Given how popular Spectator is as an activity—some people say that it is the largest student group on campus—it is unfortunate how quickly feelings about Spec sour once staff members leave. That’s why seniors, who have already long been put out to pasture, often remember their Spectator days with ambivalence and not the passion that they felt so strongly while they worked on the staff.
Any student who has poured the kind of time and energy into a project that Spec demands of its several dozen committed writers and editors naturally departs with mixed emotions about nearly everything in life. But despite the staff politics, the burnout, and the sleep deprivation, I always found working on the paper to be an incredibly powerful experience.
I don’t necessarily have new ground to break here. I would hardly be the first person, for example, to extol the virtues of hard work with a common cause. Nor would I be the first ex-Speccie to wax poetic about the hidden romance of sleepless nights, over-caffeination, and terminal tardiness to academic classes. But as graduation approaches, and I have, for once, a bit of a bully pulpit, I do feel the need to revisit all of these clichés because I feel like the value of working on Spectator is most often misconstrued from the outside.
Here’s what’s not apparent from the outside (and is, I fear, quickly forgotten even on the inside): It’s not about the product, and it never was. I don’t believe for a second the campus truism that no one reads Spec—my inbox is full of old hate mail from our “non-readers”—but I do think that the outside response to the paper hardly begins to speak to the value that each of us staffers derives from it.
As campus news editor—a job that my predecessor told me was the most powerful one on the paper, but I soon realized was really just the most stressful—I felt this more acutely than most. For the entire year, I found it impossible to escape the stories that I covered—the characters seemed to pursue me around campus, appearing at the most awkward moments outside of my dorm and in my classes, leaving aside the Orwellian experience of daily communications with Low Library. The complaints about the daily news pages are nearly endless, and the positive feedback scant both on and off staff. I remember that year as a sleepless one in which I was trapped in a mix of panic, trepidation, and stress for nearly every waking moment. So why do I remember that year so fondly?
In some ways, I think it is precisely because we know that we are working on an impossible project that we enjoy it so much. The reality is that a group of type-A full-time college students should not be able to put out a daily paper (which perhaps explains why, so often, readers wish we hadn’t even tried). In a closed reporting environment such as ours—in which one institution, Low Library, has an absolute monopoly on official information—it should be nearly inconceivable to break news (and when we do, too often it’s the news that no one notices). With a student body of disaffected millennials, who can more easily read the Daily Beast on their smartphones than pick up a physical paper, it should be difficult to find an audience. And it is the fact that all of these things are at least partially true that makes the ceaseless, if cynical, pursuit of them all the more tantalizing to a certain kind of person.
I have been thinking a lot about what I have gotten out of Spec ever since I decided to take a job outside of journalism (as if I were ever really “in journalism”). My mother asked me recently whether I regret all of the sleepless nights at Spec when I could have been working toward something more “fruitful.” The answer is, of course, no. And part of that has to do with the things that everyone else says it has to do with—the teamwork and camaraderie of the office, the daily pleasure of holding the paper in your hand, and the stupid, nerdy traditions that mark us all as Speccies. But it also has to do with the thrill of having tried (to, yes, always mixed results) to do something truly incredible that appeals to me most as I stand at the precipice of a “real world” marked by cubicles, realistic expectations, and highly telegraphed nonchalance. I might as well just come out and say what seems so difficult for most ex-Speccies to remember: I’ll miss it dearly.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in history and Hispanic studies. He was a deputy editor on the 131st news board, news editor on the 132nd managing board, and a training editor on the 133rd and 134th boards.