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Can The Tech Cover The Tech Effectively?

By John A. Hawkinson

A note on style: When we write “The Tech,” that means the newspaper. When we write “The Tech,” that means the organization. When referring to both the newspaper and the organization, either form may be used. If you think it’s confusing, I do too.

I like to think there is value in The Tech covering news about The Tech. Why? Because when there is news about The Tech (an MIT student group, not just a print publication), it’s often relevant for the community to know and understand the events. Furthermore, other campus journalism outlets (Counterpoint, Prometheus, Tech Talk, The Thistle, Voo Doo, etc.) are unlikely to cover this sort of news with any regularity. The Tech is the Institute’s only regularly published newspaper focusing on day-to-day news about student issues.

Unfortunately, self-coverage is a hard problem. Reporters and editors rightly feel awkward working on stories about themselves and each other; it is difficult to retain (or obtain) objectivity and not write in a fashion that is defensive or justifying -- and then there’s editing. It’s difficult to do research without violating confidentiality, be it rule or custom.

You might like to think this is all irrelevant, and not enough newsworthy events happen involving The Tech; maybe so, maybe not. Since I had an unhealthy interest in The Tech prior to accepting the Ombudsman role, it’s tough for me to evaluate it clearly. But let’s look at news that The Tech has published about The Tech recently. The sidebar lists all the articles I could find with “Tech” in the headline or lede [sic] paragraph, from the start of the previous volume (V122, beginning Feb. 2002) to present. (I decided against going back one more year, when The Tech covered its loss of office space and ASA sanctions for rule violations; those events are less fresh in my mind and harder to evaluate.)

I find six articles about the paper’s financial malfeasance, and one comical piece on Managing Board elections (presumably irrelevant to all).

Have noteworthy Tech-relevant events been missed? It’s hard to say for certain, but some things come to mind (admittedly, some saw non-news Tech coverage on the editorial page). Roughly, in reverse chronological order: “No Progress Identifying Final Tech Fraud Perpetrator” (at least one person who stole thousands of dollars remains unidentified); “Tech Trades Lobby 7 Stands for Metal Monstrosity” (the wooden stands used to distribute The Tech and other campus publications were replaced without notice by the Lobby 7 beautification people); “Tech Appoints Ombudsman”; “ASA Requests Tech Sponsor Recognition of Prometheus” (the ASA has repeatedly balked in recognizing Prometheus and will possibly relent); “Tech Reorganizes Editorial Board” (drops news editors); “Controversy over Amer Jubran and Joshua Katz.”

I’m sure there’s more, probably stuff I don’t know about.

I’m kind of at a loss to suggest good mechanisms to solve the problem. One answer is to have The Tech’s ombudsman do some of the coverage. For issues relating directly to journalism (e.g. editorial board reorganization) that makes sense; for others, it does not.

For high-profile issues, The Tech’s management needs to recognize there is an issue and try to encourage a reporter to take the story, allow that reporter to do interviews within the paper, provide careful news statements to that reporter, etc.

For medium-to-low profile issues, though, that probably doesn’t work. The Tech is not so rich in staff and time that such careful effort can be put into every potential case, and bending over backwards to meet a perceived-but-unstated requirement is not a viable long-term approach.

It’s dangerous to allow The Tech’s management to decide what is high-profile and what is not; they are continually in conflict between their own best interests and the ideals of journalism that they care about as individuals. How should this be resolved?

The financial scandal was treated as high-profile, and I think rightly so. I think The Tech’s coverage was pretty good, given the available information. On the other hand, though, The Tech’s investigatory committee (which had many of the facts) was less than forthcoming, making the reporter’s job a lot harder.

This problem parallels the case of Jacques Steinberg at The New York Times, covering Jayson Blair; his coverage is worth reading. It probably cost him significant goodwill among the staff of the paper, and could not have been a pleasant position to have been in. I see no obvious answers from there.

Another approach might be for The Tech to keep open minutes of its Managing Board meetings. In the interests of disclosure, I should note that the Ombudsman is a (non-voting) member of the Managing Board, though the board has not met since I was elected. As of May 2002, minutes policy is: “Meetings of the managing board are considered private. Thus the minutes and items discussed during the meeting will not be released unless the executive board chooses to release them in whole or in part.”

This presumes that the Managing Board minutes actually contain those nuggets of news that are considered desirable -- a questionable presumption. Perhaps the Managing Board should be encouraged to release minutes as a matter of course...

What does the readership think? How interested are you in news about The Tech (and The Tech)? Is it completely boring, or mildly intriguing? Personally, I would like like to see more of it.

The Tech’s Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to ombudsman@the-tech.mit.edu. His opinions are his own.