Leibenluft: Exploring the great mystery of the News

One of the greatest mysteries surrounding the Yale Daily News is surely this: How, for 130 years, have generations of Yalies been convinced to spend night after night working on a college daily?

After all, the proposition the News offers aspiring staffers has always been, to put it charitably, a bit of a tough sell. It’s not much of a pitch: Start with the most menial tasks, work dozens of hours a week for no pay, and eventually, you, too, might find your name written in small letters on something called a masthead!

But at the very least, there was always a light at the end of the tunnel. Editors and reporters at the News might sacrifice their grades, their sleep and anything resembling a normal social life, but at least they were receiving some of the world’s best training for that dream job at the Times or the Journal. They could rest assured that they might follow in the footsteps of the many Newsies who went on to glamorous careers as foreign correspondents or investigative journalists.

Now, as everyone has been told again and again, the newspaper is dead. Aspiring to a career in print journalism seems to make about as much sense as majoring in phrenology or training to become a telegraph operator. Meanwhile, the Facebook message, the blog and the Google News alert have all threatened the YDN’s monopoly on the news. All of a sudden, coming out daily doesn’t seem very impressive anymore.

When the University can announce a new financial-aid policy to the entire world with a click of a button, or when IvyGate can offer a far edgier take on the latest YouTube video, what’s a college newspaper to do? Won’t the Oldest College Daily go the way of Bladderball and the Fence Club — a historical relic that serves as a quaint reminder of how Yale used to be?

I doubt it. As long as Yalies still eat in dining halls — or do Sudoku in Sudler Hall — they will probably still want a paper copy of the News every morning. The Internet has challenged the News’ hold on the news, broadcast its mistakes and failings for the world to see and generally made the lives of YDN reporters and editors far more difficult. But it has also helped the Yale Daily News become a much, much better newspaper.

To start with, the Internet has forced the News to work on some of the things it hasn’t always been so good at. When a reporter gets a fact wrong, readers can — and frequently do — ask editors instantly for a correction. Complaints about biased coverage or an idiot op-ed columnist can now be posted online right below the offending article.

For reporters and editors, that level of interaction — and the accountability it brings — isn’t always welcome. Letters to the editors usually have to be civil to be published; blog posts and online comments do not. But these changes have made the News more accurate and more responsive, and they have narrowed the distance between reporters and the community they write about.

Just as importantly, the Internet has allowed the YDN to reach a far larger Yale community. Two decades ago, unless you were physically on Yale’s campus, the News was out of your reach. Alumni, parents, applicants — anyone who wanted news about what was happening at Yale but didn’t have the good fortune to live in the Elm City was out of luck. All of a sudden, the moment the News went online, its audience expanded several times over.

And for that larger audience, the news can be reported in ways that are faster, more interesting and, yes, more fun. Can’t go to the football game? Follow the live commentary. Want to actually listen to the music reviewed in scene? Now you can through its blog. And when big news happens at noon on Friday, no one has to wait until Monday morning to find out.

So job prospects aside, whatever else that has drawn 130 years’ worth of Yalies to 202 York — the chance to report the news, the thrill of working on deadline, and the joy of putting out a product that people read and respond to — remains alive and well in the age of the blogosphere. The foreign correspondent jobs may be gone, and they probably aren’t coming back. But for those crazy enough to sign their waking hours away to the News, they will still find plenty to do — and plenty of reasons to keep doing it.

Jacob Leibenluft ’06 was Editor in Chief of the News from 2004 to 2005.

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