Change has come to the office of the Columbia Daily Spectator. Sections of the wall have been replaced with whiteboards, members of the Business and Innovation team work from new couches, and a worker on a ladder seems to be dismantling part of the ceiling. There’s even a potted plant, though it’s fake.
“From IKEA,” confesses Abby Abrams, BC ’15, sitting at the desk she used to occupy as editor-in-chief. Last year, Abby steered the Spectator through one of the biggest changes in its history when it became the first Ivy League newspaper to drop its daily print edition.
Going digital had been on the table for a while; the print edition was becoming unprofitable, its readership was low, and its funding could be used to expand the Spectator’s work-study program for a handful of staffers.
“Certainly, I’m someone who loves the print paper,” says Abby, an English major who grew up in a suburb of St. Louis. “[But] if it’s not relevant and students don’t read it, then we’re just working in a void.”
Talking to Abby is a little like reading one of her articles—she’s thoughtful and diplomatic, with a habit of using “certainly” for emphasis that seems to have migrated from her writing to her speech. She first considered being a reporter when she took a journalism class in middle school. By high school, she was sure.
After joining the Spectator in her freshman year, Abby quickly earned a reputation as one the paper’s best and most prolific reporters. She was elected editor-in-chief without ever having served on the managing board.
As the face of the newspaper, Abby took both praise and heat when the digital transition made national headlines. Like many decisions during her tenure as editor, however, she made the call in close consultation with the other members of the Spectator’s corporate board: then-managing editor Steven Lau, CC ’15, and publisher Michael Ouimette, CC ’16, who succeeded Abby as editor-in-chief. (Abby and Michael are now dating.)
The corporate board worked well together, but sometimes left other editors bristling. Several members of the former managing board, who asked for anonymity, said they were exasperated by what they saw as a lack of transparency. “Especially Michael and Abby, they always had an idea in mind of what was going to happen that they executed without any regard to what people wanted,” said one former editor, expressing a sentiment echoed by every editor I spoke with.
Tensions surfaced during the decision to go digital. By the time the corporate board told the editors, it seemed more like a final call than an invitation for input. Staffers on The Eye, the official magazine of the Spectator, were particularly upset when they learned in a last-minute meeting that their weekly print issue had been cut.
Breaking with tradition has been hard for the many people who felt an attachment to the print Spectator—readers, alums, and staff members alike. But even Abby’s critics give her credit for a transition to digital that could hardly have turned out better. The Spectator, which now prints weekly, is publishing complex pieces with impressive design, thanks in part to a new partnership with the Washington Post. Like all legacy publications, it’s adapting.
For her part, Abby is ready to let go of last year’s responsibilities. Being editor was “the most incredible and wonderful and infuriating experience I’ve ever had,” Abby says, but it’s nice to have the time to write and report again. She’s back in her element.
— Naomi Sharp