“Disrupting” Journalism: Upcoming Symposium to Highlight Alumni Journalists, Importance of Journalism Today

In December, Oberlin College announced that it will launch an integrative concentration in journalism for Fall 2020. According to a College press release, the concentration will be within the Rhetoric and Composition department, and students will be able to combine it with “any of Oberlin’s more than 50 majors” to create an interdisciplinary experience. 

To bring attention to this new concentration and to celebrate Oberlin’s history of producing renowned journalists, The Grape and the Oberlin Review are co-hosting a journalism symposium featuring Oberlin alumni journalists. The symposium, titled “A Disrupted Media Landscape: Skills, Perspectives, Solutions,” will take place from Monday, February 24 to Sunday, March 1. Following is an interview of the symposium’s organizers from the two Oberlin publications: 

[Interview has been edited for length and clarity]

Why organize this symposium? 

P.J. McCormick (PJM), The Grape, Editor-In-Chief: Credit here goes maybe to the Review, who first came to us with the idea and asked us for our help. I think there was something like this quite a few years ago. 

Molly Bryson (MB), The Grape, Editor-In-Chief: I’ve been thinking for a long time about different ways to do community engagement with The Grape and how to draw more people from the school to be involved, and I think that the symposium came to fruition because of the content from the resources we had. Once it became clear there were so many alumni journalists doing cool, professional, groundbreaking stuff, it seemed reasonable to utilize that network. 

PJM: Also, I don’t think we have enough of the journalism events on campus, especially because we don’t put enough stock into the pretty linear progression of a lib-arts-trained mind to a [journalism career] and how that makes sense because you’re really thinking inquisitively and doing a lot of research. But because Oberlin is not a pre-professional school, and we don’t have a journalism program, it can be hard for people to envision our alumni getting jobs as reporters. And like Molly said, The Grape and the Review are always jumping at opportunities for community outreach to make our papers more than just things that come out every week or every two weeks and make them more central to Oberlin student life and well-being. 

Nathan Carpenter (NC), Oberlin Review, Editor-In-Chief: There’s such an incredible community of Oberlin alumni who go on to become journalists, and one of the things that they have always said is that, even without a journalism program, you could really still gain the skills that you needed to become a professional journalist right here at Oberlin. They viewed majoring in something that you wanted to write about as almost more important than having a journalism program. So, in that same spirit, knowing that there hasn’t been a formal journalism program to this point, I think alumni are really excited and willing to come back and be the mentors for the new generation of Oberlin journalists. We got really excited about the fact that there’s this big network of people that’s willing to pitch in and mentor the next generation, and [this symposium] is an opportunity to hear about the incredible work that these folks do and also get a chance to envision paths that some of us could take in the field. 

Ananya Gupta (AG), Oberlin Review, Managing Editor: Part of the idea also came from last Commencement, when we had two or three alumni who used to work at the Oberlin Review come in and chat with us about their time on the Review and their [current] positions as real journalists. After that experience, we talked about how great it was to meet people who were sitting in the same seats that we are right now and hear how they transitioned from being student journalists to being real journalists. 

Katherine McPhail (KM), Oberlin Review, Editor-In-Chief: The other thing that’s exciting about bringing these alums to campus is that they have a lot of skills and perspectives to share with all students at this school, not just folks who are involved in journalism. Almost everyone reads the news, so learning from these journalists will be, I think, very exciting to a lot of people. 

How do you see this symposium as relating to Oberlin’s upcoming integrative journalism concentration? How do you think hearing from renowned journalists will affect students thinking about going into journalism?

NC: One of the things that I really like about how the journalism concentration is structured is that it’s really about tying tangible skills and real-world life experiences to the curriculum that students are already engaging with. I honestly think it’s cool that we didn’t start a journalism department, but that there’s a concentration where the work is going to connect to your major and give you the skills that you would need to become a journalist—that it’s not your entire academic focus, it’s work that’s supporting your academic focus. 

I think that this is going to prepare students to become journalists in a range of fields—[for example,] if I’m an Environmental Studies [major] and I have a journalism concentration, I can go into the world of science writing. So the [journalism concentration] is supporting you so much more broadly—part of that is the experiential and co-curricular element, like encouraging students to write for campus publications or get journalism internships during the summer—and for me, the symposium ties into that because it is, in its own way, experiential. This is a really good opportunity for students to come talk to and network with the speakers. Pretty much everyone we [contacted] to come to the symposium said yes, and I hope that students take advantage of that opportunity to engage with journalism in that co-curricular experiential way. 

KM: For folks who are interested in going into journalism and are considering the concentration, there’s something really special about not just talking to Rhetoric and journalism professors, but talking to people who are actively engaged in the field. Then you can sort of see yourself in their position, and it lights a special sort of fire in you when you can see an example of what [a journalism] career looks like and might look like for you. 

MB: Oberlin students are basically trained, whether they know it or not, to have all the faculties and skills to be a good journalist, and the introduction of this concentration is exciting because it gives people a concrete way to pursue that. Having more events around journalism, and having real people for [students] to look up to and see what sort of stuff they could do in the future, is really important. I think that if I had been a freshman and there had been a journalism concentration and accessible events, I definitely would have invested myself in that, and I think [the concentration and the symposium] will open a lot of people’s eyes.

PJM: Absolutely. It is a pretty happy coincidence—we weren’t planning to sort-of ‘unveil the great journalism concentration,’ but it just worked out that way. I think it will be a really great way to get eyes on the concentration, which will be a super cool opportunity for a lot of people, and then having events that will shed light on it without it having to be like a pitching panel. Now there’s several routes to go, because you can start [getting involved] in The Grape or the Review or any of the other publications on campus and you can invest yourself within the journalism curriculum. 

MB: I also wonder if this event will influence the kind of work that might count toward the concentration. I don’t know how fleshed out the curriculum is yet, but I think that it would be easy for people to write for a publication and take a Rhetoric course, and that would be their journalism concentration. But because we have such a diverse array of types of journalism being showcased, it will definitely draw a larger, more diverse pool of people interested in different forums. 

How did you choose which Oberlin alumni journalists to contact? Based on varying views, different types of journalistic work, possible similarities in themes, etc.?

PJM: We shot far and wide. Not ashamed to say we got a couple nos, which I think makes sense because this event, while not the first of its kind, is the first in a really long time, and obviously we’re working with pretty modest funds. But it made it easy that Oberlin alumni are in all sorts of different fields of journalism, and it was exciting really to figure out how many people we had who are doing international correspondence, or data journalism, or arts and culture stuff. 

MB: We started by contacting the alumni office and people in the Dean’s office and got a contact list of alumni working in journalism, and from that list we picked people we thought were doing cool and relevant stuff. We tried to not just pick old white men, because there’s a fair amount of those doing journalism. One of our first outreaches was contacting recent alumni, which was P.J.’s idea. 

PJM: Once we got the list of journalists, we picked who we were excited about, while keeping in mind trying to curate a group of diverse voices, whether that is fields, or background, or how recently they graduated. We have [a wide range] of graduation years, all coming to share their different viewpoints from where they’re standing in the world of journalism. 

AG: The way we chose who we wanted to invite was twofold. One, we discussed [the idea] that a lot of people talk about how the journalism industry is dying, so we wanted to bring people who are changing the game, adapting to the technology, and keeping the journalism industry alive. So that was one of our goals, to bring people who are disrupting the journalism industry, which is why [disrupting] is the title of the [symposium]. The second goal was that we wanted to bring a wide diversity of journalists because we wanted [the symposium] to be not just for people engaged in journalism already, [but] also for people who are into science, or international politics, or Wall Street, things like that. 

NC: To go off of that, I hope that, [for example], Environmental Studies students are going to come to Sonia Shah’s talk even though they might not have any journalism experience, because what she is talking about ties into what they’re studying. 

Another piece of the diversity of speakers that I want to key in on as well is that [something] that was really important to us was getting alumni from a range of years—we have alumni going back all the way to 1975 up to 2018. Our final panel of the symposium is of four students who graduated in 2018, because we really wanted to give students who attend the opportunity to hear from somebody who can essentially say, ‘I’m two years out from graduating from Oberlin—here’s what I did when I graduated and one year out in order to get where I am.’ I think that’s so valuable [as] a piece that sometime’s missing when you’re pulling in really accomplished alumni who graduated in the ’80s and ’90s, [who] continue to change and reinvent the field, but it was different to enter the world of journalism in 1984 than it’s going to be when we graduate in 2020. 

How do you, as leaders of Oberlin College’s newspapers, see journalism as an evolving discipline, especially in the age that some have referred to as ‘post-truth’? How is the media landscape, as the title of the symposium says, ‘disrupted’?

NC: [Considering] where we’re at in the present political moment as it pertains to media and journalism, it’s more important than ever to think about what journalism is and what it looks like. The fact that everyone has a smartphone and a Twitter account is such an enormous blessing, [but] it can also be incredibly challenging. I think that [this] can be credited with the fact that we now have more access to information than we’ve ever had before, [but] I think that the ‘post-truth’ perspective also comes out of this fact that everyone has a cellphone and a Twitter account.

So there’s that element of [thinking about] ‘Well, what does journalism look like?’ [and of] wanting to expand that definition and be inclusive while maintaining strong ethical standards of rigorous reporting and fact-checking. There are [also] so many exciting things that you can do with [online access to information]. There’s a friend of mine from Oberlin who graduated last year whose dad worked for the New York Times for a long time, and whenever [his dad] came to campus I would show him that week’s Review, and he said to me once, ‘The fact that print newspapers also have a digital side creates so much more freedom in what you can do on the printed page. This is not the death of the printed page; it’s the opportunity for a new life of the printed page.’ What you can do, and what we’ve done many times this year, is run a couple of our stories just online [so we] have a ton of space in the print issue to create a really stunning visual essay or a spread that we might not have had room for if we had to pack all of our content into the physical issue. And that’s an element that we want the symposium [to consider]—what are the ways that technology and digital mediums can make our work so much more engaging?

KM: I think in the turbulent moment that journalism is in right now and the fact that it is being disrupted [means] that it’s time to reaffirm your principles and figure out what kind of journalism you want to create. That’s important both for people who want to create journalism and for those who want to consume it, so this is a really scary and exciting time to be having [this symposium]. 

AG: Just to sum up, technology and social media play a huge role in how we view news now, and it’s up to journalists to either incorporate that into our work or to consider that the enemy. The people we’re bringing to campus are folks who have been able to [use] social media and technology to support their really beautiful journalism that’s still grounded in [journalistic] ethics, but that’s not tied to the past either. 

MB: A lot of it has to do with changes in technology, as journalism expands from being basic print reporting to be something that’s often multimedia, that can be interactive. That’s something that we don’t really have the resources to explore here, but it’s something we’re aware of. So we were excited to address that specifically. 

PJM: The sort of cliché ‘disruption’ is [the idea that] a big part of the population has trouble discerning between a reliable source and an unreliable source, and our ‘disruption’ addresses that, but also we wanted to talk about and bring in journalists who are ‘disrupting’ in a more positive sense of the word. Like some of the data journalists we’re bringing in are [doing work about] how we’re doing and constructing narratives around data and visualizing the news. We wanted to look at the ‘disruption’ from both sides—it’s a scary and a daunting thing, [but] it’s also a moment of change and opportunity. 

Why is journalism an important field of work today? How has your work in student publications enriched your Oberlin experience?

MB: Personally, working for The Grape has, for me, been a way to connect with people. I feel like I’ve gotten the chance to talk to different facets of the Oberlin community that I would’ve never had to before, and for that I’m really grateful; I feel like it’s made me incredibly more in touch.

PJM: The way I think of it, The Grape is sort of a vehicle for building and documenting community. Unlike the Review, [which] does really great work in a different sort of way, The Grape is sometimes closer to a student life magazine than it is to a [newspaper], but I think that allows us to have a more intimate connection with the student body. The Grape can sometimes feel like a joke that everyone’s in on, and that’s what is really exciting to me—getting to publish a paper where it’s students understanding that they’re speaking directly to students, and the dialogue there. That’s why the field of journalism is important to me here. The field of journalism [as a whole] is important because news is good and important, and everyone should know the news. For example, I don’t approve of what the Cheeto Chief is doing and I think we should get him out of office. 

NC: What has meant a lot to me is the seriousness with which people—meaning students, faculty, staff, and administrators—take student journalism and respect the role that it plays. That’s really impressed upon me the need that we have to do good, strong ethical work because people here take seriously what we do. Part of that is that we have [in the past] done good, strong, ethical work, and a community that feels that it’s represented fairly in its media will, in turn, be open and receptive to supporting that media. And another thing that comes to mind is the incredible opportunity and responsibility we have to write about things that are happening in the town of Oberlin. There’s a fantastic New York Times piece from last fall about all of the towns across the U.S. where the only paper left is the college newspaper, and for Oberlin, that’s now the case—the Oberlin Tribune closed its downtown office just over a year ago. So we have felt that this incredibly important responsibility to step into covering the Oberlin community holistically, both college and city.

AG: For me, as an international student, I felt super disconnected from this campus my first year, because I couldn’t really engage in national or local politics—I didn’t feel like I knew enough or that was my place. When I applied to work at the Review, I found this community, like a safe space, that was happy to educate me and give me the skills that allowed me to be confident to go out and engage with other people in the Oberlin community. The Review really became a family for me that pushed me beyond my own boundaries but that also was a very comfortable space. 

KM: This is definitely one of those ‘small undergraduate college’ opportunities that can entirely change your experience as a student. It is a huge responsibility and it’s really a learning experience that is hard to find in the classroom or elsewhere. 

AG: Also, the Review is [146] years old, and being apart of that enormous legacy [is meaningful]. I think one of the biggest criticisms that Oberlin students get is that they’re only here for four years and they keep trying to do something new and not look at the history of what’s already happened in this town. But by being part of the Review, you’re trying to start something new [while still] continuing a really lovely legacy. 

Do you think that Oberlin students are uniquely prepared to work in journalistic fields? If so, why? If not, why?

NC: I don’t think we’re uniquely prepared. I think that Oberlin students care a lot about what is true and what is fair, and those values go a long way into being a good journalist. So I think that Oberlin students make a lot out of what we have here, and, frankly, there’s not much institutional structure at Oberlin to provide formal journalism training—and yet, we have so many alumni who have gone on to become such prominent journalists. I mean, the folks that are coming to the symposium, like Peter Baker or Emily Nusbaum, are really prominent in diverse fields of journalism. So I think that there is something about Oberlin students who really care so deeply about what is true and what is fair that serves them well as journalists. But I don’t know if we come out uniquely prepared; we make a lot of mistakes along the way, but Oberlin students never stop trying to get it right. 

KM: The character of the school is that it’s full of a lot of very passionate students and that it attracts a lot of very passionate individuals. In that sense, [these individuals] are more prepared to work in this kind of field. 

PJM: Maybe Oberlin students might not think they are, but I think a lib-arts education trains you to be naturally inquisitive and inclined to research, think differently about things and see a story where other people might not see one, which I think is exciting. 

MB: Oberlin students are obviously pretty intuitively socially and politically aware, and a liberal arts curriculum prepares you to be a good writer. I feel like journalism often has to be incredibly objective, and that’s something that people maybe aren’t necessarily drawn to because, especially at Oberlin, you’re trained to question things and have an opinion. But I also think that being aware of how fickle objectivity is is ultimately an asset and something that would be beneficial for any journalist. 

Finally, if you could choose one thing for students to take away from this symposium, what would it be? 

PJM: A lot of what we’re aiming to do at the symposium is make it available and attractive to people who might not involved in journalism in any way at this school or might not think that they want to be, so we tried to offer a pretty diverse array of workshops and lectures that cover a range of topics and fields. And maybe once you’re there you’ll be like, ‘This is great, now I’ll do it!’ but [ultimately] we want to make people aware that this is a space that’s accessible to everyone. 

MB: Aside from showing a range of possible outlets for journalism, another thing that anybody could take away from this symposium is a more aware, intentional, and critical way of engaging with media as they move forward in life as a normal person who watches the news or reads through Twitter. 

AG: The strongest thing that Oberlin offers its students is its incredible network of people who have gone on to achieve really great things, be it Pulitzer Prizes or interesting research, or something like that. When these alumni come back and share their experience and skills, I think that the students should not let that opportunity go [to waste]. 

KM: We’re doing a lot of workshops which will be [journalists] coming in and trying to teach students skills, and I hope that a lot of people leave a lecture, a panel, or a workshop feeling very empowered. 

NC: I hope that people who come to [the symposium], particularly people who are perhaps only there because they have an interest in the subject matter, walk away with this feeling that Oberlin alumni are so eager to be a strong network for current students that [these students] can then look at what we’ve done and next year do a symposium about anything else they care about. The process of putting this together was a lot of logistical work, on one hand. But on the other hand, it was incredibly easy, because everyone we emailed got back to us and said, ‘I’m in, what do you need from me?’ That was so incredible to see, and so I hope people, even if they don’t want to be journalists, can take away [the idea] that this is something that we can be doing all the time.