Challenge and opportunity ahead for new Flat Hat staff

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March 18, 2008

4:09 PM

In my column, I have written about every major institution in Williamsburg but one. It is among the College’s most important and influential organizations on and off campus. I’m speaking, of course, about The Flat Hat.

p. The reasons I avoided it are obvious. To write on a subject is to critically evaluate it, positively and negatively. What could be less tactful than criticizing the very medium that prints my work, the people who edit my words, write my headlines and stand behind every paragraph even when they may privately disagree?

p. There is also the question of objectivity: I am asking the reader to trust that I can approach my own employer, staffed by friends, without bias or sentiment, dispassionate as an outsider though drawing on my knowledge as an insider.

p. Nevertheless, I am mandated by the Flat Hat’s guiding principles — responsibility to the reader and the reader’s right to know what is happening on campus — even when it puts my own decorum and objectivity at hazard.

p. As the paper transitions staffs, I feel compelled to share its challenges and triumphs with those most affected by its performance: not the editors and reporters, but the readers.

p. Anyone on campus before 2006 can tell you that The Flat Hat was a weak publication. Most of the news came from university press releases. The office felt more like a clubby hang-out than a place of serious journalism. Advertising and original reporting were scarce. The Flat Hat went largely unread.

p. Two years ago, three low-ranking staff members, dissatisfied with the poor performance of a potentially great newspaper, all ran for editor-in-chief. Each was eager, energetic, ambitious and sported a long, agonized-over list of proposed reforms and improvements. Of them, Josh Pinkerton ’07 became editor-in-chief, Andy Zahn ’08 became news editor and I became executive editor.

p. As a talented, if green, staff, we forged what you hold today. The paper launched a new website, doubled its printing schedule, attracted tens of thousands of dollars in additional advertising revenue and broke stories that went on to the Washington Post and New York Times.

p. After that year, The Flat Hat won a Pacemaker award, the highest achievement in student journalism, given by the Associated Collegiate Press and Washington Post to the best daily and non-daily student newspapers out of hundreds published across the country.

p. There have been missteps. The paper’s editorial board remained silent on the removal of the Wren Cross, denying the College a reasoned voice on a still-disputed issue. When the paper won its Pacemaker award, it ran an editorial implying it had been the only recipient rather than one of 21, undermining the very integrity that had won the award. But such errors, often inevitable with hundreds of articles annually produced with the boldness necessary for front-lines reporting, have been relatively few.

p. Last year, I was slated to become editor-in-chief, but, for personal reasons, asked Zahn to take over. Today, Zahn’s final editorial celebrates the paper’s staff, just as Pinkerton’s did a year ago.

p. But no one has done more than Pinkerton and Zahn. I have reported on many student leaders and none approaches their fearless, tireless dedication to the College. While other campus leaders enjoy time in the spotlight, editors, toiling out of sight, garner only negative attention from embittered subjects and angry ideologues anxious to shoot the messenger.

p. Though editors know their hard work may only draw criticism and though critics and would-be rivals threaten and jeer them daily, they return to the office every afternoon, often working until dawn, to provide the College with what has been judged one of the best student newspapers in America.

p. But journalistic integrity is not a currency that can be stored or traded. It must be constant and unflinching. Future success is not assured, and a newspaper’s reputation forever hangs by a thread, tested daily. Every issue, every article, every assertion is a trial with thousands of readers as judge and jury, wherein all the paper has accomplished must be rebuilt anew.

p. Pinkerton’s picture still hangs in the office, alongside posters of front pages from both world wars and plaques of recent awards. I expect Zahn’s may join it soon. The question we ask today is whether new editor-in-chief Austin Wright ’09 will prove the same worth. I believe he will, but, like any good reporter, remain cautiously watchful. Only the dozens of issues and hundreds of articles Wright will oversee can objectively measure his contribution to The Flat Hat, to the College and, most importantly, to you, the reader, who stands to prosper or suffer by his efficacy.

p. __Max Fisher is a senior at the College.__

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