College promises so much nowadays. Not just a degree but a network! Not just an education but an experience! Far from a mere vocational interlude, the “college experience” is expected to fully prepare our youth for nothing less than the full rigors of 21st-century life as a globally competitive alumni donor.
With great promise comes great pressure. How can one seize the day and take back the night, all while putting the “y” back in women and making sure the campus Taco Bell stops buying its tomatoes from poor people? Who’s got the best deal on used copies of Memoirs of a Gay Shah for Comp Lit? Has the Nobel committee finally recognized the philosophy department’s advancements toward proving the existence of man? And about that new unisex bike path: Will it disrupt the habitat of endangered college Republicans?
One institution alone offers students a haven from the tempest as well as a wand to conduct some thunder. That institution, unlikely as it sounds, is the college newspaper—unlikely given the woes afflicting its professional counterparts. Real newspapers are losing readers by the minute, especially those labeled “college-aged.” Yet amid the industry death march its farm system thrives. According to a 2006 report in the Wall Street Journal, readership and revenue of college papers has generally held steady or grown in recent years.
“Sudoku,” many collegians will explain, when asked why they read their school rags. But still: They’re picking them up. And they’re not the only ones. “Parents can be the most concerned about what we print,” says Eric Roper, editor of the GW Hatchet at George Washington University. For parents, as for alumni, school papers are often the only flashlight peering down the money hole.
That means there’s still no better place for the misfit freshman yearning to be relevant and “make a difference.” Take a closer look at those freshmen, and you see the character of journalism at its formative stage. You see future staffers of the New York Times, the Washington Post, or, if they prefer poverty, Washington City Paper. You see people for whom graduation is usually a bad career move. And here is where it all begins.
George Washington University: The GW Hatchet
Founded 1904, twice-weekly, circ. 12,000
Latest Award: Best All-Round Non-Daily, Society for Professional Journalists, 2008
“People think we’re all high and mighty,” says former editor Jake Sherman, shrugging in agreement with that assessment. Last October the paper’s pretensions provoked Wonkette into a contest of anal diameter. The Hatchet sent the Web site a “Cease and disist” letter for posting a Hatchet photo of Ben Stein without proper credit. Wonkette’s response can be found under the headline “GW Newspaper Kids Are the Worst.”
At least the Hatchet backs up its elevated self-regard by occasionally scooping the Post. Operating from a cute brick townhouse in Foggy Bottom, the paper also makes up for a twice-weekly frequency by breaking stories online—spiffy podcasts are also available—and it seems to have its fingers on the pulse of GW. “Moving toward a much more fluid news cycle” is editor Eric Roper’s goal for the year. “You can’t believe how many Blackberrys you see on campus.”
Rival D.C. college papers highly respectthe Hatchet. One does, however, sense a mutual hauteur between it and the University of Maryland’s Diamondback. Reading what the Hatchet submitted to the SPJ awards, former DB editor Kevin Litten found it “not up to the quality of our worst articles.” Each paper, at any rate, has featured a dildo on its front page at least once in the last three years.
• December 2006: Selection of Steven Knapp as university president. Knapp filled the shoes of Stephen Trachtenberg, under whose 30-year leadership GW entered the nation’s true elite in freshman orientation programming—complete with laser show and a bench-pressing hippopotamus (“The $50,630 Question,” 8/24/07). The “Big Man on Campus” (the title of Trachtenberg’s new book) also made GW the most expensive school in the nation. Replacing him was a tense affair. Pressure’s on Knapp to take GW to still-newer heights of neon prominence.
• November 2007: Revelation that the hate crime that victimized freshman Hatchet reporter Sarah Marshak, who found several swastikas drawn on her dorm-room door, was committed by none other than freshman Hatchet reporter Sarah Marshak. She was caught by a hidden camera and relieved of her duties at the paper.
This came amid other widely publicized self-hate crimes (see below). Marshak told the Hatchet she drew only three of the six reported swastikas to draw attention to the other three. “I was just looking for acknowledgment from [the] University that someone drew a swastika on the door,” she said, vowing to catch the real swastika artist.
• October 2007: Discovery that a swarm of controversial posters on campus declaring hate muslims? so do we!, attributed to conservative students planning “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week,” was actually the work of seven anti-war activists trying to point out the racism of conservatives.
“It is to our great dismay that the student body and the media missed the clear, if subtle, message of our flier,” wrote the culprits in a letter to the Hatchet.
“Don’t eat a whole bag of chips over a guy not calling you back—he’s just not worth the calories.”
—Sex columnist Delilah, on the drawbacks of the Frito-Lay
That GWU even has a sex column comes as a shock to people on- and off-campus. Aren’t GW parents doling $53,000 a year for their kids to spend every available minute “doing Washington”? With all those S-CHIP seminars to crash at Brookings and indie shows to review for DCist, who’s got time to trim the hedges, dim the lights, decant the Charles Shaw, and set the record player to Randy Newman at just the right moment?
“I think it poorly represents our university to the public,” one concerned student responds when asked his opinion of the feature.
“Ss…ex column?,” says another.
No wonder, then, that some of the lessons on wooing Foggy Bottoms were plagiarized. The Hatchet reported last fall that another sex columnist, Sahil Mansuri, “borrowed phrases, acronyms and strategies” from the The Game by Neil Strauss and the Web site themysterymethod.com. Mansuri was released.
• L. Ron Hubbard: science-fiction novelist, founder of Scientology, world-renowned collector of tax-exempt souls.
• Jerry Reinsdorf: owner of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox. Most celebrated for his shrewd signing of a certain athlete by the name of Michael Jordan to play right field for the Birmingham Barons in 1994.
• Deborah Solomon: Former Wall Street Journal art critic, current author of the weekly Q&A column in the New York Times Magazine. Not actually famous.
Howard University: The Hilltop
Founded 1924, daily, circ. 7,000
As “The Daily Student Voice of Howard University,” the Hilltop is unique. Most college papers aspire to naval-gaze, hovering over the guttural sounds of students, faculty, and staff, trying to craft it all into a somewhat objective storyline. Less so the Hilltop, whose status as the only historic black college daily in America gives it greater flexibility to focus on international activism. Katrina and South African apartheid have attracted in-depth attention. In January, the paper featured an interview of graduate student Justin Roustin, who had found himself amid civil warriors in Kenya when he went there to help build a school. And no fewer than 13 stories were devoted to the Jena Six.
The Hilltop operates “at the privilege of the university.” Five percent of its revenue comes from student activities fees, the rest from ads. Though the paper’s policy board has no censorship authority, editors say pressure from the administration follows every on-campus controversy they cover—from housing security problems to sorority pageant favoritism.
Despite ceasing print for nearly the entire second semester (see scandal below), the Hilltop was rated third-best college paper in the nation this year by Princeton Review. “I don’t know what they base that on,” says Editor Vanessa Rozier.
1983: When a Howard attorney was fired after filing a sex-discrimination suit against the school, Hilltop Editor Janice McKnight ran a series of stories about it. The stories were the journalistic equivalent of protest music. They implied that the dismissal was a repercussion of the lawsuit. Howard responded to the stories by digging into McKnight’s admission application for a cause to expel her.
McKnight was eventually reinstated—both as student and editor—but fear of “repercussions” persist (see also scandal below).
Down $48,000 to its printer, the Hilltop published only online for the remainder of the 2007-’08 spring semester. It was a historic setback. The paper had struggled to become a daily in 2005, barely convincing the policy board to give it a go. Skepticism of the paper’s ability to print every day was ample even before months of uncollected ad revenue and mysterious accounting led to the shutdown. The financial negligence inflamed it.
Stopping the presses wasn’t mandatory. Drew Costley, the editor at the time, claims the decision to do so was made by the policy board without a quorum, though administrators on the board disagree. Costley also informed Black College Wire that he was told by an administrator “to be aware of the repercussions of not listening to the board.” A familiar warning.
But all’s well that ends in the black. Thanks to a donation from Howard’s vice provost of student affairs and a successful graduation issue, the Hilltop has cleared its debts and is ready to begin the school year on solid footing. Printing will resume. New computers, new furniture, and new paint are on the way.
“It’s a blessing in disguise,” says Rozier, who oversaw the cleanup. “We were always late to the printer and didn’t care about deadlines too much. We weren’t focusing online…we really needed to start over. It’s going to be a very different type of paper next year.”
• Zora Neale Hurston: Before Their Eyes Were Watching God, the novelist and right-wing free spirit co-founded the Hilltop at her alma mater. “With no sympathy nor respect for the ‘Tragedy of color’ school of thought among us,” Hurston had a word for the black literary establishment of her time. She called them “the Nigeratti.”
• Stokely Carmichael: Marxist Black Power don, whose terminal prostate cancer was given to him “by forces of American imperialism,” was a columnist for the Hilltop.
Catholic University of America: The Tower
Founded 1922, weekly, circ. 5,000
Latest Award: Best of Show Special Edition (for coverage of the pope’s visit), Associated Collegiate Press
Alone among D.C. college papers, the Tower’s staff is not made up largely of aspiring journalists. About 90 percent, according to editor Ben Newell, enlist to “get closer to the university” rather than to jump-start a career. This explains the paper’s insular radius. When a murder occurred recently at an off-campus complex housing several CUA students, the paper paid scant attention, perhaps because crime coverage wasn’t its forte. “I was shocked to get an e-mail asking us to spoonfeed them information about the story,” says Kevin Litten, then the editor of the Diamondback.
The Tower bears all the marks of a small operation: the crusader passion, the top-heavy concentration of responsibility, the large hole in the office wall created by an irate editor’s airborne chair. Slumminess aside, there’s an honest and revealing charm to the Tower. Newell’s description of the predominant staff motive—impressing their peers—comes closer to explaining why people really become journalists than any J-school mission statement or petty promise to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
“A better online presence, including video, podcasts, a blog, and frequent updates,” are Newell’s and co-editor Ryan Reilly’s goals for the year.
• February 2008: Cancellation of a university lecture series featuring E. Michael Jones and John Sharpe following a phone call to the college from the Southern Poverty Law Center, accusing the speakers of disliking Jews.
• February 2008: Speculation that CUA president David M. O’Connell will be the next bishop of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind. Speculation is to the Tower what plums were to William Carlos Williams, but so far O’Connell hasn’t moved.
In 2005, CUA withdrew the $26,000 annual scholarship the university had previously been allotting the Tower. The story made A1 headlines in none other than the Tower itself. Though stinginess was the official reason for the cut, editors took it as a personal rebuke.
Newell says the subsidy was crucial to recruiting staff for a small paper with minimal revenue. Rivals think it inappropriate for an independent and scoff at the ongoing efforts to get it back.
• Jon Voight: famous actor and only person ever known to befriend Dustin Hoffman, even if it was in Midnight Cowboy. Voight was a cartoonist for the Tower.
• Amy Joyce: former “Life at Work” columnist for the Washington Post, spouting the latest in morale-boosting potpourri, and now weekend staff writer for the paper.
American University: The Eagle
Est. 1925, twice-weekly, circ. 8,000
Latest Award: First place, Breaking News Photography; Best All-Around Non-Daily Student Newspaper (regional), Society of Professional Journalists, 2007.
Hatred of a college paper usually drips from the sour grapes of bitter activists upset by the latest op-ed. But the Eagle arouses a unique, more wholesome kind of hatred. Among its critics are most former employees and several detached observers with no discernible ax to grind. Also faculty. One writing professor joked that his colleagues spend their end-of-semester party opening a random issue and doing shots for each grammatical error.
Says a critic: “Nearly every article they produce, on subjects of whatever topic, have the same ‘man on the street’ quote from the same group of five or 10 people, who are obviously just friends of the reporters and have no connection whatever to the event.” In some cases the paper even quotes its own opinion columnists as sources.
Lack of reporting initiative and editorial efficiency at the paper have led to a reputation for bureacratic inefficiency. Rival papers either condemn the Eagle or ignore it.
New editor Jimm Phillips promises to “improve the paper’s accountability to the community by creating a blog and holding a series of forums with readers.” Such events should also improve the paper’s accounts, especially if they include a cash bar.
• August 2005: When then president Ben Ladner turned out to be living like a maharajah on the university’s dime, the Post broke the story—even though the Eagle had fielded the same whistle-blowing tip from Ladner’s chauffeur.
• April 1990: When another former president, Richard Berendzen, made several naughty phone calls to babysitters, the Post broke it as well.
• The spring 2007 issue of AU’s alumni magazine ran a celebratory piece announcing the wedding of two male graduates. The class note described the ceremony in Boston and the move to New York, where one had just become chief operating officer of the Gay Rights Brigade. It was a bland write-up—the type such magazines need for filler on those off months when no busybody discovers a cure for happiness.
Then came a fascinating twist. The fellows mentioned were not, in fact, gay, and they submitted no such announcement. And don’t bother enlisting your restless child in the Gay Rights Brigade, which doesn’t happen to exist. Apparently the submission was a cruel prank. The two alumni’s reaction upon reading it wasn’t even a smidgen gay, in the 1890s sense of the term. Lawyers ensued. The Eagle’s report of the $1.5 million libel suit against the mag was a rehash of the story broken by the New York Post and featured the offending write-up in a text box atop the front page. As AU Communications professor John Watson explained to his students, Whoops!
“The legal phrase is ‘republication of libel,’” says Watson. “Technically they can sue the Eagle for it, though I doubt they would.”
Irony seems to have rescued the Eagle here. Its only assets, should it be sued, appear to be a few campy posters the plaintiffs could only possibly desire if they really were gay.
• In fall 2007, “Econ-Sense” columnist Dorian Key submitted a piece whose only original content turned out to be the byline. The rest came from the Economist. For violating the Eagle’s policy of “striving for perfection and excellence,” Key was canned.
• Jim Brady, executive editor of Washingtonpost.com; Marissa Newhall, Washington Post staff writer; Brett Zongker, Associated Press reporter. Not exactly famous either. Then again, don’t they say newspeople only become famous after they die? Look at Bill Moyers.
University of Maryland: The Diamondback
Founded 1910, daily, circ. 17,000
Latest Awards: Second place regional “Best All-Around Daily”; first place sportswriting, Society for Professional Journalists, 2008
A zoological term for the Diamondback would be “cow.” Revenue in 2007 exceeded $1.5 million, and the paper’s run by its own (“nonprofit”) company. Financial bovinity has been enjoyed since 1971, when editors left two pages blank in protest of campus censorship and had their school funding permanently severed as a result. It was quite a favor for the only real news outlet for a massive school in a sizable town. No longer financially obligated, the paper can do as it pleases with the fat advertising revenue. The effect of spectacular wealth on the Diamondback (in lieu of a robust journalism department breathing down its neck) can’t be mistaken. Tonight, the staff seems to fairly scream, we’re eating TOP Ramen. Uncorrupted by cubicles, the high-ceiling newsroom features chalkboards and a concrete floor—an old-fashioned look recalling a spirit of irreverence and craft. Here those long-lost newspaper ideals live on, transcending the dour rut of feel-good features, feel-mighty editorials, and feel-yourself sex advice.
College Park being a hellhole doesn’t hurt. U of M has the highest violent crime rate of any like-sized university in America (“Shell of a Town,” 9/29/2006). Sickening levels of crime might mean mayhem for some, but for reporters it means news, yummy news. To keep more lurid track of it, Editor Steve Overly plans to incorporate stories with video online.
• 2003: The “McKeldin Library Masturbator.” Literature has camouflaged many forms of nastiness over the years, but never quite so literally. This perpetrator sprang on his victims from stacks at the campus library. He was never apprehended. What is not known, however, is whether he is still at large.
• Spring 2007 to spring 2008: The “Cuddler.” The latest victim woke up to find herself in a gentle cuddle while being kissed on the forehead by someone other than her boyfriend, who was snoozing away beside her. If intimacy is a crime—which it is—then the Cuddler is a 13-time offender, according to the Diamondback. He, too, remains loose.
The DB’s editorial board has a free-market libertarian point of view. This is something it shares with approximately zero other official college papers, where punditry rarely surpasses the level of a Bill Maher studio audience. Unorthodox positions taken by the DB include ending rent-control, privatizing campus dining, and limiting university reliance on public funds.
• Jayson Blair (editor-in-chief, 1996): infamously disgraced reporter for the New York Times. Fired for large-scale plagiarism, fabrication, and that unnecessary “Y” in his first name. (See scandal below.)
• Norman Chad (editor-in-chief, 1978): syndicated sports columnist and spirited poker commentator for ESPN. “Squadoosh” is one phrase he is mildly celebrated for coining. The other is “whamboozled.”
• Aaron McGruder: illustrator of the comic strip “The Boondocks,” which originated in the Diamondback.
• David Simon: former staffer at the Baltimore Sun, creator of The Wire, foremost champion of urban America’s sunnier aspects.
Blair’s career at the Diamondback was a prequel to his exploits at the gray lady. Plagiarism and fabrication were only part of it. After disappearing for three straight days, the editor-in-chief claimed to have spent them unconscious from a gas leak on his dorm floor, which never actually occurred, according to a lengthy profile of Blair’s career in the Baltimore Sun.
“Everybody hated him,” says former editor Kevin Litten. “Every single member of the staff. After he finally had to resign, I think they celebrated by throwing a typewriter out the window.”
How does a reporter rise to the top post despite unanimous hatred? The answer won’t surprise media critics who see Blair as a symbol of official journalism’s fallen ways. He succeeded thanks to a relentless campaign by Christopher Callahan, sole journalism professor on the Diamondback’s board, according to both Litten and the Sun. So miffed was the staff upon Blair’s appointment that Callahan immediately resigned from the board. It remains J-prof-free to this day.
Georgetown University: The Hoya
Founded 1920, twice-weekly, circ. 10,000
Staff: 70 to 80
Most universities support independence for student papers in the spirit of an old, sacred American principle: the desire to not get sued. Indeed, it’s difficult to fathom how any institution of higher learning can, in good conscience, deny a student’s right to be liable. But for some reason this common ground has eluded Georgetown.
The Hoya is currently liberated from the pressures of independence. For 88 years it’s been beholden to Georgetown’s Student Media Board, which controls the paper’s budget and sluices profits. After several feeble attempts, the Hoya finally got serious about changing this arrangement in 2006. The Board responded by trademarking the Hoya name and logo. Independence can now only come in disguise.
Editors cite financial control as the main motive for independence—the board hasn’t exercised its editorial authority since the 1980s. But the conflict of interest is obvious. A college paper’s relations with all forms of administration should be testy and hateful, and the Hoya’s prestige clearly suffers from the affiliation. Rival papers think it’s tame.
Until recently, with no lease agreement for the logo in sight, a name-change seemed feasible. Editor Bailey Heaps now says negotiations have reached a hopeful phase. He hopes they’ll work things out within a year (or two). Meanwhile, he seeks more investigative reporting and in-depth storytelling to buttress the Hoya’s day-to-day coverage.
“I really want to get deeper,” he says.
Basketball magazine, lifestyle magazine
• August 2006: God must be tired, because He’s been running through Constance Wheeler’s mind all year. “Only after much dialog with the Lord” did Georgetown’s Protestant chaplain suddenly banish all affiliated ministry groups from campus. A year later they were invited back.
“I wouldn’t say it was a change in policy,” Director of Campus Ministry Philip Boroughs told the Hoya, about the reversal. Change is such a strong word. Surely he prefers “reform.”
• January 2008: Theft of a hard drive containing nearly 40,000 Social Security numbers of students, faculty, and staff, whose identities—no doubt many of them freshly discovered—are now vulnerable.
A sex column can go one of two ways. Done right, it can answer the monumental questions of an inexperienced collegian, such as how to make love in your dorm room without waking up your partner. It can warn against the dangers of unprotected abstinence. It can correct certain superstitions that may arise on a modern campus. (If you say “vagina” three times in front of a mirror, will Shulamith Firestone bleed again?)
Otherwise—and much more often—it becomes a series of trite tales about dating, dieting, and diet-dating.
Julia Baugher achieved the first formula in her “Sex on the Hilltop” regular for the Hoya (2002-2003). She was funny. She was hot. She dated a sitting congressman (Harold Ford Jr.). She ran all her columns through her mother, who’d been giving her pointers from the age of 5. All this carried her to a level of national media-darlinghood enjoyed by few college scribes.
Alas, one of her columns turned out to be swiped from iVillage.com, and she was out the door. Then Washington Post reporter Frank Ahrens, crossing paths at a West Hollywood hotel, heard Baugher claim to be employed by the Post when haggling furiously with the front desk over a grapefruit bill.
“$7.50 for half a grapefruit?!” she reportedly argued, threatening fishwrap revenge (Dept. of Media, “Hoya Sexa,” 1/30/2004).
Julia Baugher is now Julia Allison, columnist for Time Out New York. Last month she was fired as editor-at-large of Star, which had been paying her $125,000, according to the New York Post, to do nothing but appear on TV shows behind a graphic that said “editor-at-large of Star.” Her Web site has lots of pictures, and New York Observer calls her “a cross between Paris Hilton and Ayn Rand.” Move over, Phyllis Schlafly.
The Writing on the Wall
Like many college rags, the Hoya uses wit for wallpaper. Thousands of pithy remarks have been plucked from the repartee of a day at the office and immortalized in print on their walls. “Lay-out? More like GAY-out!,” one of them reads.
What’s striking about this decorative style isn’t so much the content as it is the thought of someone taking breaks from deadline to type, print, Scotch-tape, and find room for something like the following exchange, attributed to the moment of 12:50 a.m., Oct. 26, 2007:
Nick: That’s a semicolon isn’t it?
Mike: NO! THAT’S A COLON!
Nick: Weird…I always thought that…
Mike: DON’T TOUCH MY COLON!