The story had it all: the breakdown of a historic gender barrier, set at America’s preeminent institution of higher education with some intrigue thrown in.
Early last Friday, The Crimson reported that members of Harvard’s Spee Club, one of the eight all-male final clubs at the College, had voted to invite women to participate in its annual punch process, when prospective members are put up for entry to the unrecognized social organization. The story of the group’s historic move to go co-ed broke late, well past midnight—and national media outlets quickly picked up the thread.
In less than 24 hours, The New York Times and The Boston Globe had reported their own extensive versions of the story, complete with campus reaction and analysis. BuzzFeed followed suit a day later. Other blogs also picked it up.
As an elite and international institution, Harvard often but sporadically attracts national media attention. In this case, according to reporters who covered the story and outside experts, the Spee narrative’s encapsulation of several topics trending in public discourse—gender equality, higher education, fraternities, and sexual assault—prompted it to draw outsized attention.
The Times, declaring that a “gender barrier” had fallen and describing the Spee as seemingly “relatively progressive,” chose to highlight the club’s move to go co-ed alongside women protesting the Hasty Pudding Theatricals’ all-male cast. The Times story connoted a trend of recent challenges to single-sex organizations at Harvard.
According to Katharine Q. Seelye, the Times’s New England bureau chief who shared a byline on the paper’s story, its significance reached beyond Harvard’s own campus.
“That elite, all-male clubs still exist in this day and age, especially at a university that prides itself on equality, would probably surprise a lot of people,” Seelye wrote in an email. “That they do exist says something about Harvard and about society. It also says something about both that at least one club is now changing.”
“In general people are drawn to the first history making type stories of any sort,” said Tamerra Griffin, a reporter for BuzzFeed News who wrote about the Spee for the site. “I think in particular BuzzFeed readers tend to be interested in stories about gender equality or inequality.”
Beyond its relationships with gender equity issues, Griffin said the setting of the story—higher education, another issue important to BuzzFeed’s younger readership—made it that much more worthy of coverage.
“All of those things were at play, which after you consider each factor, to me made it that much more newsworthy,” she said.
And it was not just any institution of higher education involved. Harvard occupies an outsized role in the national imagination and claims the reputation of the country’s most famous university. That is part of what drove the coverage, according to Boston Globe reporter Laura Krantz.
“Anytime Harvard does something, it’s a big deal in the world of higher ed,” said Krantz, who wrote the Globe’s version of the Spee story. “These clubs are a unique part of the Harvard culture and I think your average reader is probably interested in them,” she added.
Media experts add that the role of final clubs in the story also served as a connection to the national conversation surrounding the merits of fraternities on college campuses.
Nicholas B. Lemann ’76, dean emeritus of the Columbia School of Journalism, said the story touches on both the “Harvard button and the fraternity button.”
“If you sub in the word fraternity instead of final club, which is how the country would understand, it's a whole big national argument going on about fraternities, fraternity culture, campus rape,” said Lemann, who is also a former Crimson president.
—Staff writer Ivan B. K. Levingston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @IvanLevingston.