When asked what prompted her to put her name on the ballot in the bye-election for University Times (UT) editor when she had not done so the first time, Ailbhe Noonan explains that it was not an impromptu decision: “I’ve known that I’ve wanted the job for about a year now.”
While she expected to spend a year on senior staff before making a bid for the editorship, Noonan saw a unique opportunity when nominations for the position were reopened: “I saw my opportunity at this point. And I said, look, I may as well try, I may as well throw my hat in the ring, because it’s something that means a lot to me. It’s something that I want.”
Noonan is the current deputy editor of Radius, the paper’s arts and culture supplement, covering events both in Trinity and its Dublin periphery. Having previously served as theatre editor in the magazine, Noonan spent a year documenting the many challenges the pandemic posed for the performing arts, as well as the innovative ways in which they were overcome. As deputy Radius editor, Noonan has helped oversee the magazine’s various sections, including art, literature, theatre, and fashion: “We always like to say we always know what’s going on, because Radius always stays ahead of cutting-edge culture coverage.”
In contrast with previous editors of the paper, Noonan has not previously held a staff position in the news section of UT. While acknowledging this, Noonan believes it is something that she can learn quickly. “I don’t shy away from the fact that I don’t have as much news experience as perhaps one might normally have in this position,” she says. “I’m well aware of that. But I think it’s something that I can learn, it’s something that I can pick up very quickly, I have a really solid track record for learning things very quickly for picking up skills and just going with that.”
It’s not without precedent; former Radius Editor Susie Crawford ran for editor in 2020, ultimately losing narrowly to Cormac Watson. Noonan nevertheless points to having some experience of news coverage, having contributed to UT’s coverage of the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) elections, as well as the Graduates Students’ Union (GSU) AGM and the recent Seanad bye-election. She also highlights that her experience as an arts and culture writer is more applicable than it may seem. “When you’re covering arts and culture, when it’s your job to kind of stay at the forefront of what’s happening, you have ears to the ground everywhere,” Noonan says. “You have a presence, there are people who know me both on campus and within the industry. So I always know what’s going on and I think I can apply that to what I’m doing as editor.”
Noonan says that her skill at “creating and maintaining relationships with people” in the culture section will carry over to cultivating news sources as editor.
Noonan acknowledged that a non-news background may indeed be a positive thing, according to her, saying: “It gives me a real sense of diversity, a real sense of what we can do different, it gives me kind of a fresh perspective.”
Noonan cites a desire to share with others what the paper gave to her as her motivation for running for editor: “UT has been the one space on campus where people have accepted me for who I am, they’ve accepted me with all my flaws. It’s given me a chance to explore writing, it’s given me a chance to come back to the sector and an area that I had moved away from. And I want to be able to do that for someone else.”
Noonan’s devotion to UT shines through: “This paper means much more to me than probably anything else on campus.”
In Noonan’s view, UT has three simultaneous purposes on campus. Firstly, like any paper, to report on news; this is not only about keeping students informed, but also serves as a check on institutions of power within College: “It holds them to account, because they’re aware that they may need to justify any decisions that they make, that might harm the student body, because the student body will be aware of it.”
Secondly, Noonan sees the paper as a place for students to learn new skills and improve existing ones, whether as journalists or otherwise. “It’s a great space to discover your own interests and find your own voice for a lot of the student body,” Noonan said, emphasising that encouraging and nurturing student talent would be a priority of her editorship.
She emphasised also that it is not just about news: “It’s a place for illustrators, graphic designers, social media curators, photographers, anyone who wants to get involved in the paper, who has an interest in journalism, but maybe hasn’t had the experience.”
Thirdly, UT is as much a social outlet for students as anything. With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, Noonan appreciated the opportunities during the semester to socialise and get to know other people through her involvement with the paper: “It’s been really nice just getting to chat to people having casual coffee hours in the office. It’s been great to talk to people who share similar interests to me. I think it’s a great social space.”
Noonan’s manifesto proposes a number of reforms to the paper. Asked whether structural change is necessary to address criticisms of UT, Noonan is receptive to such suggestions: “I think we need to change some of our structures. So whether that means making things a lot clearer, whether that means ensuring that our editorial and ethics policy is much more present across our social media pages, or much more present when people look at us, I feel like that has the answers to a lot of the kind of main questions about how do we handle these issues.”
One such reform which Noonan has proposed is to implement clearer lines of communication both within the paper and outside. She clarifies that while communication is not necessarily poor at present, it can be unclear who to actually get in touch with. Especially for newer contributors and staff writers, it can be intimidating to message a more senior member of staff, Noonan said.
Making it clear that she is available to reach out to would be a priority of her editorship, Noonan added that UT, in her view, should be “a place where people feel like they can come and talk to me, whether they need advice, whether they’re pitching an article idea, or whether they have an issue that they want to talk to me”.
“My first priority would be establishing a really, really strong digital presence so that people see who I am, they know who I am, you know, to be active on the site as much as I can so that people feel like they can reach out to me and also to be active as much in person as possible.”
One proposal which was a topic of debate at the town hall meeting held by UT in March is the creation of an external board of advisors for the he paper While Noonan believes this would be “a good idea”, she is “not 100% sure what it would look like at the moment”.
“It’s something that would require quite a lot of serious structural change, a lot of conversations with both the current editor and with previous editors,” she says.
“Building back trust is going to be a long process, I’m well aware of that, and I don’t shy away from it”
Noonan highlights the role of the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) constitution in shaping UT, and the opportunity to update the document: “Depending on how far we want to go, it would [possibly] require working with the constitutional review [group] to make sure that that’s enshrined in the constitution so that we have to have people in those roles.” Noonan’s vision for the board of advisors resembles a “support network” of both former editors and working journalists lending their insight to help address complaints and any issues that may arise in the paper, as well as simply guiding the editor in their own role: “Naturally every editor has questions. They have things they need help with. So it would give me a way of asking people for help as well.”
Another point in Noonan’s manifesto involves ensuring that staff know how to handle sensitive topics and understand journalistic ethics. On whether this is something that UT has failed with up to now, Noonan said, “naturally, all of us make mistakes.” She continues:
“I don’t think it’s failed, necessarily,” emphasising that responding to mistakes properly is the most important thing in such situations. Noonan cites an incident of misgendering in an article in Radius; while the mistake was made purely by accident, what was important was to “reach out to people who [were] hurt” and resolve the issue responsibly, she says.
“This is, at the end of the day, a student newspaper. All of us are learning. But what’s really important is how you react to that and how you respond to those kinds of situations.”
Journalistic ethics have indeed been a topic of discourse surrounding UT following allegations made against Noonan’s opponent Mairead Maguire of breaching source confidentiality, a factor in the vote to reopen nominations in the first election. Pressed on how she plans to build back trust with students, Noonan believes becoming “a lot more transparent” should be a priority. Showing students how the paper runs and who is behind the decisions, as well as reminding readers that the staff of the paper are students themselves are a few things which Noonan would do to increase transparency.
She acknowledges that the paper has been the subject of significant criticism in recent weeks.“Building back trust is going to be a long process, I’m well aware of that, and I don’t shy away from it. But something that’s really important to me is [to feel] that students can see how we work so that they start to better understand us, they start to better understand where we come from.”
Noonan said that more fully using social media could improve both transparency and awareness of the paper’s work, a key point of her manifesto: “Building up a much bigger presence for us on social media means that we’re more visible, which means that people can see what we’re doing. It reaches a bigger percentage of the student body, which means that people…start to see us as more than the machine that they’re not sure how it works.”
Noonan does not underestimate the size of this task, but says that it is a firm priority of hers: “My sympathy goes out to anyone who’s been hurt by any of the events, because I can’t imagine what it must have been like to see anything in the past few months, if you have any kind of trauma. So it is going to be a long process, but it’s one that is very important to me.”
“I have a fresh perspective, that I think is something that the paper needs at the moment,” Noonan says when asked what makes her the best candidate for editor. She believes that it is essential that UT moves forward, and that she is best placed to facilitate this: “I have a very clear vision for what I want to do. And I feel like paper needs to take a step to move forward. We need to have a very clear vision for what we want to do in the future, because without that, the paper gets stuck in the past, we’re not entirely clear on what to do.”
Noonan emphasises her communication skills, as well as “a lot of experience with both welfare roles and mentorship roles” which in her view are crucial in the paper at the current juncture.
Lastly she highlights the value of her own curiosity: “I think I also have a lot of curiosity. And fundamentally, that’s important. I want to know what’s going on in college. I want to be that person who is at the forefront of our coverage who’s leading by example because the writers after me feel that they can be inspired by the level of interest that I take.”
Voting in the by-election for University Times editor will take place from April 6 to April 7.