“Close the Tab” - Why the Tab Represents the Worst of Student Media

Daniel Priestley - Writer and Editor

The Tab is a website launched by three students at Cambridge University. Their objective was to replace the old school stuffy media with something that catered more to the needs of students. Jack Rivlin (one of the three founding students) believes that the Tab aims “to speak to students in the language they speak to each other”. Since the launch the Website has expanded to over 80 universities in the UK and the US and is said to have a monthly audience of 50 million people but is relatively unknown to the non-student population.

The company has obtained millions of pounds in funding from places such as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and Balderton Capital, a venture capital firm in London. The venture capital firm chose to invest because they were “impressed by the company’s high engagement rates and reader loyalty”. So why does this company represent the worst of student media? There are two key problems with the Tab: the content of the articles and the business model of the company.

The Content

The content on the Tab ranges from self-described “trash”, titillating clickbait, gossip pieces with the occasional helpful piece of local reporting. The Tab derives its name partially from the word Tabloid and their content often sinks down to the level of papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail.

For example, the original version of the website which was catered to Cambridge University launched with a feature known as Tab totty which “showcased photos of scantily clad female undergraduates.” Whilst the feature was quickly eliminated, Rivlin seemed to show little remorse in an interview stating that “it’s actually a bit grim and sexist” but also saying ,“I won’t lie and say it wasn’t a brilliant marketing exercise”. The Tab Cambridge continued to run a “Rear of the Year” contest where students submit pictures of their buttocks with people voting for the best until 2018. The Tab claims to provide “stories you care about” yet continues to churn out this contemptible rubbish.

Ignoring big controversial articles, the standard Tab article tends to consist of one of two models .The first is an eye-catching headline with little in the way of follow through. Editor-in-Chief of The Mancunion newspaper of Manchester University says the Tab often publishes stories “quickly without searching out relevant or expert people for comment.” The second type is a piece of “relatable” student content which usually contains the same kind of jokes about VKs, private Instagrams and student households. Giving the Tab a bit of credit, they tend to be successful in reporting up to date campus news and this is an important way of delivering the information to students. They've also recently been involved in sharing petitions to persuade Universities to bring in "no detriment" policies following the coronavirus outbreak.

The Tab’s success clearly shows that there is demand for this type of content however it feels like a lot of what the Tab do is throwing sh*t at the wall and seeing what sticks - a strategy made easier by a business model that relies on unpaid writers.

The Business Model

Normal student media is run through the SU. It works on a voluntary basis, and funding comes from the Students Union. This allows students to gain valuable experience but as the papers aren’t for-profit, no one is getting rich off the back of the hard working students.

“The Tab is one of very few for-profit university media organisations” and it is dependent on a network of nearly 1000 regular, mainly unpaid student journalists. One of the arguments used to justify this is that students don’t ask to get paid. Whilst this may be true, just because someone doesn’t recognise you are exploiting their hard work, doesn’t mean that it’s not taking place. The most recent update of the way they pay their writers I can find is on the basis of performance. If an article does incredibly well writers will get a small payment. This is defined as prize money meaning they can ensure that their writers are exempt from any minimum wage law.

They also argue that they are “between a platform and a publisher” and that you wouldn’t ask to get paid for your facebook posts. However, a student tabloid’s value is derived from its content and so the profit is coming as a direct result from the unpaid work instead of the content being produced being part of a wider social network. An interesting comparison can be drawn here to the website “Student Hut” which runs a similar business model, yet pays it’s student writers for their hard word, whilst still offering a large platform.

The Tab also argues that it offers its reporters training about sourcing, social media and privacy. Like many unpaid internship positions, the company is arguing that the experience it is giving to its writer is valuable enough. Arguably it’s even worse than a normal internship position because you are being trained specifically as a Tab writer which will never be a viable career path unless you join the very limited editorial team which requires a separate set of skills. They are offering experience of an unpaid position as payment.

Rather than allowing its writers to be a part of a not-for-profit student-led team like a traditional student paper or magazine, this company is profiting off the backs of student writers whilst teaching them to write low quality, clickbait articles so they can maximise advertising revenue. Change the source of your campus news, look to your local student paper and close the Tab.

person using silver laptop computer on desk




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