To the Editors:
What does it mean for the Review to be the “Publication of Record for Oberlin College,” as it states atop your editorial masthead? The designation carries a weighty burden and is often a badge of pride. Are you the chronicler of campus events? Would a future historian be able to reconstruct a reasonably accurate picture of our times on this campus based on your coverage?
In reading your March 18 issue, I was struck by two full-length stories about senior student shows: one for a pair of art shows and the other for a dance recital. While such reporting is routine, I don’t recall reading a story about an English honors thesis or a geology senior project in my time at Oberlin. Ever. And herein lies a microcosm. If the publication of record is to paint an accurate portrait, the results on your canvas are monotone. In my experience, Oberlin College is a far more colorful place than any reconstruction based on your coverage would suggest.
A detailed examination of the 25 issues comprising Volume 138 (2009–10 academic year), the last full year of data available for the Review, is revealing. It contained 16 stories (222 column inches total) about concerts at the ’Sco and 18 about performances at the Cat in the Cream (242 CI). Each issue devoted three pages to coverage of athletics, sometimes as many as six (Issue 4). You published 14 recipes, 11 film reviews (254 CI), 12 dating advice columns (190 CI) and five sex advice columns (98 CI) last year. In the same volume, however, only four stories appeared having anything to do with science (57 CI), all with an art connection. While I appreciate good art around campus, there is more happening in the sciences worthy of your reporting than just a connection to art. When the winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry gave a pair of seminars in April 2009, there was nary a peep in your paper. One might deduce from this data that you deem certain categories of events more worthy of reporting than others.
Every day on this campus, students are engaged in serious inquiry. My colleagues travel the world to pursue exciting projects. There is fascinating research happening right here, right now. Endowed lectureships bring to campus leading scholars, often to give public presentations that are as well attended as any event at the ’Sco or the Cat. Despite all this, you did not deem a single event, for example, in the science division worthy of coverage last year. Not one! This is worse than journalistic bias — it is an abdication of your responsibility. In the 16 issues of Volume 139 this academic year, your pattern continues. The only story to appear about the sciences was in Issue 1 about the installation of the new telescope atop Peters. Was there not any other event you thought was worth your readers’ attention? (I am not counting the “Off the Cuff” piece about Robert Sapolsky’s Convocation Lecture in the April 9, 2010, issue. Also, the column inch figures above are conservative, as your column widths deviate from the industry standard of 11 picas, or 1.83 inches.)
Your Oberlin is a place where senior art, dance, theater, cinema and music student shows are assured lavish coverage — Volume 138 contained 23 stories (391 CI). My Oberlin is a campus where all student activities are valued. Your Oberlin is a cauldron of political controversy and entertainment. My Oberlin is a place of intellectual ferment, full of accomplishments everywhere. By limiting your coverage to just a few areas, you have marginalized entire communities that no longer think of you as “their” newspaper. They toil in obscurity, never expecting your spotlight to shine on them. Ask students majoring in the sciences if they expect their achievements to be chronicled in your paper. I think you know the answer.
Unlike a traditional newspaper, you do not sell papers. You sell advertising to cover a portion of the costs, and the SFC covers the rest. Unburdened by commercial interests, you have a rare freedom — an awesome gift — and a duty to register the pulse of our campus, which you have blithely cast aside. It is a loss for our community.
Rather than point out spelling errors, let me, instead, focus on your raison d’etre and your underlying assumptions about your readership. If you think your readership is only interested in the current menu of stories, you underestimate their adventuresome appetite. This is an intellectual community that values ideas from all corners. If you think that some events are not worth covering, you need to lead by example and live the creed of a “life of the mind.” If you have a hard time understanding what goes on in some corners, you should see someone about your myopia and, in the meantime, find a reporter who can cover that beat. If a student’s work is too esoteric, put the student on the spot. Exercise some hard-hitting journalism and ask her to better explain her work to you and your readership. We should all strive to become better at communicating to others what we do. Nothing that happens on this campus should be beyond the basic comprehension of intelligent individuals.
It is All Roads season. Imagine what an impression you would make on a prospective student if you were to run a full story on a psychology or physics senior project. Anyone can write a movie review, but you are one of the few who can run a story on that sociology project, or do an “Off the Cuff” piece with a neuroscience professor. When your readers see a piece of their scholastic lives in your paper, they will feel an extra connection to your enterprise.
I have a dream that one day I will find a beat reporter from the Review at a packed science lecture, eager to interview the visitor about her latest discovery, excitedly rushing to make the copy deadline. I swell with pride, trying to explain to our surprised guest, “Oh, that’s just the campus newspaper reporter. They are going to do a story on your lecture.” I bask in her blushed response, “Wow! They don’t do that where I come from.” Sadly, this remains a pipe dream.
Out there in a world full of Glenn Becks, they think that places like Oberlin are packed with lefty dogmatists who are closed-minded intellectual lightweights with too much privilege and not enough real world experience. This caricature also includes a fear of the sciences, among other things. Prove them wrong and show the world what a truly progressive, disciplined student publication can be on a college campus in the 21st century.
We are already too compartmentalized on this campus. There is not nearly as much dialogue between communities as there should be for a residential liberal arts college. Your publication can provide the journalistic glue that can shape conversations. I can get my sex advice and recipes elsewhere, but I have far fewer options when it comes to coverage of Oberlin College. I realize that there is a bread-and-butter aspect to your reporting (goings on at Cox, res life, town politics, protests, arrests, etc.), but what about the rest? In that remaining space rests your true freedom and opportunity. As your current coverage goes, somebody is likely to get the wrong idea about this place.
At the heart of my complaint is a simple question: What is Oberlin College about? If the answer is to be found in the publication of record, then I conclude that the Review of recent times has failed. Since you are de facto tasked with a documentary role, what is at stake is nothing less than the soul of this institution. If you broaden your coverage, you will earn the respect of your readership. In time, you will set a shining example, and, you may even impress the SFC enough to gain its largesse. To do so, you will have to work harder and congratulate yourselves less, dig deeper and be less smug.
You may say that I am naïve in having unattainably high expectations for the Review. You may respond with the usual litany: Oberlin does not have a journalism program, finances are tight, student labor is limited, past editorial boards did it this way, staff turnover is high, etc. You may even feign idiocy. To all of it, I say simply that the Review should be held to the same high standards of fairness and excellence as the rest of campus. My plea to you is to be true to your readership. Be true to the ideals of Oberlin College. Be true to your publication’s august history.
I look forward to your spirited response — one that is couched not in the language of plastic toys but in the voice of serious journalism.
–Manish Mehta, Associate Professor of Chemistry
A Note from the Editors
We thank Dr. Mehta for his well-researched and thoughtful criticism. The Review’s Editorial Board will publish the response requested by Dr. Mehta in the next print issue, which will be distributed on Friday, April 15th. In the meantime, feel free to comment or get in touch with your own thoughts via email.
–John Light and Beatrice Rothbaum, Editors-in-Chief