J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

Interview with the Bwoggers

Posted by chanders on October 17, 2006

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.

Not surprisingly, the best coverage of the entire affair has come, not from Columbia’s official student newspaper The Spectator (The Spec), but from an unofficial campus blog, called The Bwog.

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.

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