I had a strange experience with trying to get an article published in a newspaper. There has been a lot of talk these days about bias in the media, and it is completely fair. That is why I was wary about trying to write for a paper. I have a conservative bent. I tried to come up with pitches that would allow me to express myself but which also wouldn’t ruffle too many feathers. I want to document the experiences I had with the editor. There was no explicit discrimination, but I think the clues are there. I’m not writing this out of self-pity, only to get on the record what happened.
I first made contact with the editor online. I will call her, for the sake of privacy, X. X is not the lead editor of this paper ( which was, btw, a school newspaper), but only runs a certain part of it. X welcomed me to the team. She agreed to include me in weekly emails and invited me to weekly meetings. When I first emailed X, I attached an article I had written, which is actually part of this blog, on the critical thinking classes I teach. The editor’s response to this article was to say that the paper doesn’t publish articles like that. It was kind of blunt, but I accepted it. The paper, I came to learn, has a narrow mission: it is to discuss concerns of students of this school. My essay was more exploratory and philosophical than rooted in the concerns of the school. Now, I think the editor could have done a better job of helping me rework this first article into one that fit the vision of the paper.
Another exchange occurred before I actually met X in person. I offered to write an article on panhandling. I have a view that one should not give money to panhandlers. I look back at this pitch as the signal that gave away to her that I have a conservative bent. I felt wary about putting an article in the paper on how we should avoid giving to panhandlers because, having read other articles, I knew my view would clash with the paper’s tendencies. In particular, there was an article on how building a stadium in the neighborhood around the university, an area which is notorious for crime and poverty, would constitute “plunder” of this community. People at this school romanticize the people in the surrounding neighborhood, to the extent that they blame Halloween flash mobs on white privilege. My wariness about writing this article caused me to tell the editor that I would just wait for our first face-to-face meeting to decide what to write.
But, there was yet another exchange. I gathered, from her e-mails, that she was having a hard time getting articles for the first issue of the paper. I gave her four ideas. She rejected each one, saying that I better wait until our first face-to-face meeting. I reasoned that I needed some time to figure out exactly what kind of article the school newspaper publishes.
So, I go to the first meeting. During the meeting, I broach another story idea: I want to respond to an article in the UC Davis newspaper in which protests about the appearance of Milo Yiannopoulis were defended. My position is that the students got out of control at this school, and their behavior is part of a larger trend of politicization on college campuses that unfairly smears conservative views as bigoted. The editor again said that the paper does not deal with issues with other schools. But, she said I could write an article on safe spaces and trigger warnings. I would have to apply it to the school.
I was happy I finally had a project. I got to work quickly. The editor told me that I had to conduct interviews. She said that I needed two face-to-face interviews. She suggested reaching out to a psychology professor. I countered by saying I know someone who teaches a certification class on higher education. The editor said this was good. I got busy arranging the interviews. The editor gave me a deadline of one week after I accepted the pitch.
I was referred by the first woman I contacted to two people who run a safe zone training program at the school. I mentioned these people to the editor and she said they were good choices. The editor also said she wanted to see the questions I would use for the interview. I thought this was somewhat humiliating, as I am a graduate student. I estimate that this editor is about 23. I am 32. But, I submitted the questions, and she got back to me with a revised version. My version had three questions, and hers had five.
So, I set up the interviews, met the people, and submitted a first draft of the article. Keep in mind that setting up the interviews is difficult. People have a hard time finding space in their schedules for an interview with a school paper. But, I got them done within a week and I had a first draft well before the due date.
Editor X took a look at my first draft. I got the first round of feedback. Her main criticisms were 1) I need to start the piece of with an anecdote that captures people’s interest and 2) I need more content in the form of quotes.
My reaction was, Okay, I can do this. I understand the need for an anecdote that grabs people’s attention, but I don’t think you have to have an anecdote to grab people’s attention. There are other ways. I also took offense at the ‘content’ comment. So, anything that is not quotes is not content? Again, though, I remained determined to meet her requirements. She is the editor and has a right to require revisions.
Another issue I had was that two of the three student interviews I conducted were rejected by her. Why? Well, one was with someone I already knew. You can’t do this, according to the rules of this paper. X never explained why. The other interview was disqualified because the student wanted to remain anonymous. Interviewees for this paper have to be willing to reveal their names. X never explained this seemingly arbitrary rule.
I worked through the issues. I added an anecdote, and also added some quotes. Editor X said I should have a 2 to 1 ratio of paragraphs to quotes. I conformed to this and resubmitted the article.
Then, odd stuff started happening. X did not respond to my resubmission at first. I waited a few days, then texted her to see if she got it. She said she did not, and so I resubmitted. Finally, after a week of waiting, I was able to meet with her for more feedback.
The second round of feedback was more discouraging. She made a number of points. Here is a list:
- The anecdote you used is not related to the topic of safe spaces. Yes, it was.
- Liberal studies, which is the major of the student I interviewed, is not a major. It actually is.
- You can’t use the word ‘probe’ when describing how you interviewed someone. Why not?
- You can’t set people up in opposition to one another in the article. So, in the article, I compared the views on safe spaces of the different people I interviewed. Why the hell not?
The ultimate recommendation of editor X was that I needed another round of student interviews. Again, she asked to see the questions I would use. This was strange, as she had already approved a list of five questions. She didn’t specify how many interviews I would need. I sent her again the interview she had already approved. Soon, she sent me back another interview question list–this one had eleven questions.
One concern with this was that I would get so much ‘content,’ meaning quotes from students, that I really wouldn’t be writing the article. Moreover, since she had written almost all the interview questions, it seemed like my role was just to do the interviews on her behalf. This was humiliating. I was going to go through with the interviews, but I became demoralized. I felt silly asking someone questions that I didn’t really believe in, since I hadn’t written them.
The following Monday, editor X texted me. She told me that I should have the interviews done within the next few days. This was odd, since she couldn’t have known that I had not already done them. It was like she was anticipating I wouldn’t go through with the interviews. After the first text, she added that I should interview some pre-law and mosaic professors as well (mosaic is a liberal arts program all students at this university are required to take). Again, she didn’t specify the number. Do I need one of both? Or three of both?
At this point I got frustrated and told her that I was dropping the project. The article was only 650 words. The paper comes out weekly, so it’s not like the articles are exquisite pieces of research. If there is pay, it is minimal ($10?).
Editor X did not object to my dropping the project. She did not try to coax me to work through the difficulties. She simply said, That’s fine. Then, she told me that it is only fair to say that she had been up front about the requirements for the article from the beginning and that the next time I picked up a piece I would need to make sure that I could devote the necessary time and effort.
If you have read this piece, you know that this editor had not been clear from the beginning about the requirements. The editor said that she had been “saying this all along”–meaning the number of interviews I would have to do. This is just not true. Also, she made sure to mention future pieces I might write. I feel as though she was barring me from writing for the paper altogether. The implication of what she was saying was that, for any another pitch I picked up, I would have to go through the same grueling process of endless reevaluation and resubmission.
I could be wrong about this. It’s possible this editor was just an annoying and incompetent leader. But, her final text to me, in which she blamed me for not knowing what I could handle in terms of work, shows that this is not a harmless person. So, I think the best theory for this behavior is viewpoint-discrimination.