The Grape Looks Inward after Editorial Resignations

Rosemary Boeglin, Editor-in-Chief

This is part one of a series exploring the role and reputations of campus publications. This week’s installment focuses on The Grape and the recent resignation letters of two editors that prompted the remaining staff to re-examine their publication. In next week’s issue, the Review will shift the critical lens onto its own journalistic and organizational practices, as well as those of other student publications.

The Grape has no mission statement. When asked about the publication’s purpose, the two current editors-in-chief of the satirical rag looked at each other, scrambling for an answer. After a brief pause, College senior Max Cohn looked up in a moment of clarity.

“I think The Grape is, at its best, a Rorschach. … It relies on being a clusterfuck of different things and seeming a different way to every person that comes in contact with it.”

Cohn’s next metaphor describing The Grape as a “warm ball of wax” — constantly changing shape depending on its handlers — is, at its core, true of the 15-year-old paper. With its lascivious center spread and wry humor, the mutable paper has maintained one constant: its reputation for provocative content.

But the resignation letters of two editors published in the fall semester’s final edition — which criticized the paper for marginalizing voices and publishing offensive content — have prompted a re-examination of the mutable paper’s role and reputation in the Oberlin community by the remaining staff members.

Former Editor-in-Chief Nina Paroff, OC ’12, said that the paper’s apolitical, contrarian reputation was well-entrenched before her arrival on campus; despite concerted efforts on the part of a small yet dedicated staff, she failed to alter its public image.

“I came in hearing seniors talk about how different the paper was when they started, I did the same when I was a senior, and I’m sure the people I hired as freshmen are doing it now,” Paroff said. “But [in my four years on staff] we failed to overcome The Grape’s reputation … and that reputation functioned as a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Those who filled Paroff ’s editorial position said that they experienced a similar decline in enthusiasm for Oberlin’s “alternative” paper. College juniors Jacob Ertel, former features editor, and Editor-in-Chief Victoria Velasco said they joined The Grape as eager first-years but later questioned their work on the publication.

“When I was a first-year, I was really into it,” Ertel said. “I was probably just excited to be in college. I wrote a bunch of articles my first semester that now I really regret writing. It’s kind of bizarre for me to think back on it now.”

For Velasco, it wasn’t until the bias incidents last spring that she began to view The Grape through a more critical lens, not only in terms of the paper’s reputation but of its homogeneity.

“Up until my second semester sophomore year, around the time of March 4, I had a relatively pleasant relationship with the staff and was almost never made to feel uncomfortable at staff meetings,” Velasco said in an email. “I attribute this partially to my significantly less critical way of thinking for much of my first two years at Oberlin — as I began to become involved in more political campus organizing and develop close relationships with communities of color, I felt more and more frustrated with the newspaper I had initially felt so honored to work for.”

Carolyn Burnham, College sophomore and Grape Editor- in-Chief, also acknowledged the impact of March 4 on the paper and its staff members.

“It kind of worked in a strange way in that people were more afraid of talking about issues related to the March 4 events,” she said. “Instead of wanting to talk about issues, people were afraid of saying the wrong thing or hurting another person. It’s still kind of hard to reconcile that, because you do need to be educated about a wide array of issues in order to really speak correctly about those events, but at the same time it’s sort of frustrating that we couldn’t have that be part of the paper, because it was an incredible part of last year.”

The bias incidents surrounding March 4 enabled Velasco to identify the problematic nature of Grape staff dynamics and content.

“After March 4, a lot more attention was paid to the ways in which students themselves were participating in the structural oppression of historically marginalized groups,” Velasco said. “I think I saw it as a sign that I should challenge myself even more to educate myself and act in solidarity in the ways in which it’s possible for me to do so with others.”

The former Editor-in-Chief said that The Grape tended to disenfranchise communities on and off campus and consistently failed to address issues of homogeneity and marginalization within the organization itself. Cohn said that although Velasco did raise these concerns via email, he was never able to address the matter directly with his co-Editor. For her part, Velasco claims otherwise. Whether or not they explicitly broached their concerns to the staff, Velasco and Ertel were able to shift the tone of staff meetings, according to College junior and three-year Grape staffer Eve Peyser-Sappol.

“I think having people like Victoria and Jacob on staff, who are very political people, definitely changed [the dynamic]. Victoria didn’t really write articles that much, but her presence definitely changed the tones of the meetings more, especially when she was Editor-in-Chief because [she] and Jacob were very outspoken about their beliefs.”

Velasco said that despite her efforts to alter the tenor of staff meetings, other voices dominated the space. “It was difficult for some people on staff — who were content with the reputation our paper continued to uphold as an insensitive, unfiltered platform for mostly white, cis men — to feel inclined to change its course.”

Other Grape staff members of color echoed Velasco’s frustrations with the resistance of the staff to incorporate their criticisms.

“A lot of things get said at meetings that are racist or otherwise offensive that don’t necessarily get called out and are difficult to call out as a person of color, just because of how white the space is and how not receptive a lot of people are, which is also the case in a lot of other spaces on campus,” said College senior and Grape Production Editor Ale Requena Ruiz. “It would be nice if the burden weren’t entirely on me or entirely on the shoulders of the handful of people of color on staff or someone who is otherwise affected by issues.”

Tanya Tran, College junior, said that although she is new to The Grape, she has already witnessed the source of Velasco and Requena Ruiz’s complaints.

“I have been to one staff meeting and also the Lena Dunham meet-and-greet, and I definitely have already heard things that I don’t want to hear, in terms of microaggressions and things that are racist,” Tran said.

Burnham largely attributed the publication’s failure to broaden content to the unwillingness of its writers to undertake more serious projects.

“It’s difficult because I think a lot of the really excited staff and the excited writers want to write these fun articles, and I think we should keep that as part of this paper since it is a forum for that type of article,” Burnham said. “But at the same time, I’d really love the for The Grape to be a positive force and to write articles that matter, and to cover events that matter, and to have more voices heard, and to say things in a powerful way and not in an offensive way.”

Last semester, a misogynistic crossword puzzle led to a Facebook hailstorm and a public letter of apology from Cohn.

“There was obviously the crossword debacle, which was something like the skin around the vagina [is the] woman,” Peyser-Sappol recalled. “I think that making off-color jokes often doesn’t work, and when it works, it’s funny. And that just wasn’t funny and was offensive to me.”

Although he acknowledged his error, Cohn still hopes that the controversy surrounding his puzzle — and other complaints about the offensive nature of Grape content — can lead to a critical conversation within the publication itself.

“[College junior] Sophie Hess [who posted about the offensive puzzle clue on Facebook] could’ve written a wonderful article on how much my crossword puzzle sucked. I would’ve been happy to print that. That would’ve been great, because then it would’ve made our paper more diverse, but instead she saved it for Facebook, and you know, there was nothing to be said from her angle,” Cohn said. “But at the same time, it’s not our responsibility to attack after people and say, ‘You need to write for us and make us diverse.’ It should be the wish of Oberlin to make the paper more diverse; it should be the wish of Jacob Ertel, when someone isn’t writing an important article, to write it himself.”

But according to former Editor-in-Chief Paroff, it’s not that simple.

“It was, in retrospect, astoundingly naïve, but I genuinely thought my staff and I would be able to convince the campus at large to embrace the open format of the publication and contribute worthwhile writing that wouldn’t otherwise find a publisher,” Paroff said. “We advertised the best we knew how. I would ask people who sent me angry emails about fucked-up articles to submit editorials; they rarely did. I would approach strangers in DeCafé and the library who were complaining about The Grape and ask them to submit their own work; they rarely did. And who could blame them?”

“I realize now why so few people with something to say that wasn’t sexually violent, racist or otherwise horrifically ignorant wanted to be associated with the publication. I realize that any notion that those voices were ‘welcome’ in our ‘open’ publication was bogus when so much of the campus felt so very unwelcome,” Paroff said.

Requena Ruiz noted that the work The Grape plans to embark on this semester shouldn’t be limited to the publication. “I wouldn’t frame them as issues that solely The Grape needs to address, but certainly yes, The Grape definitely needs to address [them].”

The new senior editorial team said that they intend to do just that this semester by addressing the concerns Ertel and Velasco raised in their resignation letters.

“I think it was hard for Victoria if she felt like there were so many changes to be made to do everything in one semester,” Burnham said. “I think it’s great that she brought all of these issues up, and I think it’s our responsibility to take them and try and change the paper, since I think there’s really no other option.”