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The Interviewers, Interviewed

The Spectator hits newsstands every weekday morning, and it’s easy to forget that actual people work around the clock making it happen. Last Thursday Bwog caught up with the News Editors, Josh Hirschland and Erin Durkin, to talk about riots, skipping class, and what makes it all worth it.

erin and joshI know it’s kind of a strange request, but I thought the campus would appreciate knowing a little about how the news is made.

Josh: We’re happy to help Bwog.

Erin: [Laughs]

So, why would you want this job?

Josh: I, for one, love the organization. I think that Spectator is an incredible thing. I know that when I came into Columbia, I was a very different person than I am now, and it’s because of this organization. I’ve met some incredible people who have shaped me and helped me to become a better person. I believe that this organization can do some wonderful things and make for a wonderful college experience. And the opportunity to help a new group of reporters to do that was just a breathtaking opportunity. That’s what gets me excited every day.

Erin: I agree with what Josh said, and to me it’s really a privilege to be able to decide and shape what goes on a front page that the campus and the neighborhood is going to get their info from every day. It’s an important responsibility and it’s hard and I like that it’s hard, but to me it’s something that has to be done because I love the opportunity to find out something that no one knows and to tell them. And especially when it something that’s really important to their day-to-day lives, I like being able to do that on a larger scale by being in charge of a news section. I like intensity, I like things that are challenging and difficult, I need something to do. I like the feeling that I’m—I’m so inarticulate, I knew this was going to happen! Something that my training editor told me that I never realized how true it was until now was even if you didn’t want to be a reporter, even if you didn’t really like Spectator that much, it’s just a great way to be a students at Columbia University and a great way to be a resident of New York City because you’re so much more engaged with what’s going on around you.

Isn’t there an irony in being so engaged as a reporter and yet being so busy, and so bound up in objectivity, that it’s really hard to be engaged on a personal level?

Erin: Yeah, and not only on a personal level, but on the level of, I can’t join the advocacy organization that I might because of my personal beliefs might want to join because it’s a conflict of interest. I’m just not really allowed to do it, and even if I was, I wouldn’t really have the time. It is a challenge for me and we have conversations a lot in this office of “what would you be doing if you weren’t on Spec?” There are other things I would like to do. There are so many great organizations on this campus in this city, places I could be working, stuff I could be pushing for, and it’s a tradeoff. Most of the time I feel that I made a good choice. If you’re going to throw yourself into something, that’s going to be the thing you do. You know what it is? It is hard to have the constraint on you in terms of if something’s going on that I really care about, and I would personally like to get involved, I just can’t. And that’s difficult, sometimes. But I am of the belief that information is important, and just by letting people know what’s going on you’re making a contribution. I guess I have to believe that to do this, otherwise it would just be too hard, and I don’t think I would be able to accept that tradeoff.

Josh: I don’t think I accept the premise of the question. I very much am a part of the life of Columbia students. Before I came into the office, this morning I got to sleep in because one of my professors cancelled class, had lunch at Ferris Booth, then I went to this discussion with Nat Hentoff, not as a reporter but because it was something I was genuinely interested in, went to Glass House Rocks for a half hour. I don’t necessarily believe that you have to give up being a student, and can’t be a part of the life of Columbia University. You pretty much have to be, at least on the campus side. You’re a student, and are necessarily involved in the things that you report on.

Erin: We skip a lot of class, that’s true.

Josh: I’ve only skipped one class.

Erin: Well, Josh is a better person than me. It’s weird. Sometimes you’ll be dealing with sources in Public Affairs, and they don’t even realize you’re a student. They’ll be like, I called you three times and you didn’t pick up and you’ll be like, yeah, I was in class.

How is being a campus and city reporter different? What goes into that decision?

Josh: Well, I’ve never been to a meeting of CB9.

Erin: And I’ve never met Eleanor Daugherty.

Josh: I spend a lot of time with university administrators. [recounts seeing many of them at the Nat Hentoff event].

Erin: On the city side, we like to say that the difference is that city reporting is real reporting. As a city reporter and a city editor, you are not involved with Columbia stuff, simply because our coverage area is Morningside heights and West Harlem, on which Columbia has a huge impact. What I covered for two years was Manhattanville and that was the consummate crossover story. I have to know Robert Kasdin and everyone in Public Affairs, but I also have to know Community Board 9 and all the elected officials. And so to me, the things Josh was saying, I have the same experiences in the neighborhood. I’ll be sitting outside Nussbaum, and two or three people will come by and say oh, did you hear about the tenant issue up on 103rd? I love that, it’s a amazing for me. Bwog has changed us a little, in some sense there’s more competition. A lot of things we’re reporting on are also things that other major newspapers are reporting on. And that’s both good and bad. On the one hand, it’s like, oh this is so cool I’m competing with the Times. On the other hand, I really like the feeling of giving people information they’re not going to get anywhere else. On the city side, we do the really small-scale shit that no one else is going to be reporting on.

Josh: Are you belittling the campus side?

Erin: No! I’m not at all.

Josh: Most covered New York story this year that was involved in Spectator’s coverage was–

Erin: Minutemen. I was not belittling the campus side! I have nothing but respect!

What do you think has been one of the weakest parts of Spectator’s coverage since you’ve been here?

Josh: We don’t like to talk about things that are weak, we like to talk about things we’d like to improve.

Erin: I mean, we can be honest.

Josh: This past weekend, several editors attended a retreat hosted by ROOTed, where we were talking about the issue of representation. Through that dialogue that lasted 15 hours over three days, we were able to explore a number of areas that people had concerns with, in terms of Spectator. As Josie [Swindler] wrote in her “White Pages” piece, we have certainly been criticized for and I believe with merit, we have been criticized for our handling of issues of cultural diversity and religious diversity, and it’s something that we are very much trying to pay more attention to this semester.

Erin: I agree.

What’s one of the hardest things about your job?

Erin: I think you touched on one of the things when you started talking about being involved but not being involved. Our job is to be involved in the areas that we cover, and if we’re not out there and we don’t know what’s going on, there’s no way we can do our job, but at the same time, if we’re in this office all day, then we’re not out there and don’t know what’s going on. Balancing that is a tough thing.

Josh: There are times when my parents wish I didn’t have this job. And there’s a difficulty in spending 40, 50, 60 hours a week here, either in the office or sending e-mails. But the most difficult thing isn’t the amount of time you put in. I can only think of one managing board person who’s ever gone on academic probation. The problem is helping people to improve. At this level, Erin and I aren’t doing as much reporting. Erin’s got 105 stories, I’ve got 170. We’re not doing that anymore. We have all the respect in the world for Megan Greenwell, who, when she was news editor, wrote something like 70 or 80 stories. But that’s not our job at this point. Our job right now is helping others to understand how to become reporters, and that’s the hardest part. And because it’s the most challenging part, it’s the most rewarding.

Erin: Josh was saying we don’t do the reporting anymore, and for me personally, that’s hard, because I love it, I miss it. I did do that one story for yesterday, and that was in some ways the most fun I’ve had all semester. I was doing final reads the other night, and sometimes I get really discouraged, and I’m like oh these stories are all so bad and there’s nothing I can do about it, but two of my reporters had just turned in these incredibly solid stories, and I read them and I didn’t have to change a thing. And I wouldn’t shut up, I was really really happy about it. One of the hard things is how much of it is left up to luck and chance. You do everything you can, or everything that occurs to you, and how much of it you can’t control sometimes has been something for me that’s been difficult. You can’t make it perfect. And it’s fabulous because you can start all over the next day.

Did you come into the job having anything, either coverage-wise or operationally, that you wanted to change?

Josh: Both Erin and I wrote up lengthy proposals about the things we wanted to do when we got here, something like 15 pages each. Hopefully you’ve noticed a couple of things that have changed. Off Lead, for instance. We wanted to do a physical change to the page. I wanted to do that so it had its own visual identity, something that people could look to every day. I wanted to begin focusing more on some of these areas that have been less covered in the past, and to that end we hired more beat chiefs to cover those areas that have been less covered in the past.

Erin: I want to get more depth in our coverage, not to be doing the easy story, the fluffy story, the story you get based on the press release, but to be really doing the hard nosed, on the street, getting the real story. That is a know it when you see it thing, but I think we’ve improved that somewhat although we still have a ways to go in terms of having substance in every story. I want our reporters to know how to act like reporters, and that means knowing how to get information from human beings. I want to be able to train the new people to really form relationships with people and get information that way, and not to think that they have to rely on the official statement, and I think that we could be less top-down and more bottom-up in terms of reflecting information coming from and concerns that are held by the bulk of our readership—students and people who live around here.

What advice would you give to people who have to or want to deal with Spectator?

Josh: Representation is active. The number one reason we don’t write a story isn’t because we don’t like your group or we don’t care about you, it’s just that we don’t know. And the number one thing that I can say is tell us as much as you can. We  have a process by which we evaluate stories and not every story can make it into our one or two or three pages of space per day, but if we think the story’s interesting, then we’ll write about it. Regardless of what your politics are or whoever you are. The one thing I would say to our sources, frequent or not, is get in touch. If you don’t know who I am, I’m a very easy to approach guy, talk to me, meet me on campus and say hey this is what I’m doing. If you don’t see me on campus, send any tips that you have to We’ll read it, we’ll talk about it. We have long, long e-mail chains. You can’t cover it if you don’t know.

Slightly more personal question: what’s some of the funnest reporting you’ve done or the craziest thing you’ve done for a story?

Josh: I reported on a riot. Spectator had gone out for the night, and I was going back to McBain, and I go past and there are 200 people standing outside the West End, and not standing around but throwing punches and pulling hair. Two or three hours later, we had a story that our internet counter told us had an enormous number of hits. That was some pretty crazy reporting.

Erin: believe it or not, I have a lot of fun with the Manhattanville stuff, because even though it’s a lot of zoning and a lot of policy and a lot of jargon, there’s so much passion that goes into this. When I covered the scoping session, for instance, it was a six hour meeting, people just getting up there and yelling and being passionate for a cause, and it was just really exciting to me. I get that a lot, and that’s fun for me. Chasing down the information, even if it’s like combing through documents, this is really lame and boring, but it’s exciting to me because I’m a nerd. Another story that I worked on a lot last semester that convinced me that campus reporting is in fact real reporting was a story about some allegations of pretty serious corruption in the facilities union, and I had fun with that because I had like six anonymous sources and I had to meet them in garages and janitors closets and all this weird stuff. It was also a really hard story to get.

More stories ensued…

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  • when I grow up says:

    @when I grow up I want to be just like Erin Durkin.

  • yeah says:

    @yeah josh and erin are pretty much awesome.

  • more proof says:

    @more proof that 70% of bwog content is spec-related

    1. shut yo mouth says:

      @shut yo mouth you’re just jealous because Josh and Erin are infinitely cooler than you.

  • Erin Durkin says:

    @Erin Durkin is a fantastic reporter and editor. The city coverage this semester has been so good.

  • It is becoming says:

    @It is becoming increasingly more evident that the Spectator and Bwog are sleeping together.

  • umm says:

    @umm Is Josh really that cool? There is no dissent on this point?

    1. trust me says:

      @trust me there is a lot of dissent.

  • Alum says:

    @Alum “The Spectator hits newsstands every weekday morning, and it’s easy to forget that actual people work around the clock making it happen.”

    What makes it easy to forget that anyone works on Spec is the sheer volume of errors — factual, grammatical, typographical, whaterveral — that make it past the editors and into the paper. I’ve seen far better campus dailies at other top schools and even at lesser universities. I know that Spec’s editors are volunteers, but so are the editors at the other papers.

    What truly amazes me, though, is that these problems persist from one editorial board to the next. It’s as if the editors deliberately choose successors who are equally unfamiliar with the English language and equally unconcerned about whether there is any relationship between the truth and what Spec publishes.

    Maybe this is the result of having no competing daily news source (not necessarily a printed newspaper, as the market won’t support another one). If someone else did a better job maybe Spec would rise to the challenge. Then again, maybe it would just run an article — under a grammatically incorrect headline — saying the other source didn’t exist.

    1. Speccie says:

      @Speccie “I know that Spec’s editors are volunteers, but so are the editors at the other papers.”

      Not quite accurate, Alum.

      In fact, the vast majority of college dailies are run by undergraduate journalism departments, which either pay nominal fees per article or offer class credit to writers and editors.

      Spec volunteers, on the other hand, don’t get any class credit and are generally not able to use their work in the paper to directly satisfy class requirements. Sure, the English major copy editor gets better at writing and might get better grades, and the Urban Studies major city reporter might be able to use original reporting in her senior thesis, but that’s not going to apply to the engineering, pre-med, or econ major. Ever tried catching a grammatical mistake at 4 a.m. while trying to decipher Solow-Swan for a homework due at 9? Didn’t think so.

      Besides that, you might have noticed campus stuff at Columbia has a tendency to happen later at night, not to mention we live in a much more unpredictable city than say, College Park, Md. or Evanston, Ill. I have a friend who works in the extremely respectable U. of Maryland Diamondback and know for a fact that they rarely cover stories when stuff happens after 8 p.m. and hence, can be in bed by midnight almost every day. Spec covers events that happen (or at least end) AT MIDNIGHT every single week.

      Your explanation for Spec having problems makes me think that (like myself) you are/were an econ major. It might be tempting to think Speccies are sloppy because they are not motivated to be better, but that would totally assume people at Spec don’t read or hear about their very mistakes from peers or in places like Bwog, that they are masochists wasting their time to put out a shitty product which they can never show to say, a journalism recruiter, or both.

      So, dear Alum, I’m going to add one more “maybe” to your statement: maybe it’s a result of lack of sleep, not getting any breaks from the academic side and going to a college where many people can’t major in what they truly love if that happens to be journalism.

      1. Alum says:

        @Alum I concede that the writers of other campus papers I’ve seen might be getting credit or money for their work. I’d be surprised, but stranger things have happened.

        But Columbia students should not make basic grammatical errors in their writing — especially writing intended for wide distribution — regardless of whether the writing is for credit. And the students who edit this writing should catch the grammatical mistakes. (Just about everything that ends up in Spec’s pages made it past at least one editor, right?)

        My criticisms also apply to editorials, which generally should not face the same time constraints as coverage of late-night events. A recent editorial savaged Columbia’s administration for making African studies part of the MEALAC department because doing so downgraded African studies’ status. In reality this was an *upgrade*, since African studies had no departmental home before but will have one going forward. That’s a pretty fundamental error, and it appeared in a piece that theoretically reflects the views of several people. I’ve seen many such errors in Spec editorials. I think it’s reasonable to expect the editors to get the facts straight before they make such accusations.

        The reason these things bother me so much is that I interview prospective freshmen and I’m sure the ones who are serious about Columbia check out Spec’s web page from time to time. What I see there is hardly the way I want applicants to believe Columbia students write. And it doesn’t help that Spec gives them misinformation like the aforementioned editorial on African studies.

        Fwiw, I wasn’t an econ major. My point about the lack of competition was pretty much an afterthought. But it was based upon something Walter Cronkite said today at the J-School about how many cities have only one major newspaper and how the dwindling number of papers has contributed to sloppy reporting in the ones that remain.

  • yup says:

    @yup “whaterveral” … nice. Your criticism has been noted.

  • Jimmy says:

    @Jimmy Good photo. That pretty much embodies Josh and Erin perfectly.

    1. daniella says:

      @daniella agreed. except for true embodiment you’d really need audio of Josh singing…

  • I hate alum says:

    @I hate alum You are stupid.

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