Columbia Spectator Denies Trainees Work-Study, Recognition
Written by Ross Chapman
The Columbia Daily Spectator’s work-study program is designed to alleviate the burden of writing for Spectator while simultaneously working a paid job. Bwog received a tip from a former Spectator writer detailing Spectator’s lack of transparency about its work-study program. Senior Staff Writer Ross Chapman investigates the issue further and discovers that the problems may go deeper than the work-study program.
Amy applied to the Columbia Spectator during NSOP. As a freshman coming to Morningside Heights, she needed a work-study job. She saw Spectator publicly advertising that they can provide up to fifty work-study positions, so she decided to work under Spec. But over 6 months and a dozen articles later, Amy hasn’t received a cent from Spectator.
“I was told upon joining Spec that once I completed a 2 to 6 week training process I would be able to get on work study,” said Amy, who asked that her real name be withheld. Her editor assigned her to a beat and Amy quickly got to work, soon putting in long hours. On nights when her pieces were due, she was in the Spectator office “anywhere from midnight to 3 in the morning.” At first, she was more directly guided on how to cover her beat. But as time went on, Amy got her own bylines on widely-read articles—she felt confident that she deserved to be a staff writer. But those 2 to 6 weeks turned into months, and she still had no word on her promotion. As she took on more of the duties of a staff writer, she still retained the title of trainee. She didn’t just want the promotion for her resumé—she needed it for the money.
According to Amy, Spectator doesn’t put its trainees into the work-study program until they become staff writers. The Spectator Publishing website says the same: “Spectator can actually serve as the work-study job for those staff members accepted into the program.” But “accepted into the program” here doesn’t just mean being selected from all applicants to become a part of Spectator. It means filling out another application, possibly months later, to earn a promotion. Several sources confirmed that only a handful of initial Spectator applicants are currently staff writers. Early in her time at Spectator, Amy applied for work study, but two weeks later Spectator’s publisher told her “to reapply [for work-study] after becoming a staff writer.” She had no way of knowing that it would take another 6 weeks before she even received her application materials.
This uncertainty is part of a greater problem of work-study insecurity at Columbia and Barnard. With no guaranteed work-study programs, students are forced to compete for positions against their peers. As a result, Spectator’s ability to “cover nearly 50 students” should be a boon to the community. But when that prospect of payment is buried underneath weeks of unannounced training, it unfairly leads students on. “I wasted over a thousand dollars in allotted work study by not working last semester,” said Amy, “thinking money from Spec was right around the corner.”
Writers are supposed to have a clear path to graduate from the trainee position at Spectator. After learning Spectator’s “commitment to excellence,” trainees work with their direct editors, shadow writers, and eventually co-byline a piece. After two more “articles of substance,” the writers will receive verbal instructions about the application process, which includes submitting an application article, reflections on old pieces, and writing short essays about their beat and why they want to work for Spectator. But according to Amy, she “faced a complete lack of transparency and was essentially strung along there until I decided to quit.”
It took two weeks for Spectator to tell her that only staff writers could receive work-study. After working for months as a trainee, it took another two weeks for her to receive specific application instructions after being told by her department editor that she should apply to become a staff writer. Trainees lack the benefits that staff writers take for granted: swipe access to the Spectator offices, autonomy over their writing, and the title of “Spectator Staff Writer” next to their name on the pieces they’ve written. According to one anonymous source, if you just see the tag of “Columbia Daily Spectator” on a byline, chances are that writer is technically still “in training.”
Multiple sources still connected to Spectator have confirmed Amy’s story. All writers for Spectator have to undergo this training, even those who come in with serious experience prior to or during their time at Columbia. One source hadn’t heard anything about the application process, even of its existence, after months of work. Another was never formally denied a promotion to staff writer, but “lost a passion” and “felt unwanted” as they were continually and falsely reassured that an official position was just around the corner. Understandably, our sources still connected with Spectator were hesitant to provide identifying information, but confirmed details of Amy’s struggle for recognition and payment.
The fact that Spectator requires students to become full-time staff writers before they become eligible for work-study stands against the principles of most other campus jobs, which pay for the training of their workers. “Not paying trainees…is just ridiculous,” explained Amy, who now has a new work-study position. “I was providing free labor to them.”
Spectator declined to respond to our questions about their training and work-study processes.
Tags: but in all seriousness this is a grave matter for low income students, columbia daily spectator, columbia university, does spec not have the money for this? are they going bankrupt?, financial foolery, going bankrupt AGAIN, Nationalize Spectator! Seize the means of production!, tbt to Spec paying its employees