Anyone with a cable TV channel or who cares about the goings-on at America's universities has probably heard something about the Minuteman protest that erupted at Columbia University on October 4th. The protest and ruckus that followed, which led to the cancellation of the planned address by Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist, quickly becamse a referundum on campus free speech and racism in the anti-illegal immigrant movement.
Intriged by this act of citizens' journalism on my very own campus, I took it upon myself to interview a Bwog reporter Lydia DePillis and the website's editor-in-chief Avi Zenilman. I was interested in getting a taste of what real life campus bloggers in the middle of a huge story thought about themselves and what they were doing. On a textual level was intrigued by how the seriousness of the Minuteman story was co-existing (sometime uncomfortably) with Bwog's oft-irrverent aditutde. I was also curious to see how the Bwog staff saw their relationship with the Spec, and what they thought CU students thought about journalism in general. Sometimes, its easy to get caught up in a bunch of journalism theory and loose sight of what's actually happening on the ground.
The interview (conducted via email) follows. Folks interested in learning more about blogging and networked journalism on college campuses should check out Innovation in College Media, a website run by my colleague Bryan Murley and a few others. Its by far the best source of discussion about college journalism on the web.
Chris Anderson: What is The Bwog? What is its relationship with the print publication "The Blue and the White?"
Lydia DePillis: The Bwog launched in February of 2006 as a source for campus news and gossip with a light, funny, sometimes irreverent tone. It's partly reader driven, in that anyone can send in tips and ideas for posts, and partly staff driven, in that we work hard to commission more considered features with a high level of writing. It's run by the staff of The Blue and White, but the Bwog recieves no funding from the University--which means we have complete editorial freedom, unlike the magazine.
Avi Zenilman: The Bwog is the online manifestation of The Blue and White, Columbia's monthly magazine. It was launched in February 2006; we took some features from the magazine (gossip, digitalia, lecture hopping, arts reviews) and put them in blog form. It was meant to be smart, breezy, cheeky--and, in a campus where there is only one publication that comes out more than once a month, an alternative source of information and procrastination. We used "Columbia Gawker" to describe the project before finding a name. The Bwog's content comes from mish-mash of Blue and White writers (some who hate blogs), staffers who are either detailed specifically to bwog, daily bwog editors, and, naturally, our readers. Unlike The Blue and White print edition, it does not receive any funding for Columbia--which makes our lives easier. The relationship between print and online is still unclear--The Bwog comes out more frequently, has a wider readership and the writers work harder for it on a day to day basis, but I think there's something about the closedness and definitiveness of a closely edited magazine that makes it more central to The Blue and White. Also, right now, I think the magazine does a better job of reporting on the intellectual content of academic life, but I'm sure Bwog will catch up soon.
CWA: How did The Bwog prepare to cover the speech of Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist to the Columbia community? Have you covered controversial campus speakers before? How was this similar / different?
LdP: We prepared to cover Jim Gilchrist's appearance just like any other event, not knowing how it would blow up. As it became apparent that the protest outside was not your average Columbia snit fit, Bwog daily editor Sara Vogel and I teamed up to take pictures, and I took my laptop inside the Auditorium when the event started to post as it progressed. We haven't really covered things live before, and I'm not sure why we decided to do it this time. It was an exciting atmosphere, with lots of media, and we wanted to be first to break what went on inside.
We've had our share of controversy, but mostly over things like found objects with swastikas scrawled on them (see our April archives for details on that).
CWA: It seems like the decision was made, fairly early on, to expand Bwog's coverage of the protest and go get interviews with various campus players in the drama, along with other people whose opinion might be worth knowing (like Prof. Todd Gitlin or Chaplain Davis). This is obviously a lot more work ... Why did you decide that this extra level of coverage was important?
LdP: After the event, Sara and I went back to her room to polish up the post and do homework, until Avi called with the insight that this was going to be a bigger deal than anything Bwog had yet seen, and assigned me a long piece for the print magazine that I would report as events unfolded. The nature of the protest touches on many levels: free speech at the University, immigration on a national level, the psychology of crowds, feelings of alienation by both conservatives and communities of color on campus, how a story filters through the national media, adminsitrative incompetence...the list goes on. Until 4 AM that night, we met with people who were in the audience and students who knew the implications and who we should contact. I must have sent about 20 e-mails in two hours to schedule follow-up interviews.
We made a big deal out of this because we're uniquely equipped to cover it better than any news outlet in the country, and we wanted to dominate the news cycle, to own the story. The next day, we got 20 times our normal number of page views.
CWA: It seems like there's a level of self-consciousness involved with Bwog's part in this drama, or at least, self-consciousness about the whole "seriousness" of it. I've read a number of things on Bwog the last two weeks like, "we apologize to readers who come here for the snarky humor and we'll have more fart jokes soon, promise." Has it been weird to see things get so intense? And has it been hard to cover important campus events but also not to turn into a stodgy "all-politics all-the-time" platform that will drive students away?
LdP: We wanted to make sure we covered this comprehensively, but we're also conscious of being different from other straight news outlets, and conscious of our audience, which has about a 30-second attention span. While I reported intensively on Minuteman stuff, we tried to make sure our regular content kept coming, so that those who came for Minuteman coverage would stay for our bread and butter, which is gossip and humor. Also to lighten the tone, since the comment threads on Minuteman posts were getting depressingly vicious. It's been somewhat difficult in writing these posts to keep with Bwog style while not making light of the serious issues involved. Bwog kind of has a dual identity, and sometimes those two sides of its personality coexist uncomfortably.
AZ: To add to Lydia's point on dual identity; its a weird line to draw. I've started thinking of ourselves as a responsible British tabloid; we cover the news, we respect the seriousness of other outlets (including our magazine), but we hope that we're not limited by any stylistic or bureaucratic contrivance. This means we can get to the heart of issues a lot quicker, but there's also a higher risk of looking like an idiot.
CWA: Has there been a lot of hate mail? Have you gotten a different reaction from the Columbia people reading your work as opposed to people from outside CU?
LdP: In the week after the event, as news came out through a certain filter on national news, we got a lot of mail from people who wanted to contact students at Columbia and didn't know any way but to e-mail us, almost exclusively negative. I think people on campus are generally a little more sympathetic towards those who protested, and know more accurately what went on, and certainly aren't as hateful about it. But there are very few people willing to defend the people who rushed the stage for their action.
AZ: We got hatemail from pro-Minutemen folks; a lot of it was clearly directed at the first Columbia email they can find. Most of the time, people use the comments section to tell us why we suck. Sometimes it's constructive; other times, it's not.
It does seem like people are using us as a real news source, at least for this story. We've received emails from major media outlets asking us if we could help them find protestors to interview or if we could give them the lowdown. My parents' friends -- whether they are from the NPR or Fox News set -- have emailed me to say they're using us to follow the story. But I think that's a biased sample set.
CWA: Lydia, I noticed that you also write for the Spectator. How does the journalism you do with the Spectator differ from the reporting you do with Bwog? Do you feel like you have to "change hats" when you move from one publication to the other, or is it more seamless than that?
LdP: I wrote for the Spectator until recently, when working for both publications became too much of a headache, for three reasons: the workload, the healthy rivalry between the two, and the difficulty of talking to sources first as a Spec reporter, then a Bwog reporter. So I quit entirely, and have shifted all my reporting energies to Bwog. In some ways it's easier, since we have no obligation to cover things comprehensively, and have a lower standard for confirmation. Articles are shorter, and use links rather than explain every last bit of context. But I'm grateful for my Spec training and experience. In many ways, I miss news reporting, because there are some things--serious coverage of environmental stuff on campus, for example--in which Bwog's audience simply isn't that interested.
Yes, the writing styles are different, but it's become easier to slip in between the two voices. But especially with the Minuteman coverage, I've reported it exactly the way I would for Spectator--the basics of gathering information remain the same (although perhaps we look for the lighter side of the issue a little more, and have a few more instant message conversations with sources).
CWA: Have you or anyone else at Bwog been contacted by the University administration?
LdP: It's been an uphill battle to gain the same recognition from the adminsitration as Spectator gets as a legitimate campus news source, but we're working with them. Chaplain Davis, however, did contact me after our first interview, bringing me back in to explain the details of the Walid Shoebat event. I think they realize that we get read by students, and want to make sure we get the story straight. Which is the rational response.
AZ: To follow up Lydia, we were contacted over the summer by the Dean of Student Affairs; he wanted to give us the same kind of resources and contacts that is normally granted to Spec. Both Taylor and Lydia were rock-star Spec reporters before joining Bwog, and I've lived with student council members for the last couple years, so there was a really good foundation for solidifying contacts.
The best administrative response I've ever received was from a guy in the Facilities Department; we were meeting with him as part of our desperate search for office space and he was like, "The Blue and White? Oh, The Bwog! We check you guys to see if things are broken." So I guess we're doing some good.
CWA: To be honest, if I've wanted information about the Minuteman protest in the past few weeks, I've gone to Bwog. The Spectator has been an afterthought, at best. Is Bwog, and media like it, the future of campus journalism? What's the Spec's role in the modern university media world?
LdP: Columbia needs the Spectator. They have a million dollar a year budget, a two hundred person plus staff, and the institutional framework to cover many different aspects of the University comprehensively. Bwog doesn't want to do what they do, although I like to think we make them better by racing to stories and finding things in places they wouldn't think to look. Some things, such as the Minutemen protest, we're just better able to cover because of their fast breaking and constantly changing nature. Spec is largely bound by a 24-hour news cycle, and space--they can't publish huge statements or link to vast amounts of information. It's a microcosm of the national media scene: blogs and MSM in a symbiotic relationship that changes them both. Spectator can and should continue to be the paper of record at Columbia--us being out there as an alternative source of news doesn't render them irrelevant.
AZ: I agree with Lydia that the Spec is necessary; it can be
comprehensive, it can do its job of providing information, and it is an
established source of information. Blogs, on the other hand, are
consistently changing, hard to use if you just want to find a very
specific fact about a specific current issue, and impossible to bring
to class or on the subway. I've always wanted to have a straightforward
menu on Bwog, and I think we'll be adding more cheatsheets.
Bwog's role on the Columbia campus, however, is not like "the real world", where individual bloggers play the role of watchdog to the Big Bad Daily Paper. I think we're more like an alternatively weekly (A la Washington City Paper in DC) that is a bit more relaxed, a bit more opinionated, and able to see the daily paper from the outside and provide a little prodding competition. The commenters on our site, I think, are a more accurate reflection of the traditional blogging tone and style.
CWA: Are you interested at all in a career in journalism? Do most Columbia students you know have any respect for "journalism" as a profession, or is it looked down on as a job beneath the average ambitious CU student?
LdP: I've wanted to be a professional journalist in some capacity since early last year. Investment banking and consulting still make Columbians swoon more than journalistic careers, but that field is in no way disrespected. We've got the best J-School in the country, for crying out loud. In most circles, a job at The New Republic after graduation is probably considered as big a catch as one at Goldman Sachs.
AZ: I think Columbia students don't like the fact that journalism doesn't pay much, but words like "The New Yorker" "The New York Times" "The Wall Street Journal" still have cache. (And we -- not just journalists -- all love "Shattered Glass," mainly because it portrays awkwardness, a Columbia staple emotion, so acutely.) I think students here are a little mystified by the journalism school, because we're lucky enough to go to a college that a) is in the media capital in the world and b) has magazines and newspapers to write for. I also think there's a sense that I would've been a better journalist if I had spent more time learning about social welfare policy or Chinese history or economics than editing the magazine.
CWA: So, what's the future of Bwog?
LdP: Bwog is going to be around for a long time. We're working on a more stable organizational structure to make it easier for people to contribute, and you'll probably see more newsy reporting this year. But the basic concept remains the same, and it's still essentially a fun project run by a bunch of friends.
AZ: To add to Lydia: I think right now we are starting to expand beyond a group of friends. When we first started, without a system, we needed people we knew and people we could trust. But now that we're getting bigger and purview is getting wider, we've started to look beyond the 4 people who seemed bright at the last Blue and White meeting. It's hard to find people, because you don't have the tangible reward of cash, article clippings, and bylines (although we're trying to find ways to change that -- lecture hopping, for example.) We've been lucky to have people with Spec training; I think it will be interesting to see how Bwog attracts and trains reporters in the future without becoming the Old Gray Lady of the Internet.