Last week, my old friend Lindsey emailed me to tell me that the home of my first writing gig ever—a short-lived run as A&E editor for the University of Utah’s student newspaper, The Daily Utah Chronicle, which also indirectly ended my college career—was in trouble. They have a deficit that’s going nowhere, and its fate is being dictated by the university’s nebulous and generally evil Student Media Council, in a “shark-tank style meeting” [sic] to come up with a solution in the form of a “student media revolution,” as lead by some guy named Ryan Bennett. They were reaching out to alumni for letters of support.
The meeting’s happening right now, and does not appear to be going well.
I don’t think they should be at that meeting. I didn’t write a letter of support. I wrote Lindsey back with the following:
————— Forwarded message —————
From: Foster Kamer
Date: Tue, Feb 11, 2014 at 2:44 PM
Subject: Re: Student Media Revolution
You got more than you bargained for.
I’m not writing a letter of support. I’m going to give you a relatively minced explanation of why the Chrony’s position is wrong, and I’ll let you decide whether or not to forward it on to them. I loved my time at the Chronicle. I don’t know how much it had to do with my current career, if at all, but I know some wonderful people for whom it did. And I write this letter out of love, and out of trying to contribute to something better for them and for those to come.
First, let’s run over the problems at hand:
Problem 1. Print is a luxury product in 2014. It’s an unnecessary luxury to have tangible evidence of one’s work to hold and spill coffee on, and it’s also a slow, costly, and environmentally unsound medium given the alternatives. If Chrony writers are so fickle as to operate under the idea that having their work on dead trees adds value to it, they need better work done.
Problem 2. The media council and the publishing side are big if not the biggest failures in all of this. The publishing side was resisting selling banner ads on the site and giving them away in off-the-books ticket trades since when I was there less than a decade ago. I can’t imagine it got all that much better. Of all the things about the Chronicle that are retrograde, its ad units are probably the worst. In any kind of ostensibly progressive, educational environment, the business side would employ someone familiar with emerging trends in media sales—instead, they’ve got a banner unit advertising the student union right now on top of the site. If the [student union] is all the business-side can sell for the Chrony, they need to be cleared right the fuck out. It’s essentially their fault The Chrony is in this.
Problem 3. The greatest issue with cutting the Chronicle’s print edition outright isn’t any kind of moral implication or reckoning. The problem is that—because said business-side people have been so patently retrograde, as enabled by the media council—they’ve always sold advertisers on the fact that students will pick up the paper before class and read it, thus being exposed to their ads. This might’ve been true, like, ten years ago, when the only things on our cell phones to distract us was Snake. Today, students have little incentive to pick up the paper if they have a smartphone, because there’s a ton of other shit vying for their attention. If the council cuts the print edition outright, they will lose their sole source of revenue that’s still ostensibly decent to them. This is likely the foundation of their thinking that the entire thing needs to be rethought: Because these idiots have sat on their hands for over a decade as the tide’s long loomed over them. Granted, this change affected the largest and the most supposedly important media institutions in the world (who have either adapted, died, or are still trying to adapt while dying), but if an institution of learning is supposed to be as progressive as it’s positioned to be, it should’ve been nimble enough to affect change on its own level.
Problem 4. This is where the arrogance and comfort of writing types comes into the greater picture of culpability for the Chrony’s current condition: At no point has anyone at the Chronicle sitting on the left side of the office ever concerned themselves with the Chronicle turning a buck. Ever. I certainly didn’t. And mostly because that kind of thing has always been thought to be beneath noble writerly types. It’s not. The money’s gotta come from somewhere. Understanding what hand is feeding you will, at the very least, give you the positioning/leverage to occasionally bite it, which right now, the Chronicle has none of. This, from the email you sent on?
My protests that The Chrony isn’t about turning a “profit” (the word that multiple council members kept using) but about an educational experience for students and for serving as an independent monitor of power for the U went unheard.
This is the absolute dumbest motherfucking thing I’ve read about the crossroads of higher-education and media in a while. It bears repeating, because it will come in handy later: The staff of the Chronicle has zero leverage in this conversation. And no small or even medium amount of shaming or protesting ideals will change that.
Ask yourself, not rhetorically:
- What kind of educational experience is the Chronicle supposed to be if it shields staff members from the realities of the media business? I genuinely think—and I’m not joking, at all—that there is no more educational experience one could get out of the Chronicle than the one they’re getting throughout this crisis. At the very least, it will dose everyone with the practical realities of the experience they say they want an education in. But at best, it will inspire them to begin to tackle these issues.
- Under what obligation, incentive, hard contract, or even abstract ethical contract is the U under to provide an independent monitor? Don’t other institutions that could act as independent monitors of the U (the Trib, the CityNews, and so on) already exist? Doesn’t the U already answer to higher powers that hold it accountable?
- Most critically: What’s to be done? The adage that the greatest revenge is living quietly and well is generally true. But when dealing with the Ryan Bennetts of the world, the greatest and most effective revenge is stripping them of their power, and then, as a bonus, exposing him for the absolutely ignorant ho that he is.
There are ways to create leverage—a hunger strike? A sit-in? Daily, front-page, borderline-torturous tabloid-style coverage of each member of the media council, exposing them for the snakes they are?—but (A) given what I’ve already read, I don’t think the current staff has the grit to commit to that kind of thing, and (B) they shouldn’t commit to that kind of thing, because the Chronicle ain’t worth saving. Why not?
- The Chronicle is inextricably tied to the very institution it’s supposedly checking the power of [and those reins are easily tightened]. No matter how much they may affect change, how powerful does that ultimately make it?
- Nobody reads the thing. Sorry, but it’s true. It always has been. And while it may break news that could affect a larger news cycle, the old model of the Chrony supporting itself off an ideal (it needs to exist because it needs to exist) or being the only competition in town for attention before or after class, or on Trax or a bus, or via the stories that garner attention from external sources, it’s just not enough.
- At the end of the day, Chrony alum in 2014 depending on this current model will be done more harm than good by operating under its reality distortion field, not just because they’ll be ill-prepared for what’s outside of it, but the quality of the thing they’re trying to do will always be inherently hampered by the cushioning of something existing without having to fight for its existence.
So, we’ve reached the portion of this email when I’ve basically shattered the hopes and dreams of the Chronicle, not to mention your own of getting a somewhat uplifting and inspiring email from me.
But let’s here revisit the point above about Best Practices In Matters of Revenge, and stripping the Ryan Bennetts of the world of their power, and exposing them for the hos that they are. And here, we’ll establish a few more points:
1. The Chronicle has never had any competition.
2. The Chronicle could never be as independent or as nimble as an independent media outlet.
3. Regardless of how you feel about it, entrepreneurial media projects are the new normal.
4. An independent student media outlet sounds like the dumbest fucking thing ever. Especially for those who need to make a living.
5. But it would also reflect the current climate of media exponentially more than the Chrony has over the last ten years, and especially now. Ezra Klein just left the Washington Post to go work for Jim Bankoff. ProPublica is one of the greatest media outlets of our time, and it’s a nonprofit. Andrew Sullivan left both The Atlantic and then Newsweek to run his own operation. Not all independent media outlets will succeed, but at least they’re in exponentially more control of their fates than anyone with their heads and livelihoods so far up the ass of outdated models as to not have breathed fresh air in decades.
6. Independent student media outlets have not just been built, but they’ve succeeded. Wildly. Look at NYU Local: It was created as a digital-only outlet to compete with NYU’s official student newspaper, the Washington Square News. It has beat them at every angle. It is regarded by real people with actual jobs in media as a serious talent farm, which is to say nothing of the fact that it has achieved the near-impossible: A student media outlet that is taken seriously. Its alumni have gone on to work for a number of outlets. There’s a reason for this (theory: Point 5).
7. There is no better way to strip Ryan Bennett of his power than for the staff of the Chronicle to completely capitulate, start their own site, bring on their own business people, and compete for/win the ad dollars of whatever hokey media revolution bullshit his crowdsourced monkey business will come up with. Bennett will then be the guy responsible for the dissolution of student media at the U, and the loss of potential revenue for the university, which they need regardless of whether the Chronicle/student media exists or not, because idiots like him have left a deficit hole that needs to be filled. And the Powers That Be won’t be happy about it. Especially when it starts to create said aforementioned leverage via attention from places they don’t want it, and decrease the pool of students who see a university with student media as a place they want to invest four years of time (and four years of tuition with, as well).
To make this work will take sacrifice. The beginning is ugly. But it’s a hell of a lot better—and likely to be a workable solution for both the educational experience Chrony staffers supposedly want—than letting some guy named Ryan Bennett who wouldn’t know a byline from a conga line determine their fate. After all, revolutions are usually nothing more than coups run by despots-in-waiting. And fuck that noise. To win in this situation requires relinquishing any reliance on a system that put this creep in power in the first place. And I could think of no greater start than for the entire staff of the Chronicle to tell Bennett to stick it.
But it would require hard work, unilateral commitment, and sacrifice, especially where [the current Chronicle editors] are concerned. It’ll require digging into the business of running a media outlet. It might require fundraisers, and alumni outreach, and all the things that suck about being an institution that exists primarily to fulfill ideals (and not profit margins). But it can be done. It can even be profitable. And the results will ultimately benefit those to come more than those who are there, now (but if the ideals the Chronicle’s current leadership say they hold are so true, then that’s a nonissue).
And if they decide to go this route, I’m pledging my support and time to the cause—I’ll even fly out there to help support the cause and lend some ground support for a few days, as well as try to rustle up support from some friends with experience in situations like this who might be down. I’m sure [our Chrony alum friends] would be down, too.
I truly do believe there’s a workable solution within these parameters than whatever the Student Media Council can come up. They’re idiots. And the kids at the Chronicle have always been a cut above the rest of the school. Here’s hoping they get one over on them—in that, they’ve got my wholehearted support.
- - -
Lindsey forwarded the letter onto them, but they decided to go the standard route. A few alum I’ve been in conversation with agree with most of this, but ultimately know it ain’t happening. And again, the Student Media Council meeting doesn’t seem to be going all that well today.