It is the wildly popular student news site that all right-on students love to hate. Its meteoric rise, spreading to 41 universities in five years, has revolutionized student journalism. A culture war rages in the student bubble and the Tab has emerged as a defender of “lad culture” and the nemesis of the NUS. Student media has been rebalanced: between the commercial and the public, the lowbrow and highbrow, the ‘right’ and ‘left.’
The concept of the Tab was crystallized in both Southampton and Cambridge around 2009. The Cambridge Tab, which appeared ‘just before,’ would go on to secure major investment in 2012 and expand into the nation-wide Tab Media group. But in 2010, the Sutton Tab, of Southampton, quickly became the most popular ‘student rag’ in the city – and probably the country for a time – gaining over 6,500 Facebook followers in just a few months.
Today the Soton Tab’s about page on Facebook still claims it is “not affiliated with the ‘Tab’ media group.” Yet a past editor wrote on her Facebook page in December last year, “me [Bridget Clay] and Alex Bees [previous sub-editor]… started talk of (sic) affiliation back in late February ,” and the national Tab has begun to share articles on the Soton’s website via their social media platforms since.
The decision was met with some anger, but in the post, Clay explains why a deal was necessary: “affiliation with a national network ensures that all Soton Tab’s (sic) writers get the backing, representation and professional advice that they deserve,” and “that no editor ever, EVER gets threatened, bullied, or sent to Uni disciplinary by sabbatical officers EVER again, in the way that me, Alex and our predecessors so often were.”
The Tab national pays a retainer for a media lawyer and a number of their 15-strong team in London have formal media law training. The Soton Tab found themselves in ‘trouble’ for merely publishing their typical Tabloid content, that Union officials have been attempting to drive off campus – most notably, with the almost ubiquitous campus ban on the Sun. The Soton’s struggle, however, was small compared to that faced by Southampton’s official student title, The Wessex Scene.
Like the vast majority of student papers it is funded by the Student Union and therefore, however indirectly, by the University itself. In an open letter published in 2011 the then editor wrote:
“A special edition on Sex, Drugs and Alcohol, three things closely linked to many students lives here in Southampton [and a] re-run of last year’s sex survey [also] about Southampton students’ drug and alcohol use,” was delayed because, “we were told that the survey we produced ‘wasn’t of any use to the Union’ and didn’t supposedly fit the values of the Students’ Union.”
(Incidentally, a student drug survey became one of the most popular pieces of content on the Tab national last year, and made national headlines.)
The letter continues: “The front cover design, produced by two Winchester School of Art Students, didn’t fit the values of the Union either and due to the minimal cleavage and general sexual nature was unacceptable… For this reason we are unable to show you the image…”
“We were [also] prevented from publishing the following cartoon produced by students… because it actively offends each and every student at our University… We were prevented from publishing an article about a student who smuggled nun-chucks and similar objects across an Asian border… [and] were also prevented from publishing an anonymous article which interviewed a local drug dealer.”
Almost identical campaigns of editorial interference were reported in Sussex last year, and just weeks ago at LSE. What happened in Southampton is not an isolated case, its part of a well-established pattern. A pattern that resides within a culture of politically motivated censorship on British campuses, which online magazine Spiked laid out in their free speech university rankings this year.
Jack Rivlin, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the Cambridge and National Tab told the Guardian last year; “the distinction I’ve always made between us and print student papers is that those papers are mainly produced for the people who work on them, whereas we’re produced for the reader. That’s the reason for our mass-market populism.”
Student culture has become starkly polarized in recent times and Tab readers are of a new, politically apathetic, banter-loving breed of student. Over the last 15 years, student numbers have risen dramatically and the average age of a student has fallen steadily. “Education, education, education” said Blair, and an entire generation raised on American Pie and Skins signed up for gap years, bar crawls and casual sex.
The NUS and union councils, meanwhile, are dominated by what Brendan O’Neil labeled the Stepford students; radically left-leaning activists deeply embroiled in identity politics, offence taking and banning things. They have declared war on so-called Lad Culture; on “‘banter’ on social media; student nights at the local club; initiations to join a sports team,” which are all deemed problematic, according to the NUS’s recent report.
The vision student union councilors (who, by whatever mean, exercise editorial control) have for our union papers, and the attitude of the increasingly small politically active class of students who happily read and write them, is alien to the masses who now attend universities.
Of course non-student titles, too, have notoriously struggled to sell news to young people. The likes of Buzzfeed and VICE have managed to buck the trend by packaging their content in a rude, playful style engineered towards click bait and online sharing. The Tab borrows from this online gonzo format, combining it with more licentious elements from traditional British red tops, in a way that official student papers have not been allow to.
What’s more, if I (a student), want to read some nuanced comment on international relations, say, I won’t go for the half formed musing of a second year history student which I’ll have to remember to pick up in the union. I’ll open my laptop and read something by a professional. That’s just a reality of the information age.
The only parts of our Union paper worth reading, and that get significantly read online, are those they do best, pertaining to university life (or the ‘student bubble’ as they call it at the Tab). That’s all the Tab publishes on: “World news, Premiership football or Hollywood reviews are all perfectly valid things to write about, but no one was covering a lot of stuff students cared about, and that’s the formula we’ve expanded,” continues Rivlin.
In a competitive online world of free, democratized and globalized content, union affiliated papers are looking increasingly obsolete, as well as boring. The Tab, in contrast, has rapidly spread to 41 universities and has 2,000,000 readers a month, according to their web site.
With success, the Tab has of course come under criticism. It has been accused of being, “a top-down organisation, run out of an office in London,” “depressingly corporate” and even “a money-making monopoly.” A Luddite writing for York Vision even tried to initiate a boycott: “The Tab… is simply is not as high quality an outlet as Vision or Nouse. They may have more consistent branding and more sensationalism than even Vision, but you will never have anything physical to show for working for them,” he wrote.
It’s the more debauched content that has really got tabloid loathing liberal establishment up in arms. Jeremy Paxman said he will be “boycotting” the Tab because he deems it “disgraceful,” the previous student editor of the Independent bemoaned it as “a glaring symptom of the systemic sexual inequities of patriarchy” and the Guardian called it “neither clever nor funny.”
“We’ll stop writing it, when you stop reading it,” is the Tab’s slogan – and they keep on reading. “Our readers don’t care about a student’s self-professed ‘world view’. There’s a misconception that students should be writing about the deficit or Barack Obama. They shouldn’t: they should be writing about their own world.
“People accuse us of dumbing down, but what’s dumb is soulless, pompous writing, which isn’t even really journalism, just self-indulgent writing for no audience,” Rivlin told the Kernal in 2013.
The Tab clearly confers many benefits upon its volunteer writing force. It can offer them a huge platform at a national level; it runs workshops with the Telegraph, constantly distributes article ideas and tips and even sponsors MA scholarships. Tab student journalists frequently break stories that make national headlines and many have gone on to write for national titles.
More importantly, though, The Tab has become a powerful voice in student culture, and a counterbalancing force to the grip of the NUS and the Stepford students. Biting, mocking titles like, “NUS refuses to condemn ISIS terrorists…because it’s ‘Islamophobic’” and “Now vile SU refuse to commemorate Holocaust…because it’s ‘eurocentric and colonialist,’” that would not make it into Union affiliated papers regularly appear, and get a huge amount of hits.
Traditional student papers are politically skewed, increasingly beholden to a prudish, paternalistic attitude of unrepresentative union councilors, and have been left behind. Unable and unwilling to adjust to a changing student demographic, to evolve, to write about student culture as it is and to produce the content their primary audience now wants to consume.
And with editorial independence and a huge audience, readers and young journalists are switching to the Tab because it is truly adversarial, able to stand up to the hegemony of the NUS and Unions, and properly hold those institutions to account.
Considering the explosion of online content and the boom in student numbers in the past decade, I wouldn’t be the first to point out that it’s a wonder something commercial like the Tab didn’t appear five years before it did.