No one will deny the petit fours and cappuccinos weren’t a hit, but if the Walkley Foundation were in such dire straits that it was forced to accept money from controversial sponsor Exxon Mobil for its What’s the Story? conference this week, couldn’t it have been better spent? Subsidised student entrance for the future of journalism, perhaps?

With overpriced bus fares and soy lattes consuming the bulk of student cash flow, most students couldn’t afford the minimum $300 entrance.

Chris Warren, federal secretary of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, told us that he believed the conference was “particularly important for students. I think the renewal of our craft is one of the great challenges we face”.

But while much of the conference spoke about new technologies and how alternative business models can shape our future, the student contingent was small at best.

Meanwhile, the ExxonMobil issue refused to go away.

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for US political magazine The Nation and keynote speaker at the conference, considered the issue worthy of debate.

“The future I see is one in which journalism is not reliant on corporate power,” he said.

“I have big, big problems with partnerships and I have big, big problems with sponsorship. I think it’s absolutely appropriate to have a debate about that.”

Julie Posetti, journalism lecturer at the University of Canberra, also encouraged the conference speak out against Exxon using the event to bolster its name and credibility within the journalism industry.

“Personally I would not have chosen Exxon as a sponsor,” she said. “I think it is highly appropriate that there be robust debate about the issue, I think it is highly appropriate that people come to the conference and put forthright questions about this thing.”

When asked why the Exxon sponsorship issue was not being put on the table at the conference, Posetti said she thought it came down to ugly truth within our industry.

“Perhaps it is also still a bit of a cultural response of working journalists not being publicly critical of colleagues,” she said.

While the conference was not aimed at students per se, their input and the experience they would have gained from such an event would have been beneficial to the industry as a whole.

Harry Dugmore, guest speaker from the journalism school at Rhodes University in South Africa, was shocked at the lack of students attending the event.

“I think it’s a tragedy that there’s not a lot of students here, there’s plenty of room,” he said. “You fly all these speakers from all over the world, don’t let them play to half empty auditoriums.”

Dugmore told us he was in favour of subsidised student tickets and expressed the view that student participation at the conference would have encouraged a more balanced forum and a lively youth voice.

“There’s so many corporate sponsors on this particular conference that I don’t think it would have been difficult to use some of the money for that,” he said. “It would beef up the quality of the discussions, so I think it is a big miss.”

Posetti agreed.

“I believe that we’re in the business of teaching and researching journalism and that requires active engagement with the profession and for active engagement in the profession you need to attend conferences,” she said.

“Responsibility does fall on organisations like the MEAA … to make sure students have access and are involved.”

As a journalism educator and industry professional, Posetti knows the importance of engaging young journalists.

“As an organiser of the Media140 conferences, we tried really hard to accommodate students by offering a 50 percent discount,” she said. “I would say part of the responsibility is to get students involved … you are the future of journalism.”

While those who did attend saw it as an insightful event, Nichols agreed that the issues surrounding the ExxonMobil sponsorship and the lack of students deserved some coverage.

“Journalism is transitioning more rapidly now than at any time in my life time, arguably, than at any time in the last couple of hundred years … and so for young people and students it’s especially essential to be a part of these discussions,” he said.

“To what extent does corporate power speak more loudly than the power of our communities in our journalism? I think it’s profound.”

Elise Dalley is studying journalism and law at the University of Technology, Sydney. Ben O’Halloran is studying journalism at Murdoch University in Western Australia.