Out of almost any year in American history—and certainly during my short lifetime—the role and efficacy of the free press are now more uncertain than ever. Part of this is certainly because of the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency, but much of the public’s distrust in print publications and other institutions in the media would have remained regardless. I’ve done a decent amount of media reporting in the last three years, but I haven’t dedicated a piece to the role of the media at Wesleyan, particularly that of The Argus. As editor-in-chief for next semester, along with Gili Lipman ’17—though I speak here only for myself—and an equally concerned member of the community, I believe that The Argus has the potential to become an essential part of the Wesleyan experience as a top-notch college newspaper through our own discipline and with the help of the community.
From our staff writers to the layout staff, The Argus is a team effort. The more members of the community join The Argus, bringing their diverse experiences with them, the better the paper will be for everyone in the community. Outgoing Editors in Chief Erica DeMichiel ’17 and Jenny Davis ’17 have done a remarkable job improving the paper this semester by listening to members of the community and carefully deliberating over what effective change looks like. While there is a long way to go, tangible evidence of this can be seen in the growth of our Voices section under its editor, Devonaire Ortiz ’18.
An important qualifier, of course, is that as long as this publication is created through the labor of unpaid full-time students, there will always be mistakes, some of which can be avoided. The very nature of a student-run organization itself inherently involves learning from mistakes. If we had more time and less of an opportunity cost in writing and editing the paper, the quality would certainly improve, and, I hope, the paper would be more responsible for everyone in the Wesleyan community.
Much of this opportunity cost would be assuaged by an hourly wage for members of the editorial staff, and even some staff writers, all of whom work upwards of 10 to 20 hours a week for no pay. Our only paid staff members are in copy, layout, and distribution. No editors are paid, not even the editors in chief.
Paying college newspaper staff is not unprecedented, and editorial teams at many other schools, including UConn just up I-91 from us, are paid for their time. Comparatively, getting the editorial staff at The Argus to receive even a minimum wage has proven to be an uphill and sometimes controversial battle. However, that is not the point of this article, nor would it magically fix the institution’s problems of inclusivity and diversity, but it’s an often unknown and under-discussed aspect of the paper that deserves to be a qualifier at the very least.
The Argus’ publication of the infamous op-ed questioning the legitimacy of the Black Lives Matter movement brought to light broader problems of inclusivity in the media, including The Argus as a historically white institution. Along those lines, the problem of whose voices were being heard and published by The Argus came to the forefront as well. I’ve listened to these concerns and taken them to heart, as have many of the current editors, and I can attest to the fact that the atmosphere of the institution has changed. New writers and editors of color have joined the staff, and there have been far more conversations at The Argus this semester concerning inclusivity, sensitivity, and diversity of coverage than ever before during my tenure as a staff writer and editor.
The key element that has changed in the way the staff discusses our relationship to the broader Wesleyan community—besides the sheer amount of time we dedicate to these topics—is the focus on the socially conscious and editorially sound decision to make, rather than simply avoid, controversy. All too often after last fall, especially in the opinion section during my time as an assistant and later full opinion editor, the primary concern came in the potential backlash a piece would cause rather than the content or argument itself. With a shift in editors and more senior members of the staff who have become used to a more tense media climate on campus, this worry has subsided in large part and has been replaced by a willingness to simply do the right thing.
While we’ve made some progress, there are still several concrete steps we can take to make The Argus a better and more responsible paper. The first is to become more proactive, and less reactive, in our coverage and creation of policies. Many of the immediate steps taken last fall in response to the activism around the BLM article were not embraced by much of the community precisely because they were reactive and appeared to have not crossed our minds previously. This has begun to change in The Argus’ updated editorial philosophy concerning the opinion section, letters to the editor, and a recent editorial on covering a Trump presidency more broadly. Similar proactive steps have begun in the creation of a sexual assault policy for the paper, as complicated and sensitive as that is.
For a media publication writ-large, there are other steps that I would like to implement or at least see implemented long-term. I think that the twice-weekly model is a perfect fit for a school of Wesleyan’s size and cultural richness, and while we take pride in being the oldest twice-weekly student paper in the country, there are time-sensitive events that can be feasibly published on the web before the two production nights of the week. So far, publishing on the web first has been reserved for the biggest breaking news stories on campus, often in the form of briefs. This has partially changed this year, particularly with the Scott Backer coverage and the Trump protests, which were more in depth than many breaking briefs before. However, I see no reason why certain events-oriented articles and university coverage have to always wait for the next print issue. Sometimes a Second Stage review is far more relevant when released mid-week rather than on a Friday, or a profile of an author coming to campus should go online before the lecture rather than half a week after it happened.
This would also make editing and production easier for the editors who are already overworked in many respects and could use the half-hour break an earlier published article would afford. Simply having a section editor on call at different points in the week—particularly in the news section—along with a copy editor and later an editor-in-chief would make the process streamlined and simple for breaking news articles, which can often be daunting when people are asleep or in class (hopefully not both).
Another step The Argus took this semester was an increase in visual media coverage, particularly with the introduction of Facebook Live. Overall, the paper could use more photos, and could make multimedia far more relevant to its coverage. With a rich arts scene and top-notch film department, there’s every reason to believe that The Argus could step to the fore of visual reporting with the coordination of its students.
Finally, and most importantly, communication between The Argus staff and the campus community will be crucial for a better symbiotic relationship. While the line between staff and community isn’t that thick, especially with the accessibility of weekly meetings at 5 p.m. in Usdan 108 and The Argus social media pages, it still feels as if we talk by each other rather than with each other. Much of this is due to the prominence of social media over in-person conversations. However, I’ve been touched this semester by the amount of positive interactions I’ve had with members of the community in person about the paper, from simple requests to difficult disagreements.
I feel like a true community reporter here, and there may not be another point in my career where I will see such a tangible impact of my work in a community as intimate as this one. I also feel a great responsibility in this role, which I’ve attained somewhat unintentionally through a passion for writing (this is my 61st article of the semester and 115th in my career at The Argus). For better or worse, I’ve become the face of The Argus for many, and I take that quite seriously. However, the institution is far greater than I, and it will live on long after I graduate. I’ll always have my own opinions, but my first and foremost obligation next semester will be to the Wesleyan community, followed by the long-term vitality of the paper. With your help and engagement—from emails and aside comments to joining the paper and making your impact in print—we can make a better community through a better student newspaper.