This is a strange time—and Columbia, a strange place—to be practicing print journalism.
At the moment, the newspaper industry is in a scramble to recapture the public’s trust and maintain its relevance, even as the centuries-old medium of paper and ink slowly dies out. Many journalists have sounded notes of optimism for the long-term prospects of the daily paper, but few will tell you that we’re in an upswing at the moment. “Consolidation” and “do more with less” have become grudging newsroom mantras, while papers have struggled mightily to establish a robust presence on the Web. Student newspapers may be better insulated against this sort of flux than their professional counterparts, but not entirely, and not forever.
The University, on the other hand, has done anything but fade away: it’s crackled with controversy since the day I first set foot on campus (and long before that.) Time at Columbia isn’t measured in months and years so much as uproars—MEALAC, Minutemen, Ahmadinejad—and contentious administrative endeavors—the Manhattanville expansion, the Global University, the capital campaign. It seems that when I applied to Columbia, I failed entirely to anticipate that college life would be lived from one high-profile debacle to the next.
In recent years, Spectator has been caught at the junction of these two currents. The University and Morningside Heights have never been shy to produce another controversy or triumph worth covering, but at the same time, some of the very methods we use to cover them—ones that decades of Spectator reporters have relied upon—have shifted. A story and photo in the next day’s paper often don’t cut it anymore. The Internet and its attendant 24-hour news cycle demand more, and demand it faster.
For me, swimming in this journalistic riptide has been marked by a mixture of excitement and terror. Having grown up in the paper’s news section, four years of failures, feats, and quarrels at Columbia made for thrilling source material. Likewise, the task of enhancing Spectator’s online enterprise exposed me to new creative possibilities (some more successful than others) and gave me hope that the newspaper industry can survive in a digital world.
But as a print journalist, it’s easy to be a little self-conscious about what you do these days. Reporting on controversy, even when done flawlessly, can invite a barrage of criticism—more so when slips or errors in judgment enter the picture. Given the cloak of e-mail and anonymous commenting, these criticisms tend to be more derisive than constructive (My personal favorite, posted on B@B: “Dude, the Spectator is shit. They try to pass it off as this high-class operation when really it’s just a sensationalist piece of journalistic splat.”). Combine this fact with lingering uncertainties over the future of the industry—for example, the state of the job market—and things start to seem a little bleak for many at Spectator.
What’s a student journalist to do? Well, start by admitting the obvious: Spectator is a flawed institution (I should know: the evidence piled up in my inbox every day for a year.) It can be sluggish, impersonal, biased, and flat-out wrong. Sometimes the paper even repeats its mistakes or refuses to acknowledge them in the first place. And the harried, cliquey office environment remains, for many, a cause to steer clear. Scores of editors have worked to address these shortcomings over the years, but despite their progress, most still persist in some form. I expect they always will.
But dammit, imperfect or not, I’m unbelievably proud of the Spectator. I wouldn’t have poured heart and soul into this newspaper, night after grueling night, unless I thought it was the worthiest of causes. Spec manages to cover this campus and peculiar corner of Manhattan with tremendous depth and breadth. It parses controversy and gives a voice to the fascinating people who populate this community. It keeps Columbia informed, and it keeps the administration, when possible, in check. It does none of these things perfectly, but it does all of them on the backs of students who forsake high GPAs and receive no compensation in return. (The wisdom of this is open to debate, I admit, but the level of dedication isn’t).
And that’s just the product. Words can scarcely do justice to the people I’ve worked with over the past four years. Brilliant, tenacious, dependable, and utterly willing to blow a term paper deadline to meet a Spec one, I am thrilled to have passed each production night with them and honored to call them friends. Ultimately, the staff members themselves are what give me the most hope the paper’s future. Spec faces the daunting challenge of covering Columbia while continuing its evolution into a smarter, nimbler, online beast, but if future generations of editors are anything like past and present company, I have absolute faith that they’ll pull it off.
I don’t mean to be an apologist for Spectator’s aggravating defects, for which I, as much as anyone, am to blame. Like all institutions, Spec should constantly seek to better itself and capitalize on constructive criticism. But at the end of the day, what is good about Spectator— Columbia’s 131-year-old paper of record, the once home to Langston Hughes and Jack Kerouac, the only true broadsheet daily left on this island—far outshines the bad.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in history. He was an associate news editor on the 130th associate board and the editor in chief of Spectator’s 131st managing board.