Student Council distributed a survey to the student body this week regarding various issues on campus life. One of the survey topics, which is of critical importance to the Daily Gazette, discusses whether the Gazette and other student groups should be allowed to automatically subscribe students to their mailing lists.
The Gazette has traditionally signed up freshmen and transfers for its daily news updates (which look like this) at the start of each academic year. The exact circumstances under which this practice started are unclear, as they predate all students currently at Swarthmore. Students who don’t want this service, though, are free to unsubscribe by either changing their subscription setting on the Gazette web site or by replying to the daily email with a request to be removed from the mailing list. Essentially, the Daily Gazette has an opt-out system that has been effectively working since it was founded in 1996.
This year, however, the new Dean of Students Liz Braun asked that the Gazette not to automatically subscribe the Class of 2014 and transfer students to the mailing list until Student Council and the student body as a whole have conversations regarding student group access to emails. Student Council’s survey is the largest piece of that conversation with the student body. Student Council will make a recommendation to Dean Braun largely based on the results of this survey; Dean Braun has said that she will take their recommendation extremely seriously on deciding if student groups can automatically subscribe students. This survey, along with any thoughts that you send to Student Council is your chance to participate in the decision. (You can also contact StuCo at their next meeting in Parrish Parlors at 8:00 on Sunday, by talking to any member individually, or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In the beginning, the entirety of the Gazette was in these emails; all stories were sent directly to subscribers and the Web provided only back issues. Nowadays, however, the Gazette is very much focused around its website; the email edition and RSS feed provide only summaries of stories, with links to the full versions. The web-based model has allowed for community involvement via commenting, which has become a major component of the Gazette’s presence on campus over the past several years. Last year, we had a total of almost 2,500 comments adding up to about 226,000 words. (For comparison, Crime and Punishment is about 210,000 words in English translation.)
If the web site is so important, then why does the email edition matter anymore? For a start, 75% of Gazette’s website traffic from Swatties arrives via the email edition.
There is a core community of Gazette commenters – people who consistently read and comment on many of our articles. These people would probably sign up for the email edition themselves or get to us via Google Reader, the Dashboard, or just by going straight to the site. However, much of what makes the Gazette a vibrant community is the interaction that occurs between these frequent commenters and others who comment on a specific issue that personally interests them.
Take for example the Allied Barton controversy of last semester. The presence of Allied Barton guards was initially reported in the Gazette, editorialized on in a Gazette column, and finally fully reported on with all the context, also in the Gazette. Largely as a result of the controversy that started here, the College decided not to renew its contract for this academic year, and switch to another firm with more respectable labor practices.
The Gazette has long been a place for the student body to find out about and discuss important matters on campus. Whether it’s major changes to Tarble meal plans that were quietly decided on and then rescinded once students got upset about it on the Gazette, a planned move of the Halloween Party to Mertz Field, or just reinstating the mints in Sharples, Gazette articles have led to changes around campus. They’ve also served as a place to discuss important issues like class inequality at Swat, campus security, controversial student protests, and, well, pretty much the very issue at hand. The Gazette is also one of the primary forums for communication with Student Council candidates, come election time.
Most of the students who participated in these debates, when they first showed up at Swat as freshmen, probably would not know to seek out the Gazette to sign up for its email updates. As they learned more about how Swarthmore worked, they may or may not have decided to sign up. But many of them never would have signed up, and they would have, in all likelihood, missed an important chance to learn about and contribute to campus dialogue on an important issue. Those who did subscribe and see the story would also miss the opportunity to hear as many voices in the dialogue as they could.
Clearly, the Gazette is not the be-all and end-all of campus discussion. Small group discussions, Student Council-led initiatives, committees soliciting student input: these all have their place. But the Gazette provides a unique venue for students to discuss issues with other students who they wouldn’t necessarily sit with in Sharples but who share an interest in a certain issue, in a low-overhead environment. The ability to comment anonymously or pseudo-anonymously, though it certainly leads to problems of its own, also allows for a broader range of conversation in that those who might not necessarily feel comfortable expressing a controversial view in public on such a small campus can do so in safety on the Gazette.
Besides being a venue for serious discourse and discussions on issues pertaining to student life at Swarthmore, we also provide the campus with less serious looks at the people around them, events on campus, and into their own hearts. Some of them are even kind of funny. Our April Fool’s issue this year, for example, was noted on the websites of the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Washington post for both the writing and the dancing unicorns.
It is not just the community aspects of the Gazette that will suffer without automatic email subscription, either. As the Gazette becomes a less important presence on campus, fewer students will be interested in joining, the quality of reporting will go down, and a vicious cycle will be entered that will almost surely lead to an existential crisis for the Gazette.
We feel that the Gazette provides an important service to the Swarthmore community, one that would be significantly degraded for all without automatic subscription for new students. As psychologists and behavioral economists have long known, the difference in enrollment between opt-in and opt-out programs is enormous. We strongly feel that the benefit to Swarthmore as a whole of having a robust student community on the Gazette is well worth the price of sending a few emails that don’t get read. Those who actually don’t want it can easily unsubscribe, after all.
Keep this in mind when filling out the survey. No matter what your opinions on the email issue are, we also want to take the opportunity to urge you to take the three minutes to respond: in addition to this issue, it will help Student Council decide on their short-term goals for the semester and contribute to a decision about instituting Sunday breakfast.
The link to the survey is in your inbox, where the Gazette is also probably sitting…at least for now.