In October of 2006, the New York Times reported that the millions of free newspapers distributed to subway passengers were a prime culprit in the clogged storm drains and tunnel fires that harangue the city’s engineers and bring train traffic to a halt. “We have complained bitterly,” said a Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) board member, “about what we call the free newspapers.” The MTA has since launched a poster campaign under the title “Bad News,” instructing passengers what to do with their used newspapers: “Please put it in a trash can; that’s good news for everyone.”
Outside of the Science Center every Thursday, Harvard students are also confronted with some similar bad news: Hundreds of hawked copies of The Harvard Voice, the campus’s latest résumé-filler wrapped in a vanity publication. And though stray copies of The Voice may not end up clogging subway drains, they nonetheless deserve all the same to be put in a trash can—perhaps without being read beforehand.
To be fair, the nominal impulse for the The Voice’s existence—the assessment that Harvard needs alternative publishing outlets—is legitimate. The stuffy old Crimson-Advocate-Lampoon triad would benefit from a degree of clever and vigorous competition beyond what The Independent, Tuesday Magazine, and Satire V have been able to provide. The Harvard media landscape is uncomfortably cloven between the august monopolies on one hand and the boutique glossies on the other. This situation benefits nobody.
But if Harvard publishing so desperately demands new voices, it is all the more disappointing that this particular Voice has so overwhelmingly and embarrassingly failed to provide them. Rather than articulating a new and compelling argument for an alternative weekly, The Voice’s founders cobbled together a mishmash of Internet buzzwords, fabricated sensationalism, and promiscuous exclamation marks. Two years ago, “interactive media” had already become a hollow term mostly occurring in the province of lame venture-capital proposals. Today it is even more meaningless.
In The Voice’s nightmare world of barely-altered press releases, illegibly pixelated images, and unindented paragaphs, ambition runs large and innovation runs small. “Our focus this year is ‘everything Harvard,’” the editors stated at the beginning of the year, a phrase so full of paradox and tortured logic that one can only imagine the sort of discussion that goes in The Voice’s headquarters. Got a zany idea about what makes Harvard students “tick”? Have you ever written a LiveJournal entry? Great: Let’s send it to press. Don’t mind the titles cut off by the fold of the page; did you notice we’re wearing sunglasses?
If The Voice were just a group of first-timers genuinely trying to write something new and stumbling a bit along the way, these problems might be forgivable. Publishing a full-color newspaper every week, however, is enormously expensive, to say nothing about the cost of the incessant merchandising and trinket offers which the paper has set out as come-alongs. Other student groups, even well-established ones, can only dream about having that kind of money. What is at work in The Voice’s shoddy quality is not amateurism or a lack of resources. It is a superficial showmanship and a prevailing laziness.
The whole catastrophe is diagnostic of the side of Harvard that privileges looking good over doing well, where bright orange banners and “I-buttons” are appropriate recompense for an utter lack of substance. As such, the real tragedy of The Voice is not the annoyance of a second-rate new publication but the giant slap in the face it offers to the idea of meritocracy. It is a depressing proof positive that neither good ideas, nor even mediocre ideas, can assure a rise to the top as effectually as the bludgeon of clichés, the gloss of marketing, and the access to money.
Garrett G.D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.