Perhaps venerable isn’t quite the right description, but the Otago student newspaper/magazine Critic Te Arohi has been around for a long time now – 89 years, to be exact. In 1925 medical student Francis Bennett, who edited the annual student publication The Review, suggested a new student newspaper and the OUSA approved. This would replace the 4-page newsletter Te Korero, which Bennett later described as “a dismal rag which [Dan Aitken] and I usually filled up with imaginative froth a few hours before it went to press.” As editor Archibald Campbell explained in the first issue, Critic would include plenty of news, but it would also be a place where “criticism may be brought into the open.” If it lived up to its name, the new arrival would “suffer no word or deed to go unquestioned within the four walls of Otago University.”
In the succeeding nine decades, Critic has lived up those initial hopes. While its quality and style has varied through the years, it has always included a lively mixture of campus news, humour and commentary on the issues of the day. It has frequently, though not always, been radical, and sometimes it pushes the boundaries. In 2013 the New Zealand Press Council noted that student magazines “are a particular genre, with a long history of provocation and even offensiveness. They are also usually noted for their edgy and ironic tone.” On that occasion the Press Council was dismissing a complaint against Critic, but the publication has not always got off so lightly. In 2010 the council upheld a complaint about a Critic article on some well-known Dunedin “vagrants” with mental health problems. Getting the tone of an article wrong also led Critic into trouble in 2005, when a piece designed to highlight the problem of date rape worried numerous people. It was referred by police to the censor and the issue was eventually banned, though by then several months had passed and it had been widely distributed. It was politics which caused the trouble on a much earlier occasion. In 1952 the Otago Daily Times, which printed Critic under contract to the OUSA, refused to print a front page article “U.S. Germ Warfare in Korea?” The article had already appeared in the Canterbury student newspaper, Canta, but the ODT took objection to its “Communist point of view” (it was a condensed version of a People’s China piece). After taking legal advice, Critic agreed to publish it in the next edition, but accompanied with an article “giving the opposing point of view.” The relationship with the ODT has been an interesting one, as editor Holly Walker noted in a 2005 article celebrating Critic‘s 80th anniversary: “As far as I can tell, Critic has always been, and will always be, dominated by sex, funny stories about freshers, stupid letters to the editor, apathy about student elections, and antagonism for the ODT. Long may it continue.”
Holly Walker, now a Green MP, is one of various Critic editors and staff who have gone on to prominent careers in New Zealand public life. For some, such as radio and TV broadcaster Jim Mora and political commentator Chris Trotter, Critic has been the start of a life in media. Geoffrey Cox, joint-editor in 1930, went on to a significant career in journalism in the UK. Others have made their mark in other fields, like 1952 editor Paul Oestreicher, an Anglican priest known for his work for peace.
It isn’t only writing and editing skills that have been developed at Critic; designers have also earned their stripes on the student publication. What was once a rather plain magazine, and later a broadsheet newspaper, has now become a skillfully-designed full colour production, available both in hard copy and online. The covers created by design studies major Andrew Jacombs for Critic in 2011 won him plaudits from international design industry blog Coverjunkie. When a June 2012 cover also featured on Coverjunkie, it caught the eye of the staff of US magazine Newsweek. Critic team members Joe Stockman, Sam Stuchbury and Sam Clark adapted their design for the cover of the US giant, which boasts a readership of 14 million.
The design of Critic is clearly much more sophisticated in the twenty-first century than it was in the twentieth, but not everything is more “advanced”: the letters to the editor are as infantile as ever! Do you have any memories to share of this longstanding feature of student life?