By Winston Shi
I fear nothing for Stanford more than its continued fragmentation. Human events, and in particular events at Stanford, tend towards disorder and entropy — cliqueness, political tunnel vision and social division. Though I love Stanford, I also cannot deny the fact that the Stanford experience is one increasingly defined by floating worlds. You can spend four years here without reading a book, taking a math class or learning why “hello world” is significant. More to the point, you can spend four years at Stanford without ever leaving your comfort zone.
I have loved the Daily first and foremost because as an institution, it is supposed to cross departmental, racial and socioeconomic lines. the Daily is a unifier, in principle open to anybody, regardless of race, politics or creed. Our future, and the legitimacy of our role on campus, depends on our ability to faithfully carry out that duty. Are we doing that right now? Not perfectly — and I’m going to ask why, because the penultimate piece of a writer’s tenure should be a candid discussion of what ought to be done. I have three points I’d like to make — on the print edition, on diversity and on the Daily community.
I can only hope that the Daily will take them to heart.
Print journalism will remain the future
Inspired by the Oregon Daily Emerald and the Columbia Spectator, people sometimes suggest cutting or otherwise reducing our print operation as a way to save money. First off, the central premise of that argument is just flat-out wrong: Between advertising, student fees (basically, subscriptions) and special revenues linked to print distribution, we still make money off print. But even if the continued decline of print advertising makes a print edition unprofitable, print journalism isn’t just about the dollars and cents. For us, the Internet cannot help but be a highly passive, user-driven institution — and we cannot rely on it. Cutting print causes us to lose control of how we market and distribute our product. Advanced Internet distribution tools like targeted advertising and data crunching are luxuries a college newspaper cannot afford.
Consider, for a moment, how people actually consume the Daily in this day and age. In the modern Internet age, people rarely visit a college newspaper’s website and browse the posts. They increasingly read the Daily through links to a particular article on Facebook, Twitter or email — links that, because of the nature of social networking, almost always fit their preexisting biases. The appeal of a print newspaper is that it encourages readers to read the entire thing — or at least take a look at an article they might otherwise have missed, classes and shows they might otherwise have overlooked and opinions from writers with perspectives they might never have otherwise considered. By cutting print, we would be surrendering to the continued fragmentation of Stanford’s intellectual landscape and social life.
Stanford, as an institution, provides precious little direction from the top. Generally, this is a positive thing. However, a lack of unifying direction has allowed individual communities on campus to develop a brutal form of tunnel vision — a corrosive myopia fundamental to the deteriorating campus climate we see today. We are all Pauline Kael, utterly in shock at Nixon’s election because she had no Republican friends.
When I took the reins at Opinions two years ago, I set out to consider different views and get our readers thinking. (Mostly, that meant that I hired more conservatives at an opinions desk that had traditionally been almost uniformly liberal, though never Bernie-ite.) But recruiting is not enough. I do not believe that different views can be seriously considered today without a print paper to actively put contrasting ideas before our readers, side by side. Frankly, if it were up to me, the Daily would deliver papers door-to-door.
No legitimacy without diversity
My second point is also clear, if difficult to swallow. The Stanford Daily is not a diverse organization in any way or shape or form.
As I said at the start of this piece, we are supposed to be a unifier, bringing in experiences and identities from all across campus. In this regard we could be worse: The Review only has one minority on staff. But the Daily is still an institution that is both racially and socioeconomically limited.
Our staffers are paid, but for a long time, our writers were not, and we hire our editors almost exclusively from the writing ranks. Many lower-income students need a campus job to support themselves, which means that when I was starting out, many brilliant writers and future editors could not actually join the Daily — and some still can’t. We hurt ourselves if we shut ourselves off from their wealth of experiences, and we frequently lose out on promising lower-income students by not sufficiently compensating them for the time commitment the Daily requires.
We cannot claim to speak for the Stanford community if we draw our staffers almost exclusively from a few select subsets of society. But in handling staff recruitment and retention, what exactly did we expect was going to happen? Race and class being the covariates that they are, in my time at the Daily, nearly every editor-in-chief came from an upper-class background, and every editor-in-chief was either white or Chinese — as was the vast majority of the senior staff.
Stanford may be achieving its mission by using financial aid to bring in kids that are smart, poor and hungry — my father grew up poor, and I’m only where I am today because he got into the Chinese equivalent of Stanford, immigrated to the United States and brought me up as an American citizen. But even if they get in, people from marginalized backgrounds will not reach their full potential at Stanford if extracurricular institutions like the Daily are not always prepared to acknowledge the challenges that lower- and middle-income students face. Can we really surprised when certain identity organizations display a pre-existing skepticism of the Daily because we are not diverse? The answer is unequivocally no.
While the Daily is still a kind of unifier — we publish op-eds from across campus — its staff is nevertheless blinkered to the world around us, as I can say from personal experience. When I was a managing editor, I remember arguing with George Chen (one of the few middle-class editors-in-chief) when he proposed giving stipends to writers. My view was that the stipends were both too little to take care of the truly poor and not enough to entice anybody who didn’t need the money. George pointed out that for somebody like himself, every little bit was enough. Because of my own limitations of perspective, I let the perfect become the enemy of the good. And if George and his successor Jana hadn’t created the stipend program, I would have inadvertently stopped a lot of people from finding a home at the newspaper that had given me a home.
Two years later, with stipends institutionalized and our writer retention rates skyrocketing, I admit that George was correct. It’s not time to retrench. It’s time to double down by raising an endowment to pay lower-income writers, finding ways to work with Stanford to create fellowships for low-income editors and specifically recruiting for diversity during the critical days of freshman year.
I leave the Daily with some regrets, because I once had the power to make a real change, and I didn’t do a good enough job of that when I had the chance. As head of the opinions desk, I tried to recruit a diverse set of columnists, but I only got the ideological diversity part down. In any case, most of my writers were still the kind of well-meaning, unobjectionable but nevertheless predominantly upper-income, white/Asian liberals that dominate social and cultural life at Stanford. I hope future generations of Daily staffers will do better than I did.
Nevertheless, we are in a better place than we were four years ago, from both an institutional and a diversity standpoint. The path is tough, but it is also clear.
Return community to the newsroom
My final point is about community, but because the Daily is a community-based organization, I’m fundamentally asking what kind of institution the Stanford Daily is and should be.
The last four years have been transformative for the Daily as an institution. In short, we’ve improved a lot. We are a more professional paper than we were four years ago, and that is a good thing. Staffers no longer have to stay in until 3:00 in the morning, idly playing Cards against Humanity with SportsCenter humming in the background while the paper gets done. Our recruited writers, by and large, choose to stay on, which was not the case in the past. Our news section no longer chases the entire freshman staff with every story idea, hoping that somebody — who may or may not have specialty experience in that subject — will have too much free time. Meanwhile, our sports staff continues to produce some of the best sports coverage in the country.
But at the same time, while we train writers, we are fundamentally not an institution designed to build portfolios for aspiring journalists. In this day and age, it takes a special person to renounce the temptations of law or finance or software development or electrical engineering to become a journalist. Though our staff and writers are committed to their craft, our media alumni network is impressive and every Daily alum I’ve worked with that wanted to go into journalism has gotten a top-tier job, we only send one or two students to the professional ranks every year. We are not the Harvard Crimson or the Daily Northwestern or the Daily Texan. We are the Stanford Daily, and because of our particular hiring situation, we have to zig where the pre-professional publications zag.
Historically, instead of selling ourselves as training for a job our recruits by and large didn’t want, we sold the Daily community and the opportunity for rapid advancement. Staffers can still rise faster at the Daily than almost anywhere else; just six months after I became a full-time writer, I took over the Opinions section. But it seems that we are less of a community than we were four years ago, and that worries me.
Perhaps I cut my teeth at the Daily during a time of big personalities and animal spirits. However, as workflow moves online, the staff events budget is repeatedly cut, social activities like watching sports are increasingly excised from the newsroom and the active work of the Daily increasingly departs the Daily building, there is less of a sense that we are collectively part of a larger organization. And that cannot entirely be blamed by the particular combination of personalities at the paper. Like Stanford in general, the Daily appears increasingly fragmented and individualized, until we no longer see in the Daily the things that brought us to the paper in the first place.
We might be more professional, but we are not a pre-professional newspaper. We are not going to become a pre-professional newspaper. There are too many other options available on a campus like this. Institutional unity is our future. If we cannot give our students camaraderie, we will have nothing to recruit them with at all.
I want to close on a more positive note. Alongside my mentors in the history department, the Hoover Institution and the international relations faculty, the Stanford Daily has defined my time at Stanford. Since the day that George Chen recruited me to the Daily, my time at Stanford has never been the same. I will always be grateful to the Daily for giving me this wondrous gift.
I arrived at Stanford with no friends in the area, no knowledge of the Bay Area and no interest in jumping into the tech world. It means the world to me that the Daily gave me a community — frankly, a home. I can only hope that other people can have the same experience I did. The Stanford Daily made all my dreams come true except one. If we’ll be the campus unifier that we were originally founded to be, maybe we’ll deserve to call ourselves the people we dreamed of being.
Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.