Vaunted College Newspaper Now More Like Real Newspapers

by Betsy Morais


Nights at the Columbia Daily Spectator were spent in a breathless, tipsy, exhausted, self-important haze. The office, like that of many college newspapers, was a clubhouse run by flighty, inexperienced, earnest kids who were behind on their homework. There was an idea that we should be finished by three a.m. in order to send the paper to the printing press. That was the goal post, anyway. In the meantime, we ate pizza from V&T’s (which we got for free in exchange for a daily ad); drank Blue Moons (which we got for cash); argued, gossiped, and fell in love with one another while we waited for the stories to be filed. Office romances were known as Speccest. Parties were called Spectails. The executive office was sort of accurately referred to as the panopticon. The printer was named Boobear. As the hours passed, you could almost forget about one of the promised rewards for your labor: seeing your name in print.

Last week, the Spectator’s young wardens — the editor-in-chief, managing editor, and publisher — summoned the staff for a grave announcement: they intended to stop printing the paper five days a week. Instead, they said, they will run articles online daily, and publish a print edition weekly. The idea was the product of readership surveys, falling ad sales, and, more recently, conversations with the Spectator’s elders — past editors and members of the Board of Trustees. The board’s chair is Wendy Brandes, a former editor of the Arts & Entertainment section who has since become a jewelry designer and the wife of Paul Steiger, ex- Wall Street Journal managing editor and the founder of ProPublica. After the Journal and the New York Times quoted Brandes about the decision — “It doesn’t matter if you love or hate the Internet — it’s here,” she declared — she wrote on her blog that she always wanted to be mentioned in these papers, though not for this: “I AM in the New York Times, but I am talking about my college newspaper’s website strategy instead of my stunning jewelry inspired by powerful women.”

The Times wrote, “The announcement has pitted a group of the paper’s alumni who are angered by the decision, seeing it as a travesty against those who view the move as a necessary embrace of the digital age.” These two sides are divided roughly by generational lines. My friends, most of whom graduated within the past five years or so, largely tweeted their praise for the Spectator’s evident foresight and guts. On the other hand, John R. MacArthur, a trustee who graduated in 1978, and is now the publisher of Harper’s, had this reaction: “I am quite simply appalled by the arrogant, presumptuous tone of the board members, and the staff, who want so blithely to dispense with more than a hundred years of tradition.”

Columbia, situated as it is in New York City, is kind of a microcosm of the crowded, boisterous media market that surrounds the campus: There’s the Spectator, the Eye, Bwog, The Blue & White, The Barnard Bulletin, and The Lion, plus the more academic-minded magazines and journals, the humor publications, and so on. There are rivalries, traitors, and attempts to lure talent; there’s link-baiting, fact-stealing, and a lot of disinterest on the part of casual readers with exams on their minds. (My beat was the Manhattanville expansion project; I’d have to forgive non-Spec friends for skipping my dispatches from Community Board 9 meetings.) If the media environment at Columbia holds up a mirror to the real world, then at least it rewards smarts and ingenuity, which are sometimes equal to good old-fashioned reporting of the kind you might learn how to do on the college paper.

The Spectator’s headquarters is off campus, on the corner of Broadway and 112th Street, and you should only take the elevator once you’ve earned the right. (There’s no formal initiation, but if you haven’t cried in the bathroom, you’re probably taking the stairs.) My first assignment was an interview with the president of Tanzania, who was coming to campus as part of a program called the World Leaders Forum. The day before the event, the president cancelled his visit. I was so visibly crushed that the news editor told me I could write a story about how disappointing it was that the president of Tanzania did not show up. This is to say: the Spectator is fraternity-lite; it operates on a kind of social currency, a sense of calling to tradition and the moral, civic dutifulness-of-it-all, combined with the empathy and back-patting of a sports team (not that Columbia’s athletic department provides much of an example). When actual money was lacking, there was always just enough of that other stuff to press on.

When news broke of the switch to publish online, there seemed to be some confusion as to whether the Spectator would still be the Daily Spectator — which it indeed will be, even without the ink. Reporters will scramble, news editors will tear their hair out, and sports columnists will scream — except instead of aiming for that 3 a.m. sendoff to the printer, they’ll be doing so around the clock; a veritable education in modern journalism. It’s a bummer that the Spec will no longer offer the same privilege of seeing your name printed in the morning’s paper, which Diana Klos, executive director of the National Scholastic Press Association, told the Journal is an “increasingly a niche product.” So is reporting, and so is editing. Doing away with those would be a terrible break in tradition, don’t you think?

Over the weekend, the board made its final ruling, making the Spectator the first major Ivy league paper to cease printing a daily paper. (MacArthur voted nay, of course.) And so, an email appeared in my inbox Sunday evening, as there was no need to wait for a morning paper delivery: “We are excited to announce several significant changes to the Columbia Daily Spectator that will take place this fall semester.” A party is planned for this Sunday. The editors wrote, “By untying ourselves from the daily print production schedule, we will free editors and writers to focus on providing our readers with the stories they want through the medium they prefer.”

As I read the announcement, made official in pixels, I drifted toward a familiar angst: How many articles will go up every morning? How will they maintain a steady schedule of stories? What will prospective recruits make of this — or won’t they notice at all, since they’re accustomed to reading on screens? Then I recalled a throwaway comment made by a New York Times reporter who bought me a coffee on Capitol Hill when I was a summer intern working (online) at the Washington Post. I had asked how it felt to see his byline appear on A1. I expected him to sigh dreamily and say something like, “The thrill never dies, kid.” Instead, he shrugged, and said it was exciting at first, but now he hardly stops to look at it. Time rushes by, and there’s so much work to be done.

Betsy Morais is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker. She was a Speccie.

Photo by Marion Doss