Confessions of a College Journalist
Why aspiring writers should be allowed to fail in private.
Click here to read more from Slate's "College Week."
In the dozen or so hours a day I spend on Jim Romenesko's media news Web site, I have read a lot about college newspapers. Collegiate editors run amok. Editorialists making sloppy pronouncements. ("I want all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport," wrote one columnist—an international studies major.) Plagiarists, con artists, and hacks: the kind of journalistic malefactors that Romenesko specializes in smoking out for public inspection. The difference, of course, is that the collegians are usually between 18 and 22 years old. And if they're anything like I was during that interregnum, they don't have a clue about where to place a comma—let alone how to craft their public personae for their future colleagues. College newspapers have gone digital, and with that we've lost something vital about college journalism: the privilege to write wretchedly, irresponsibly, and incoherently in relative privacy. "When you screw up now, it's Google-able," says Christopher Buckley, the editor of Forbes FYI and a veteran of the Yale Daily News. "In the old days, you just had to wait three days and no one would remember."
It comes as a great relief that my own college career predates Romenesko. I was the third of the three-man editorial board of the Daily Texan, the achingly earnest conscience of the University of Texas at Austin. I wrote three editorial columns per week, each of which, in a rather grand gesture, carried a reproduction of my signature at the bottom. I often rummage through my old clips when I need to feel rotten, and they never fail to do the trick. For one thing, I seemed to have had a peculiar preoccupation with personal freedoms—and the university's attempts to run afoul of them—that did not rear its head during, say, the passage of the Patriot Act. As for metaphors, I preferred tortured ones. An out-of-control student committee operated "like a water sprinkler"; spring break was a "runaway train"; fall registration an "April shower." I once began a column with a quote from the historian Frederick Jackson Turner—the only mystery being how many seconds elapsed between my hearing the quote in political science class and committing it to the printed page. It was one of my many acts of heroic transcription; the ethos of the college journalist being that if one is required to appear in class, then one should at least be able to get a column out it.
Whether at the Texan or the more august halls of the Harvard Crimson, working at the college newspaper tends to instill in its writers a particular set of values. More than being liberal or conservative, they reflect a touchingly undergraduate concern for the human condition. Up with unionized cafeteria workers! Down with date rape! We must have more 24-hour study spaces, more parking spaces, more "safe" spaces. Fraternities and secret societies ought to be frog-marched off campus—unless, of course, they ask us to join. Can we talk about race for a minute—I mean, really sit down and talk about it? And the daily outrages! Beloved local businesses bulldozed by university expansion! Binge drinking! Lazy professors! Impractical majors! And—a favorite of finals week—are we all getting enough sleep?!
Such burning issues are examined with a certain brand of undergraduate prose. "Pompous and oracular," says Robert Gordon, former editorial chairman of theHarvard Crimsonand now a professor at Yale. Gordon recalls that he and his colleagues fancied themselves the intellectual descendants of George Orwell and Edmund Wilson, with bits of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse thrown in for levity's sake. (Note: This is also how many older journalists view themselves.) Jacob Weisberg, Slate'seditor and a former Yale Daily News staffer, says, "Harvard is the place where people make more aggressively oracular pronouncements. At Yale, it was more like covering the anti-apartheid rally as if it were the invasion of Grenada."
At the college newspaper, much like the real newspaper, there is a deep cultural divide between the news and editorial operations. Each tends to regard the other with maximum suspicion. Part of this enmity emerges from the rampant careerism of student newspapers (the paper is often only as important as the summer internships that it produces). Another part is the result of a genuine social rift, like that between the social fraternities and academic ones. "The news board tended to talk like and dress like streetwise investigative reporters," says former Crimson editorialist Gordon. "They always had cigarettes dangling out of their mouths. They were laconic, straight-talking. They dressed down."
Both sides, however, make common cause when it comes to the university administration. The newspaper is the scourge of the college president, his most relentless observer and his most vocal critic. On a respectable college newspaper, writing about the administration with anything other than lightly concealed disgust is tantamount to treason. With other subjects, there is room for a lighter touch. Buckley, who co-edited the magazine of the Yale Daily News with John Tierney, now a columnist with the Times,recalls running "the most unscientific drug study that has ever been conducted." Leaflets were passed out in the dining halls with questions along the lines of, "Have you ever made money selling drugs?" Students who had so much as peddled a joint to a roommate were encouraged to answer in the affirmative. Buckley and Tierney went to press with a "special report" that stated that about 14 percent of Yalies were aspiring drug dealers. The Associated Press picked up the figure, and broadcast it to the world. Buckley says he went into hiding. Tierney does not remember that part but says, "The alumni gift solicitation people were not proud of it."
The Internet makes such puckishness fairly implausible. And, in the end, a little digital scrutiny may be the best defense against aspiring fabulists (c.f., Jayson Blair, editor, the University of Maryland's Diamondback). But, please, allow college students to compose their articles and columns in peace. The fear is not just humiliation in front of their future colleagues. The fear is that with the attention of big media, ambitious collegians may be tempted to skip ahead. They will put aside the date-rape and cafeteria stories and move too quickly into the dreariness of the "adult" world: COLA adjustments, forged National Guard documents, and so forth. The cherished intimacy of college journalism will give way to the partisan stew of the rest of it. As Frederick Jackson Turner might say, "The wilderness masters the colonist."
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.