of whenever we publish a story, but I can’t think of an example where that’s been the sole reason why we’ve published something. There’s always another edge to it, and an element of public interest, when we’re running a story.
With that in mind, what was your justification for putting up a poll where you said visitors could vote on whether they wanted to see the CCTV footage of the now infamous ‘Ram Blowjob’, and that if the majority voted ‘yes’ you would show it?
The idea for that came from the poll which Guido Faulkes ran a few months earlier with the Kate Middleton photos, asking people if they wanted them to be published or not. It was really a case of gauging our readership and seeing how they would react to the story. It was arguably a very sensationalist thing to do, but we knew it would generate traffic. But then again, it was a case of us wanting to see how it was going to be received, and then off the back of that, work out the best and most sensitive way to cover it.
Would you have published the video if there had been no legal barriers in your way?
We knew we were never going to publish the video because of a legal consultation we had about it. But personally, even if there were no legal barriers, I don’t think I would have. It was already everywhere at the time, so really there wasn’t any need in us publishing it.
So you set up a poll asking people if they wanted to see it, knowing that you weren’t going to show it?
How would you describe The Tab in a sentence?
For students, by students, about students…with as many short words and clichés as possible.
Where do you see yourself in twenty years times?
Ideally, I want to be a staff writer for HBO, and I want to be the person sitting in his apartment in NYC while they’re panicking to find someone to write the next episode of Season Eight of Boardwalk Empire. I’m the person they call up.
How would you like to be remembered?
I’d like to be remembered as the person who established The Tab in Exeter as the main source for news, and set the whole process in motion.