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We Will Be Read

By Sarah J. Schaffer

Three years ago this month, I stayed past midnight at The Crimson for the first time in order to help put the paper to bed. As I watched the negatives of the next day’s pages slide out of the processor, I was amazed that the product of so many people’s work was, once again, ready to imprint itself on metal plates, run through the presses and hit the streets a few hours later. I thought there was little more magical in the world.

Unfortunately, The Crimson’s readers do not often feel that magic. All they see is the newspaper on their doorstep in the morning, and often it leaves room for improvement. In my three-and-a-half years of writing for this paper, I, like everyone else who spends time here each week, have fielded complaints from disgruntled readers: Why was that typo in the paper? Why did you cover/not cover that event? Who wrote that awful headline? Why wasn’t my paper delivered this morning?

The intent behind the questions has not escaped me or anyone else. Many students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus do not like The Crimson. They mistrust its coverage; they deride its editorial positions; they remember all too clearly its misquotation of a friend of theirs 10 years ago or yesterday.

While I understand that The Crimson, like any newspaper, often gives reason for complaint, I would like to use this column, my last as an executive on the paper, to explain why it is imperative for you and every other member of the Harvard community to read The Crimson. It is the paper of record, it is the only real source of news on campus, and it is the one thing all members of the Harvard community share.

There are many reasons why students do not read The Crimson.

First, there are those who do not read any newspaper. This is understandable here, where extracurriculars and schoolwork take up so much time. But it is nevertheless frightening.

Second, there are those who read only the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. Local news is too trivial; they instead prefer to read about big policy decisions and sweeping global accords.

Third, and most disturbing, there are those students who do not read The Crimson because they do not trust it and do not like its reporting. Some dislike The Crimson’s assigning “compers,” or beginning reporters, to important stories. Others believe that the paper harbors an agenda in choosing stories to cover. Still others point out the paper’s insensitivity in reporting on certain minority groups. All of these complaints are, in some regard, well-founded.

But to those people who mistrust the paper, I have this to say:

First, we are a student organization. We are not perfect. None of our writers are paid for efforts that often stretch to dozens of hours per person per week. We get tired; we consistently close out the paper in the early-morning hours; we are apt to make occasional errors of typography and judgement. In addition, we are not only a newspaper but a place of learning. We cannot afford to be perfectionists.

Second, we have no agenda in our news coverage. This year, we received many letters implying that the layout of a feature page or the placement of a story on the front page was related to our editorial stances. Such accusations are ludicrous, first because our editorial positions are completely unrelated to our news coverage (they are decided by majority vote in a weekly meeting to which all staff members are invited) and second, because we simply do not have the time or energy to engineer such a conspiracy.

Third, we are working on the severe lack of diversity in our very white staff. We do our best to be sensitive to all groups, but sometimes unfortunate mistakes and misunderstandings slip through. These problems will continue to occur until we have a enlightened staff of all backgrounds.

Regardless of The Crimson’s many flaws, all of which our loyal readers have pointed out to us, the fact remains that it is the paper of record on the Harvard campus. When students compile projects about Harvard history, they come to us. When national newspapers look for comment on a Harvard issue, they come to us. When administrators want to leak a piece of news, they come to us. The Gazette is also a paper of record, but like the defunct Pravda it emulates, it tends to gloss over important controversies in favor of feel-good, fund-raising stories. Understandable, but not always credible.

Therefore, if you read The Crimson, you are learning about the important Harvard issues of the day. They may not always seem earth-shattering, but they describe what is happening in your community. So many times, I have heard friends and acquaintances mention a campus event that occurred yesterday without knowing many details about it. They ask if anyone else has heard about it and are always completely unaware that all the details were in that morning’s Crimson. Reading The Crimson makes you an informed citizen of the Harvard community as much as does voting in Undergraduate Council elections and going to class regularly.

And in that sense, it is the only thing at Harvard that ties everyone—students, faculty, staff, administrators, everyone in all the nine schools of the University—together. It provides a common starting ground and makes us remember that even in all our differences, we share a community—a community all of us should care about. The news stories provide us with a collective body of knowledge, and the editorial page offers a forum in which every single person on the Harvard campus may participate through a letter or guest commentary.

So if you are only a casual reader of The Crimson, write it into your daily schedule. Take the 15 minutes in the morning to scan the headlines on the front, editorial, Real World and sports pages. Send a letter to the editor (letters@thecrimson.com). Call in a news tip (576-6565). Let us know what’s on your mind.

There is a sign on the door of the Crimson managing editor’s office that proclaims, “I will not philosophize. I will be read.” You can help us with that mission by reading the paper regularly—by telling us when we have let you down and when we have fulfilled your expectations.

Above all, do not forget that it is your paper. As much as we like to think, report and write, we are not involved in this pursuit simply to see our words in print. We are doing it so that every day, every morning, there is a paper out there for the community to read. So that, on the best days, we are not the only ones who feel the magic.

Sarah J. Schaffer ’97 served as editorial chair of The Harvard Crimson in 1996. This editorial originally ran on Jan. 22, 1997.

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