By Eisen Teo
QUESTION marks hang over the future of two 'independent' student newspapers here.
The Campus Observer (TCO) and The Enquirer - online university newspapers led and staffed solely by undergraduates - are finding it tough to sustain their projects on passion alone.
Because these publications are not affiliated with schools or on-campus organisations, their staff do not receive co-curricular activity points, and neither are they paid.
So most student writers opt for 'official' publications because they get recognition, or freelance for commercial titles, which pay them.
As a result, site updates have dwindled, from up to five a week at their outset, to once a week or even once every few months now.
Yet both TCO and The Enquirer were celebrated at their launches as alternative voices to official school publications - The Nanyang Chronicle at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) and The Ridge at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
In May 2006, 10 NUS undergraduates formed TCO, seeking to cover 'serious' issues 'close to the hearts' of fellow students. In its first year, it attracted anything from 100 to 1,000 visitors daily, and had up to 20 volunteers putting out five articles a week, from news to commentary pieces.
Now, its website content is updated by a group of just seven volunteers, producing just one report a week during term. Without an office, they meet instead at various locations on campus once a week.
They do not have advertisers either, but they are not considering registering as a company, and do not aim to make a profit. Rather, they seek only journalists who thrive on 'passion' alone.
Said executive editor Venkatesh Naidu, 24: 'If we start paying writers, we will have people who write for the sake of money, not for the sake of journalism.'
Still, that means students quit when it takes up too much time from their studies, for instance.
Mr Naidu's No.1 mission now is to find an executive editor and writers to take over from those who are now in their final year of studies and will graduate next year. He is one of them.
TCO news editor Jason Hau, 24, said: 'Finding passionate people is not easy, but keeping them passionate is even harder.'
NTU's The Enquirer is faring no better. Set up by three undergraduates last October, it was a direct response to the university's administration, which stopped journalists of The Nanyang Chronicle from reporting on a campus visit by opposition politician Chee Soon Juan in September.
Its founders - Mr Chong Zi Liang, Mr Lin Junjie and Mr Zakaria Zainal, all 24 - had called it a 'lack of editorial independence' on campus.
They started off strongly with incisive coverage of events, but a recent check showed updates only once every couple of months.
Ms Estelle Low, 22, a fourth-year journalism major from NTU's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, used to write and edit for The Nanyang Chronicle, but now freelances for women's health magazine Shape, which promises a larger readership and fees of $100 to $250 per article. 'Getting paid to write is a really strong incentive,' she said.
Assistant Professor Dan Reimold from the Wee Kim Wee School teaching journalism, mass communication and new media, thinks it's time for TCO or The Enquirer to evolve.
Prof Reimold, who has worked at several American newspapers, said: 'The best student outlets are not known simply for speaking often, but for speaking for the students they claim to represent and ensuring that when they speak, both students and administrators listen.'
Fans of the sites are concerned.
Software engineer Justin Tan, 26, who has followed both TCO and The Enquirer since their births, said: 'I would hate to see such good products fade away after what they've accomplished.'
This article was first published in The Straits Times.