Critical journalism in higher education goes way back

All universities in the Netherlands have their own journalism platform. A legacy of the 1960s, Ries Agterberg of Utrecht University news website DUB, points out.

Ries Agterberg: “For PR people, the question is: what message do we want to get across? With journalists, the question is: what are students and staff interested in finding out? Those two things are not always the same”. (Photo: DUB)

Ahead of a conference on the history of journalism in higher education, he raised an objection with the organisers. So on Friday, he will be one of the speakers. Agterberg also chairs the circle of editors-in-chief of higher education media.

He got in touch when he saw the title of the conference: From a thorn in the side to corporate glossy? It bothered Agterberg for two reasons. “For one thing, it suggests that a glossy can’t write critical stories,” he explains. “Besides, you can hardly call these magazines glossies anymore.”

Groningen will host Friday’s conference, organised by the Belgian-Dutch Society for the History of Science and Universities and featuring contributions about the journalism platforms at the universities of Groningen, Leiden, Delft, Leuven and Rotterdam. Agterberg will speak on the changing function of university journalism in general.

In Agterberg’s view, most of today’s university magazines have their roots in the 1960s, when students rebelled and fought for the democratisation of universities. From 1970, Dutch universities were governed according to a kind of ‘municipal council model’ which gave student and staff councils a say in decisions.

“That was essential for the university papers,” says Agterberg, “because this kind of system fuels independent reporting. Who’s siding with who? What conflicts are brewing? Often the articles focused more on the politics involved than the issues under discussion and their impact on students and staff.”

It’s also good for your profile if you can say ‘our university welcomes free and open discussion’

The emphasis on university politics made sense at a time when the executive board was dependent on councils that were very much involved in the decision-making process. This changed in the late 1990s, when Jo Ritzen became education minister with a mission to modernise how universities were governed.

There were good reasons for this, Agterberg notes. “The minister had no real way of holding the executive boards accountable because in the end they didn’t have that much power. In Leiden, non-university members of the board – they were part of the picture too – even forced the board to resign. This had to do with fraudulent dealings surrounding the construction of a new medical faculty building. I see that conflict as one of the catalysts for modernising the system.”

As a result, the universities’ inner workings became more opaque. The executive board took key decisions in consultation with the deans, but no one was in the room to register the process. Moreover, the board members began to attach greater value to the reputation of their institution, and university publications that took a critical line came under pressure. Editors had to find a new role for themselves.

That sometimes led to conflicts. In Tilburg, where Agterberg also worked, editors wrote an article about the university’s poor score in the Keuzegids rankings. The paper was removed from the stands so that visitors to an open day would not read it. “It was the time of slogans, profiling and competition with other institutions,” says Agterberg.

This forced publications to make themselves indispensable to the community of students and staff. The focus of their reports shifted towards topics that directly affected students and staff (such as the introduction of the Bachelor’s-Master’s system) and away from squabbles in the councils. It was also the time when some magazines started looking more like glossies, with shiny covers and a greater emphasis on lifestyle.

Even so, most magazines remained critical and independent. There were occasional conflicts with the university’s executives, but ultimately these did not affect the position of journalism. After all, universities can make a good impression by hosting a critical magazine and come in for fierce criticism for trying to shut it down. As Agterberg notes, “It’s also good for your profile if you can say ‘our university welcomes free and open discussion’.”

‘An old article about student language still attracts the highest number of readers’

This tradition was not as strong at universities of applied sciences, Agterberg adds. “Most magazines at these institutions were not launched until later and therefore lacked the foundation from the 1960s and 1970s, which the university magazines were able to draw on. That’s why even now there are only a few independent editorial boards in the higher professional education sector.”

Nowadays, university magazines find themselves in yet another new phase: digitisation. All of them post their articles online and most have said farewell to their printed edition. DUB was the first to do so, under duress, in 2010. Financing plays a major role in such decisions. Delta followed in 2017

Digitisation has its advantages and its drawbacks. On the one hand, the printed editions had a wide circulation within their own institution and were on display in every building. Now readers have to make a conscious decision to visit the website. On the other hand, articles can now attract unprecedented numbers of readers online, from within the institution and beyond. “An article from years ago about student language still attracts the highest number of readers on a monthly basis,” Agterberg reveals.

When do you listen to criticism and when do you stick to your guns?

The higher education media have such a strong tradition that they are not likely to disappear anytime soon. According to Agterberg, communications departments have also come to understand why these publications are useful. “For PR people, the question is: what message do we want to get across? With journalists, the question is: what are students and staff interested in finding out? Those two things are not always the same.”

Investigative journalism
Agterberg also points to the trend towards investigative journalism in higher education. Some publications have succeeded in lifting the lid on highly sensitive issues, as was the case in Delft with revelations about the university’s collaboration with researchers linked to the Chinese military. Delta was awared the Kringaward 2021 and was nominated for the Netherlands’ leading journalism award, the Tegel.

The magazines also tackle hot topics at the institutions, such as inclusion and woke activism. “It is good to follow these developments closely,” Agterberg says. “As independent journalists, you have to give a voice to the people who make the case for these things, but also be mindful of those who are highly critical of it.”

In this day and age, magazines also have to ask themselves tough questions, he adds. “How do you go about presenting news? How do you deal with disinformation? When do you listen to criticism and when do you stick to your guns? That’s how we keep evolving.”

HOP, Bas Belleman
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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