Felix Cover Photo

Felix Review

President
Friday 26 March 2021 16:08

We've completed our review of Felix, producing a series of recommendations for the paper as well as the Union.

Our student newspaper, Felix, has had a long and storied history at Imperial. From H. G. Wells' predecessor publication (the Phoenix), to an online-only period brought on by COVID, Felix has long since played a prominent role in university life. It receives an enviable amount of funding from the Union, significant (though not ubiquitous) engagement among students, and serious interest from many College staff.

In recent years, specific challenges have arisen, from technical issues to inconsistent output and personal isolation on the part of the Editor, who is responsible for leading Felix. This has meant Felix hasn't always been able to offer what students who write for or read the paper would expect from it, and fuelled a lack of trust between the Union and the newspaper. Our aims with this process were to evaluate what had gone wrong, get a better sense of what students want from the paper, and work out how best to try and make that happen.

The Process

Although I (Abhijay) initiated this review, the work to manage it and shape it was done jointly with the the current Editor, Calum Drysdale, and a small group of students from the Felix team and Union Council. It is worth noting that Calum is a full-time elected student, in a similar role to my own.

We identified the following main areas of focus:

  • The Editor role, including support from the Union and how this person should be held accountable;
  • The structure of the committee and broader editorial team
  • The desired output of the paper, including recommendations on content and format

We then ran a consultation process over February and early March, comprising:

  • A survey, circulated to all students
  • Discussions at Felix committee meetings (including elected committee members and largely appointed volunteer student editors)
  • Focus groups with interested students and key student volunteers
  • Discussions with past Editors
  • Contact with student newspaper editors at other universities
  • Discussions with relevant Union staff on matters relating to the employment terms of the Editor

Questions were tailored based on the group with which we were consulting -- for example, we tried to avoid dwelling on detailed discussion of the committee structure with people who had not been involved in running the paper previously.

With this process, we arrived at the following recommendations, which differed quite markedly in some areas from what we were expecting in the beginning.

Recommendations

We want to maintain the positives of a full-time Editor and regular print issues, while improving accountability for that role, meeting concerns about sustainability and cost, and strengthening support for student media at Imperial.

The full detail on these recommendations would make this blog ridiculously long, so if you're interested, you can find out more in the full report. A summary of the recommendations follows.

The vast majority of these recommendations are not set in stone. If you have specific feedback, Calum and I would both love to hear it.

The Editor

Although there's room for improvement in the details, students felt quite strongly that maintaining a full-time Editor elected by an all-student ballot was the best way to go. Without a full-time role, there was a sense that much of the paper's work would struggle to continue in Imperial's context. In addition, though we seriously explored alternatives to the normal election process, we came to the conclusion that this was the best (or at least, least bad) mechanism by which a person is selected; that the benefits of this process outweighed the costs, and the risks associated with alternatives made them unpalatable.

We discussed ways in which the induction process for incoming Editors could be improved, by ensuring the Union maintains better oversight of the information needed to run the paper year on year, by regularising the handover process from Editor to Editor, and by identifying a few key areas where training is currently lacking. This change would be assisted by a change in the contractual relationship with the Editor, who has historically been contracted for 10 months in the year reflecting their severely reduced workload over the Easter and Summer months. We felt that it would be preferable to contract the Editor for the full-year, but reduce the average number of hours they would be expected to work (keeping the overall cost the same). There would be flexibility in this: the Editor would not necessarily be expected to work the exact same number of hours each week.

To help make future Editors more easily accountable, we suggested: changes to the formal reporting line (currently, I'm officially the Editor's boss, which introduces a significant potential conflict of interest); increasing the frequency of contact with Union support staff; and making it easier for the Felix team to compel the Editor to take specific actions. We have introduced some clarity around the process for removing the Felix Editor from their role, making clear what steps the Union could take if this came to pass to ensure the newspaper is still able to keep printing. Our belief is that by treating the Felix Editor a bit more like a proper employee, and by reducing obstacles to students who might have a desire to challenge or even remove the Editor, we can make it easier for the Editor to be held accountable by students.

The Team

In addition to the above points about formal committee votes, we discussed at length ways in which the committee membership should be amended. We want to more clearly divide responsibilities between the full-time Editor and student volunteers, and to more equitably do so among this latter group, acknowledging that the best structure for Felix might differ somewhat than regular practice in most clubs and societies. In addition, we felt it was important to make clearer how the volunteer sub-editors of the different newspaper's sections would be appointed, and included in decision making.

We also made a few practical recommendations, suggesting that the editorial team and the Editor meet to set mutual expectations at the beginning of the academic year, and ways both socially and slightly more formally in which regular student writers can be recognised and better engaged with.

Content and Output

There was general consensus that the newspaper's online presence could be improved, with specific suggestions captured on streamlining the backend process for uploading articles and managing the server on which the website is hosted, as well as a recommendation to increase the regularity of uploading content.

Our consultation gave extremely strong support for the retention of printed issues, with a large majority favouring retaining the weekly run for reasons ranging from the currency of published articles to community building in departments. Discussion over the latter point made it clear that Felix is a much stronger part of departmental life for some students than others, and further discussion with relevant individuals as well as walk-arounds of their spaces (when circumstances permit) could be useful for enhancing the newspaper's impact. Such investigation would also help ensure issues are in the places they actually get picked up. There was a feeling that the current length and number of copies leads to waste, and we have suggested reducing these (for further detail, see the report).

Students felt strongly that Felix should be prioritising issues relating directly to Imperial. There was a sense that broader issues should be deprioritised, though not entirely precluded from publication, recognising the importance of providing students with a platform to hone their writing and share their views. On issues unrelated to the College, there was a strong view expressed that opinion pieces need to be more clearly signposted as such, and that where issues are being raised which are likely to be controversial among students, efforts should be made to seek views from people on 'both sides' (provided doing so wouldn't conflict with some core value of decency). Such determinations should be left to the editorial team, and it is worth noting that Felix has made efforts to court views from both sides of sensitive topics in the past.

Other areas

The two other key areas which came out of this piece of work related to finances and liability. The printing changes discussed above would save a figure in the low thousands, while Felix has expressed an interest in increasing revenue by seeking advertising. Responsibility for advertising currently sits with the Union centrally, and we would take a phased approach to returning control of this to the Felix team. On principle, we would seek to avoid sponsored content (paid written articles) and we would want to ensure that Felix isn't reliant on variable income to cover basic necessities.

In terms of liability, we recognise that any publication brings a risk of legal challenge. We have not monitored this well enough in the past, but have begun to hold a media lawyer with experience advising student publications on retainer, and we want that to continue after this year.

Next Steps

As a result of this process, we've passed this paper at Union Council and at the Union's Board of Trustees, setting out at a high level the responsibilities of the Editor as well as the nature of Felix in our key governing document, the Union's Bye-Laws.

Our next steps will include amending a related policy regarding Felix, amending the Editor's contract in the manner described above, formalising the handover process, and ensuring specific recommendations students made in this process are available to those who run Felix in the future. Perhaps most crucially, Calum is drafting a new constitution for Felixwhere many of the actual details behind these recommendations will be set out. We will be working on this alongside the Felix team, but if you have any particular thoughts, we'd be more than happy to hear them.

More generally, the depth of this piece of work revealed other areas which need attention from us going forward, from improving support from the Union for student media more generally (including IC Radio and ICTV), to ensuring club constitutions and Union policies are up to date, to making it clearer how votes of no confidence should work. Again, if you have particular thoughts or would like to be involved in conversations regarding any of these matters, please do send me an email.

Felix Needs You

If you've made it this far -- congratulations! I hope you've found this blog useful. We will be opening elections for Felix in the summer, in late May/early June. If this area interests you, I'd strongly encourage you to run for a part-time role helping run the paper as a volunteer or (especially if you have some experience) as the full-time Editor leading the paper. Felix can only survive and thrive with the enthusiasm of interested students.

I want to thank Calum, Andy, Susan, Isabelle, and Tom for their efforts, and I hope that this project helps ensure Imperial students get the newspaper they deserve.