Institutional memory at colleges is woefully short. With the Gazette rounding off its first decade of existence, we decided to go back to where it all began. In this College Corner, the Gazette chats via e-mail with Sam Schulhofer-Wohl who founded the newspaper in 1996, during his junior year at Swarthmore college. He is now an assistant professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton.
Daily Gazette: Can you tell us a little bit about the founding of the Gazette? Why did you start it, and how did you come up with the idea? Were you considering journalism as a career?
Sam Schulhofer-Wohl: I knew quite early in college — probably by sophomore year — that I wanted to be a journalist, and I worked on the Phoenix as a freshman and sophomore. The summer after sophomore year, I was a stringer for a daily paper in the Chicago suburbs. Daily deadlines turned out to be much more fun than the slow pace of a weekly. I also thought it was hard for a weekly to accomplish much in a community as small as Swarthmore, because everyone knew the latest gossip long before the paper came out. (The Phoenix has since proved me wrong with some great feature writing, though.) So when I returned to campus for my junior year, I was determined to start a daily publication. I realized immediately that we would have to publish only electronically: There was just no way to finance a printed daily. Plus, e-mail publication would cost nothing at all, so we wouldn’t be beholden to student government, the administration or advertisers for money. I and the other editors hoped our financial independence would give us the freedom to cover campus news exactly as we saw fit, with no fear that a hard-hitting article would offend someone and cost us our funding.
DG: What did you envision as the goal of the Gazette when it first began, and how did you expect it to be different from The Phoenix?
SSW: The goal was to cover news quickly — to help people get accurate information about events on campus each day, instead of having to depend on word of mouth. The Phoenix, as a weekly, couldn’t really keep people up to date on day-to-day news, unless the news happened to occur on a Thursday. (Memorably, in my freshman year, news did break on a Thursday night: Parrish caught fire, and we barely managed to make our deadline. But that was one of the few times the Phoenix had a chance to cover breaking news.)
DG: What was the original staff of the Gazette like? What sorts of things did you cover? How many subscribers did you start out with?
SSW: I think we had seven editors. All of us thought it should be possible to do better than the Phoenix in some way, but beyond that, it was a diverse group. Some were really into sports; others were more interested in world news, or campus news, or just the challenge of quickly cranking out good writing. At first, we had very few subscribers: our friends who were willing to let us spam them every morning. But the subscriber list grew quickly when it turned out that the community really wanted what we had to offer.
DG: Were there alumni and parents reading it back then?
SSW: As far as I know, we didn’t have any alumni readers at first. I’d bet that most of the alumni readers are people who started reading the Gazette as students and didn’t want to stop when they graduated. Do parents really read the Gazette now? That’s great, and amazing.
DG: How did you see the Gazette evolve once you left Swarthmore? What do you think about the weather joke?
SSW: I’ve continued to subscribe since I graduated and have watched the Gazette’s growth with great interest. It has gotten better every semester and has become a much stronger paper than I ever dreamed it could be. The staff is probably twice as big as when we started, the range of coverage is much broader, and the Web site allows much more visual communication (the photo of the day is usually at least as interesting as the stories!) and interaction with readers.
The weather joke is brilliant. We should all be grateful to Rafi Dowty ’98 for thinking it up and bringing a few laughs to our mornings.
DG: The Gazette went through major changes this year in particular. We’ve never had opinions, ads, or comments before. What do you think about these changes?
SSW: The opinions and comments are a good addition. We would have liked to include opinions when we started — most of us were pretty opinionated and had written editorials for the Phoenix in the past — but the staff was just too small. And the comments are a nice way to get readers involved in the conversation. The jury’s still out on the ads. What will you do with the money? Are the benefits of having money worth the risk of being beholden to advertisers? I guess you’ll have to see how it works out.
DG: What did you do after graduating, and where are you working now? Do you have any advice for the Gazette staffers today, or other Swatties?
SSW: I worked for four and a half years as a copy editor and reporter at daily newspapers in Illinois, Alabama and Wisconsin, finishing up as an education reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Among the highlights of my career, I interviewed President Bush, helped send a man to jail for election fraud, and designed the front page of one of the Birmingham newspapers the day George Wallace died. Eventually my true Swattie nature kicked in, and I returned to school for a Ph.D. in economics. I’m now an assistant professor of economics and public affairs at Princeton.
My only advice for current students is to take advantage of the intellectual opportunities you have at Swarthmore. The professors are some of the best teachers in the world; you’ll be lucky to have the chance to take classes this good ever again. So take as many classes as you can, and enjoy them. And think broadly. By senior year, I had finished the requirements for my physics major, so I took a bunch of electives: Rick Valelly’s introduction to American politics, Thompson Bradley’s course on the Russian novel, Rosaria Munson’s class on the Divine Comedy, and a religion class with Mark Wallace. Classes like those are the essence of a liberal arts education. I learned a ton, had a great time and still remember all of them.