Digital Dreams

Democratising Journalism in the Age of Immediacy 

Digitalisation anticipates the transition from analogue forms of media to digital platforms. In media and journalism, this process is most commonly realised through online iterations of print media; websites that serve as both an extension of its printed issues, and a place for exclusive online material.

Although seldom known, Tharunka was one of the first student-run media platforms to adopt this method of digitising student journalism, establishing a new standard of online publishing for university magazines across Sydney. This period of digitising Tharunka started to take place in the mid to late-1990s – the inaugural decade of the World Wide Web. With Tharunka embracing its new digital space, it opened the potential to explore new avenues of publishing (such as Netscape) in early versions of the internet.

In 2004, Tharunka began publishing on the UNSW Student Guild’s website, which helped elevate the newspaper by platforming voices in a new context. By 2013, the student magazine had amassed over sixty years of print issues – this included its early letterset-printed bulletin issues of the 1950s, long before the introduction to laser printing and digital mass production.

This necessitated a new method of digitisation, whereby past Tharunka issues were scanned and archived into the UNSW Library Collection. The process of scanning not only acknowledges the breadth of articles that predated the dot-com era of Tharunka – the archives produced a digital timeline that traced the evolution of Tharunka throughout the decades. In digitising content for online publishing, a new form of creative and journalistic labour was introduced by the mid to late-1990s.

Numerous student publications pursued the transition to digital – from UTS’s presently eye-popping Vertigo to the provocative Honi Soit at the University of Sydney. Many of these publications owe their successes to creative authorship, public plurality, and, more notably in past decades, to radical discourse-making and political commentaries. But as the transition to digitisation evolved into an imperative, so did the motivation to collectivise in online journalism.

Democratising journalism lends itself to diverse voices and opinions, which in turn becomes emblematic of the radical and countercultural politics of student publications. However, details of Tharunka’s print-to-digital transition are not common knowledge, even among the more seasoned Tharunka members. The earliest record of Tharunka’s online website dates back to September 2004, many years prior to the inception of Tharunka’s domain name.

While both print and digital issues remain archived online, it is ironic that the records and accounts of Tharunka’s transition to digital publishing are doubly scarce. To investigate this hidden pocket of Tharunka’s history will require a throwback to the student magazine at the height of Web 1.0. A time of manageable student debts and oversized computer monitors, the digitisation of Tharunka from print entailed a laborious process of archiving, preservation, and adaptation to new technologies. But of course, tracing back these memories is not without its enquiries. With Tharunka reaching its 70th year in publishing, we must ask – to what extent do we owe our successes to online publishing?

Back to Print Basics

Broadly speaking, the emergence of digital journalism does not equate to the cessation of print media, nor should it be considered a threat as such. Newspaper stands still exist across universities, and Tharunka still maintains a presence across our Kensington campus; at random checkpoints by the Basser Steps staircase, in the quietude of UNSW Library, or outside lecture hall entrances. Whether or not these print issues succeed at catching students’ attention, what cannot be argued is that the print form still continues its own legacy.

Many seasoned journalists can vouch for this legacy, including former Tharunka editor Sebastian Chan, who recalled his early roots with the student publication in 1995. Seb began studying for his PhD in Social Work after completing his undergrad degree the previous year. Decades after his time at UNSW, he now resides in Melbourne where he works as Director and CEO at the Australian Centre of Moving Image (ACMI).

To no surprise, Seb expresses a strong penchant for technology and digital media; at one point even writing to the Tharunka 70 team that his email was ‘Sent from [his] semi-portable [Commodore] SX64 whilst playing Thing on a Spring.’ The 90s had proven to be foundational to Seb’s career. He recounts networking with student writers who would evolve from their early journalist experiences – this included Tanya Levin, a journalist who carried Tharunka’s radical ethos into her career with her exposés on the Hillsong Church. Alongside Seb’s voluntary work as an editor, he also worked with former Tharunka contributor Dale Harrison for Cyclic Defrost, a media platform dedicated to eclectic music and music culture.

Upon reflecting on his time at Tharunka, Seb praised the quiet power of print as an “event” that surrounded each issue launch. ‘The physical was so much more important’ he commented ‘in a way that it isn’t now.’ Each print mirrored the ‘bumpy ride of student politics’ – with student unions at the backbone of many on-campus platforms and projects, it became on-brand for Tharunka to support the publishing of contentious and provocative content across many issues.

Seb fondly recalls the Foundation Day issue published in August 1995. The front cover reveals a replicated design of the classic, yet austere telegraph covers that were emblematic of Australian newspapers such as the Sydney Telegraph. This Foundation Day issue was likely one of few moments in Tharunka’s publishing record where the publication not only found a presence outside UNSW, but also adopted a form of design language that was in dialogue with media and current affairs. Foundation Day issues remained an annual tradition for Tharunka’s editors and writers – at least until September 2020.

While satire and parody still make a presence in Tharunka’s print and digital editions, it is seldom practised now to allow print copies outside a campus context. Print issues still lend themselves to being a tangible source of leisure; a readable object to help kill time within the gaps of people’s routine. News Corp’s mX has proven to succeed at this in the early 2000s, publishing a daily dose of tabloid news to relieve commuters travelling back home from their nine-to-five jobs. But despite maintaining its longevity for fourteen years, the metro newspaper became defunct by 2015.

The 2010s marked a new emergence in social media usage and user engagement, with platforms like Buzzfeed, Tumblr, and Twitter playing an especially pivotal role in shaping the climate of digital communication and readership. There’s no question as to why mX would eventually become obsolete. Will Tharunka face a similar fate with its own print issues? Of course, social media and digital platforms continue to afford more than just readership. But as Seb would discuss much later in the interview, it is not without its caveats.

Digital Memories

Tharunka’s past print issues are preserved digitally in an online trove, each page scanned and transcribed with care. The art of archival preservation afforded a new kind of labour that was different from print or digital; one that required text to be embedded as part of the transcribing process, and for page spreads to be formatted to the correct dimensions. The person most responsible for Tharunka’s transition was Jonathan Trott, a seasoned online editor of the publication.

And according to former Tharunka editor Nigel Gardiner, the transition to online publishing entailed a period of trial and error, as resources on HTML remained scarce at the time. In an era where programs like QuarkXpress predated Adobe InDesign and Canva, exporting older issues of Tharunka to a readable format was also not as easy as converting files to PDFs. Converting each issue into a webpage was an extremely laborious process.

Even with the care of early digitisation, Seb claims that the original files from the mid to late 90s are now lost. Scans were likely the most radical method to present print articles into new forms of engagement. ‘Back then, the idea of having to create a website and stuff was not even in people’s mind,’ Seb recounts. Before the age of Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer, managing HTML on an internet browser like Netscape proved challenging for the fact that computers read and translated files differently from one another.

Consistent formatting across all computers could not be guaranteed at the time. Today, online archives are taken for granted, with Tharunka’s trove made readily available at UNSW’s online library archives. ‘Most of the students on campus didn’t have web access,’ Seb said, ‘You didn’t get access to the computer labs unless you were in engineering, or the sciences, or in a postgrad degree.’ But lucky for Seb, he knew an engineering friend who granted him access to the web. Paired with the fortnightly publishing schedule, the labour of digitalising Tharunka could only be made possible due to simpler times at UNSW.

‘It was a lot of labour,’ Seb laments ‘but the flipside was … the impact of [that] labour was very visible and rewarded immediately.’ Many students afforded the luxury of living in a healthy economy with lower HECs debts and less inflation, meaning that most editors and writers for the publication could cope with the inconveniences that came packaged with outdated technology; from uploading gargantuan files to zip disks, to computers crashing on late nights.

With these systems in mind, the emergence of digital media would likely leave most readers and writers assuming the gradual decline of print media. While the broader reach of print media would lead to its inevitable digitisation, this does not necessarily equate to the replacement of such.

Tharunka now adopts a hybrid model, consisting of a triannual print run of issues and a dedicated website featuring both PDFs of past issues and online exclusive pieces. The question now is whether this print-digital model can continue to sustain longevity and relevance on campus. It’s a matter of preparing for new cultural and economic challenges that exist beyond the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic. ‘I can’t imagine how hard it is to do a student newspaper now,’ Seb laments. ‘I can’t imagine how anyone has time to do it.’

Democratising the Digital

Digital media has rendered student journalism accessible – not just at the level of readability, but also in democratising student media. ‘The focus that print brought allowed issues to be discussed in a more concentrated, shorter period of time,’ Seb comments. ‘But it didn’t hang around.’ As we outgrow floppy disks and overheated computers, we also enter a new online space where material holds greater permanence.

This era of digital media predicates on evidencing ideas and proof of speech (better known by its euphemism, “keeping receipts”), thus breeding a culture in journalism that keeps societies, figures, and even the most well-respected writers accountable. Seb explains that many younger audiences – especially activists – would likely find it harder to make mistakes online. Unlike Cyclic Defrost, which could afford worldwide distribution, student newspapers remain localised within campus. While this might seem limiting, submitting to both print and online student journalism enables a locus for entrylevel experiences. ‘I think student journalism is amazingly important,’ Seb comments. ‘It’s where people get their start.’

With the world brimming with great political uncertainty, digital media drives an imperative for students to collectivise through public conversation – by democratising the digital, ideas and topics sustains its own legacies online, both good and bad. As Seb would remark, ‘things have a persistence beyond their context.’ Audiences and users alike will find themselves entering the same space – a ‘context collapse’ enabling politics to be repositioned and transformed across discourse. Citing the duet and stitch function in TikToks, Instagram Reels and the like, Seb praises the ability for users to gather material from previous discussions, which renders the conversation into a shareable object.

The Future of Immediacy

Tharunka continues to thrive as an entry point into journalism and editorial experience. ‘Like any voluntary thing that you get involved with, [Tharunka] felt like what you would do in a community organisation,’ Seb tells Tharunka. ‘I think a lot of people have come through Tharunka over the decades who’ve become very famous journalists or comedians or media people or just interesting people in general.

You can go back to what they were running student newspapers … and trace some of what they did with what they were doing then.’ Furthermore, Seb affirms that journalism still plays an integral role in creating discourse and democratising publishing systems, both print and digital. ‘Journalism and the diverse publishing ecosystem is very critical for the future of humanity.’ What concerns us now is the matter of understanding what forms of journalism should be supported, and how they can best get paid and earn a living.

Online journalism remains a double-edged sword within the so-called ecosystem of publishing media. But for better or worse, digitising platforms has opened the freedom to foster new perspectives for independent media and studentrun publications. The path to sustaining success is far from comfortable. Greater visibility and readership might require us to pursue new forms of provocation beyond campus life.

This can look like disrupting online feeds with controversial graphics, or distributing print issues through invasive means. Or maybe, it’s a return to our radical roots. As a student-run publication, the last thing we need is for Tharunka to exist within the vacuum of limitation. Democratised student journalism is all about opening its doors to exciting risks and possibilities. Even if this means owing up to missteps or stirring up public disputes, we may never reap the benefits of our labour until we take a leap of faith.

Images Courtesy of Tharunka