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COLUMN

John A. Hawkinson

I’ve heard criticism of recent Tech issues, suggesting that there hasn’t been enough meritorious news. Last issue’s news stories were: “Students Should Get Flu Shot, MIT Says,” “Smith is New BC House-Master,” and “IFC, ASA Develop Easier Recognition Procedure.” The previous issue: “Winter Shuttle May Add Brookline Stop,” “City Stops Short on Gay Marriage,” “‘Wet’ Frat Parties to Be By Invite Only, IFC Says,” “‘Alterations and Additions’ Under Committee’s Scrutiny,” and “Community Gears Up For Holiday.”

In an informal discussion, Chris T. Lesniewski-Laas G suggested, “Couldn’t The Tech try putting out half as many issues that were twice as good?” (he went on to suggest twice as much editorial and reporting work per story). It seems worth trying to explain the process by which the news department assigns news stories.

This term’s assignment process

1. Story ideas (tips) get sent in to the news department (via e-mail to news@the-tech.mit.edu). There aren’t as many tips as there should be, I think. That address is read by the news editors.

2. A news editor (usually Beckett Sterner) summarizes collected tips and e-mails them out to the news writers, usually once per week before the news meeting. Writers are encouraged to take assignments over e-mail, but this rarely happens.

3. On Sundays at 5 p.m., the news department meets. All news editors and writers are expected to attend. I (the Ombudsman) try to show up, too. At news meetings, news staff brainstorm about additional story ideas and the news editors attempt to assign stories to writers. Additionally, writers discuss existing story status, etc.

4. After the news meeting, news writers are e-mailed a summary of available stories and who has been assigned to what.

5. News stories for Tuesday’s issue are theoretically due at 6 p.m. on Sunday, but are frequently allowed to slip until Monday evening.

6. News stories for Friday’s issue are due at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, and only sometimes slip until Thursday evening.

Last term’s process

Last term’s process was similar, but the crux of it differed. Then-news Director Keith Winstein took tips, evaluated them, and only presented a subset to the writers. He says, “I decided what I thought should be in the paper.”

Though this raised concerns about selection bias, I think it produced a better paper.

Efficacy of the current process

Writers don’t have sufficient opportunity to take story assignments outside of news meetings, nor do they get information about available stories as quickly as might be liked.

News editors have had a hard time getting writers to accept assignments. Ideally writers should take assignments that are due a week or more out, but this doesn’t seem to happen. Editors have also had poor success getting news writers to accept assignments over e-mail, so most assignment happens at meetings.

News Director Jennifer Krishnan thinks the news “assignment process went better last term.” She contends that the assignment process is driven by the experience of the news writer pool. Last term had more experienced news writers; this term, “the staffers that we have who have written a lot of stories seem to have lost interest in being at The Tech.”

She’s right to a certain extent, but I think the editors need to work harder at convincing writers to take assignments, and to take them with sufficient time to develop them well.

Krishnan also observed that this term, news editors have been writing less and editing more: “The amount of story-taking from the news editors is not as high as it has been.” She finds this good because news editors can devote their time and energy to editing, but bad because it reduces the number of “quality writers in the writer pool.”

The practice of assigning stories on Sunday for Tuesday issues leads to weak stories and less time to work on them. The news department should try harder to assign Tuesday stories eight days in advance of their deadline, rather than one.

In line with Chris’s concern about editing time, writer/editor communication needs to improve. Sitting in the newsroom watching The Tech come together on Ads Night (two nights before the issue prints) and Issue Night (the night before the issue prints), most news editing doesn’t happen until late on Issue Night.

Even when a story comes in before Ads Night, if an editor doesn’t see it until Issue Night, there’s still no time for writers to do additional reporting and interviews to answer an editor’s concerns. (Sometimes news editors edit stories on Ads Night, but not consistently.)

Tuesday’s Editorial and Opinion sections

Tuesday we had another hollow editorial with no interviews.

It repeats an error seen in the popular press, asserting “the SJC decision forces the state legislature to change the law to comply with the ruling within 180 days.” In fact, gay marriage will be legal 180 days from Nov. 18 if the legislature does nothing (see Martinek, Paul J. “What happens now?” at http://www.masslaw.com/goodridge1.cfm).

The editorial also contained the choice sentence, “The court recognized that the benefits of civil marriage should not be denied to those couples who wish to make these commitments, lest the members of these couples become legally inferior to their opposite-sex counterparts, which is a clear violation of several statutes underlining equal protection in the state constitution.”

A statute is a law; there cannot be several in the constitution. Asked to explain, editorial board presiding member Andrew Thomas declined to comment, two other members claimed to have abstained (no evidence of abstention was printed), and two thought it was an error.

On the plus side, I was pleased to see direct quotes in an opinion piece (“MacGregor’s Space And Alcohol Policies” by Jolene Singh ’05). Real research in opinion pieces! We need more of this.

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