Examining the decline of Spectator’s City News section
There’s this old joke about American journalism and its stubborn unwillingness to be bothered by events outside this country’s borders. It goes like this:
If you want to see a magic trick, pick up an American newspaper and watch the rest of the world disappear.
For the most part, unfortunately, the same is true of Columbia. Nobody denies that life on this campus is busy and crushingly stressful. Half the time we barely have the energy to stagger to Westside for peanut butter and Easy Mac, let alone come to really know or care about the neighborhoods outside our gates.
Until quite recently, however, it actually wasn’t that hard to get good, in-depth local news. This time two years ago, you could read three to five stories everyday about everything from city council elections to funding cuts for local homeless shelters in the City News section of the Spectator, Columbia’s independent student newspaper. If you were so inclined, you could do this five days a week, almost every week of the school year.
Even a cursory visit to the Spectator’s website reveals that the above is no longer the case. The City News section didn’t publish a single story between December 3, 2015 and March 21, 2016. Two stories went up in the month of April but the section went dark again until June 4, when it published a short piece about the closing of a popular local bar. While the other subcategories of the Spectator’s News section (Academics, Administration, and Student Life) have carefully maintained digital archives, a click on “City” either displays an error or loads a blank page.
So here’s the question: what the hell happened to Spec City News?
Popping the Bubble
The Columbia Daily Spectator hardly invented off-campus news coverage; the student-run papers at Penn, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Brown and NYU (among many, many others) all have ‘local’ or ‘city’ sections. But take a closer look, and most of those stories focus either on the border between campus and the outside world, or on events occurring at state and federal levels. You might read a story about a break-in at a student’s off-campus house, or about a piece of proposed state or federal legislature that could nominally affect student life.
What you wouldn’t see are stories about community outreach projects, absentee landlords, new charter schools being squeezed into already overcrowded public school buildings, luxury apartments banning rent-controlled tenants from using the building’s gym— stories the Spectator used to churn out every day.
Of course, that kind of coverage is both time- and labor-intensive. Eva Kalikoff, BC ’16, who covered the Upper West Side as a Deputy News Editor for the Spectator in 2014, says she was in constant contact with city council members, community organizers, tenants’ associations, and other local figures as well as attending up to 4 meetings— town hall meetings, planning meetings, board meetings of all kinds— a week. All of which, she says, was necessary for “keeping a finger on the pulse,” of the neighborhood.
Anyone who has ever been involved with the Spectator at any level knows that the paper asks a lot of its employees— or rather, its volunteers. Late nights, skipped lectures, and missed assignment deadlines are part of the job, no matter what section you work in, but City News is a cut above the rest in that respect. Even the newest reporters duck out of lectures to take phone calls from police representatives and community organizers, or stay up late tracking down planning documents from obscure corners of city government websites. Plus, the paper’s coverage zone is fairly large— from 96th Street up to 135th, between the river and Adam Clayton Powell— and reporters can spend hours crisscrossing it on foot, interviewing local business owners or stopping strangers in the street for a quote.
Deborah Secular, BC ’17, who was a Deputy News Editor in 2014 and City News Editor in 2015 actually says that when she was a deputy, “[her] ankles hurt all the time [from] walking around in the cold.”
Despite the hardships involved (or perhaps because of them, as is commonly the case at Columbia), past City News writers and editors were proud to be a part of the section. Kalikoff says she was first drawn to Spec City because of how seriously its members took their work.
“Spectator felt to me… like an institution that people really valued,” she says, precisely because “it kept the campus in touch with what was happening around the community.”
Likewise, Secular calls her time with City News “the most meaningful thing I’ve done in college.”
Columbia (not) Daily Spectator
In April 2014, Spectator staff were called to an all-hands meeting at the paper’s offices where the paper’s then-Managing Board— Managing Editor Steven Lau, Editor-in-Chief Abby Abrams, and Publisher Michael Ouimette— announced the end of daily print production, effective within a few weeks.
Content would henceforth be published directly to the Spectator’s website, along with a weekly print edition that would feature new articles alongside pieces posted online earlier in the week. The Eye, Spectator’s weekly literary magazine, which published themed issues of fiction and poetry alongside carefully reported long-form pieces, would go entirely digital.
To put it mildly, the decision was controversial. Spec was the first of the Ivy League dailies to cut daily print, and while many saw the move as bold but necessary for adaptation to an increasingly digital media climate, others were not so sure. Harper’s publisher and Spectator trustee John MacArthur, CC ’78, not only quit the paper’s Board but argued, in an email to fellow trustees obtained by New York Magazine, that “killing the daily paper is a foolish mistake from both a financial and philosophical standpoint.”
Likewise, the atmosphere in the Spectator offices was sharply divided. On the one hand, there was hope and enthusiasm. No more desperately trying to fill print space so the paper wouldn’t have to run (another) half- or full-page ad. Under “new Spec,” writers would be free to invest their time in longer, more investigative pieces instead.
On the other hand, Kalikoff says she felt “dread and lack of control” when she heard the news.
The paper’s staff felt betrayed by how out of the blue the announcement had come, Kalikoff says. The very core of the Spectator’s identity as an organization changed overnight as the result of a decision made at the very highest levels of management. The paper’s staff— the people who actually saw their bylines print every day of the week— were not consulted.
“The atmosphere changed hugely,” at that point, says Kalikoff. “I suddenly felt no stake in my own future as a journalist.”
The future of journalism itself is still uncertain; everyone understands that it will be digital, but nobody can quite agree on the details. Business models explored by larger, for-profit organizations are either unfeasible or undesirable to outfits like the Spectator. Putting content behind a firewall, for example, would yield laughably bad results given the noted unwillingness of college students to pay for anything, ever.
Still, someone’s got to pay the bills. The Spectator is a not-for-profit organization; it receives no funding from the University, relying on an in-house business department to keep the lights on and the servers running.
Spec leadership cited declining revenue from print advertising as a major factor in the decision to go digital. While the paper ended 2013 with $180,000 in ad revenue according to a recent internal report, it expected only $108,000 from a full print run in 2014. The new digital model brought in $120,000 in 2014, greater than the forecast from a print-only volume but still falling far short of print revenue in previous years.
In order to make up the difference, the paper’s business arm has focused aggressively on conferences and web-based apps marketed to Columbia students. Events like the Columbia Women’s Leadership Summit bring in cash through ticket sales, but the revenue streams from apps like Eat@CU— which provides reviews of and rewards at local restaurants— are slightly less clear.
Much like church and state, the business and editorial aspects of most journalistic operations are supposed to remain separate. Still, changes in a paper’s business model often translate to changes in the scope or focus of its coverage. To that end, the Spectator’s new digital bent has ushered in what former City News Editor Christian Zhang calls “the ‘web-first’ mentality.”
Being ‘web-first’ means using analytics— quantitative data on clicks, pageviews, and the amount of time a reader spends on a given page— to tailor coverage towards certain target demographics. The Columbia Daily Spectator’s core readership is (naturally) composed of Columbia students, and Spectator leadership has assumed (probably correctly) that the average Columbia student is more likely to click on an article with direct pertinence to daily life on campus.
“One of the things we’re learning about online media in a broad sense is that it’s all about clickbait and views,” says Kalikoff. When Spectator went online, “City News became the least sexy section, for sure.”
Turning a Profit
It would be hard to deny that certain coverage areas, storylines, and narratives aren’t more profitable to a news organization than others. The debate playing out at Spectator— and in newspaper offices across the world— is whether profit is really an accurate metric of what things are worth doing. As the production of public service journalism becomes more and more at odds with a paper’s twin objectives of cutting costs and providing consumers with a product that is attractive to them, sections like Spectator’s City News are more and more imperiled.
But at what cost?
Columbia has long been regarded as a gentrifying influence on the neighborhoods surrounding it. The University’s recent expansion into Manhattanville, the neighborhood immediately to the north of the Morningside campus, has thrown this tension into new relief. As the new campus opens its doors this fall and the University congratulates itself on a job well done, local residents and businesses will continue to grapple with rent hikes and increased police presence.
Kalikoff argues that the Columbia student body has a duty to engage with our complicity in this process, and that City News, by giving voice to local residents, has the power to shed new light on issues that may be talked about on campus but not lived.
Brad Taylor, a member of Manhattan’s Community Board 9, says he considers the Spectator an important vehicle for educating Morningside Heights residents on community events and processes. Taylor, who used to pick up print copies of the Spectator from local businesses and who has been in regular contact with Spectator reporters in the past, says that contact has all but died out in the last year.
“I used to get a sense that there was one or two people covering us [CB9], but now I have no idea,” he says. “I don’t really have any names anymore.”
Likewise, former Community Board 7 Chair and current CB7 member Mark Diller, CC ‘80, says he received frequent calls and emails from Spectator staffers until about a year ago. Like Taylor, Diller believes that the loss of city coverage cuts both ways: students lose a chance to learn about and appreciate the neighborhoods, and the community loses a sense of connection with the University.
According to Secular, city news coverage is all too easy to overlook and undervalue. “The thing about city news is that it educates you as you go,” she says. “If you’ve never walked around [the neighborhood], you’re not going to think it’s important because you’ve never even seen it.”
Diller agrees: “I think university students might find something of value in understanding the real complexity of our neighborhood, which doesn’t seem that complex if all you do is walk down Broadway.”
Kalikoff, Secular, Diller, and Taylor all feel that narrow coverage leads to a narrow worldview. The Spectator’s decision to bet everything on campus news and hang City out to dry is essentially an argument that the world outside our gates does not, for all intents and purposes, exist. The message is that if the Spectator does not feel the need to concern itself with neighborhood goings-on, then neither should we.
“The danger if this situation persists is… the erasure of the community,” says Secular.
“When you say that reporting on bike lanes isn’t important, what does that say? It says that students never leave campus. When you say that affordable housing isn’t important, what are you saying?”
Students aren’t the only ones losing out either. Spec City News filled an important niche in the wider news ecosystem of Manhattan, producing stories that would almost certainly have been overlooked by larger news outlets. In fact, some of Spectator’s stories actually caused those larger outlets to sit up and take note of events happening right under their noses. For example, in April of 2014, when a group of federal and state politicians joined forces with local advocacy groups to protest the controversial residential development that now stands to the north of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the New York Times didn’t cover the protests directly. Instead, it published an article days later that made heavy reference to the Spectator’s coverage of the event.
Ain’t Over Yet
Despite its inactivity in the past year, the City News section is still at least nominally existent. Although the Spectator declined to officially comment for this piece and although no one currently occupies the position of City News Editor, there are at least two people— judging from the bylines on the last few City stories— who are interested in local coverage.
All of which is to say, it’s not over yet.
According to former City News Editor Christian Zhang, the paper’s coverage, scope and focus depend largely on its leadership at a given point in time. “[While] the number of people who were interested in reporting on and editing city stories decreased last year relative to previous years, you can see trends like that over the past 10, 15 years in many other parts of [the paper].”
The Spectator rolls over its personnel yearly, opening up positions to applicants in a process called “turkeyshoots” at the end of every fall semester. It’s not altogether implausible to imagine that the end of 2016 could see a new City News editor and a renewed City section. Although past staffers like Zhang worry about the loss of institutional knowledge— a reporter’s mental rolodex of sources and their relevance to various storylines covered by the paper— it seems that lapsed relationships with contacts like Diller and Taylor would be relatively easy to renew.
Secular, the last person to hold the title of City News Editor, is similarly optimistic— up to a point. “I’m still here for another year; I know all this stuff that I can still tell people. The link is still here— for one more year— to a time when the section was strong,” she says.
“After that, though, if it’s still nonexistent, it’s really lost.”