Letter from the editor-in-chief: Gabriel Dunatov

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The flood starts at 9 a.m. The first emails wash in — mailing lists, the student digest, complaints, follow-ups I haven’t responded to yet. Then the Slack messages arrive. By the time I start getting texts, my screen is an ocean of red numbers, ticking closer to the hundreds. Since the first day I joined the paper, this job has consumed me. As editor-in-chief this semester, every conversation cycles back to the paper, every topic connects to journalism and my professional life drowns out the remaining sparks of a personal life. It may sound awful — it is at times —  but it’s also the source of my warmest memories. We do this for the thrill and satisfaction, but also because we feel responsible. Students can do professionals’ jobs. As professional newsrooms shrink, we need to take on their mission.

Student journalists have a number of privileges. We don’t live in constant fear of job cuts. We have the financial support of the college and student body. We don’t fear for our lives or risk imprisonment, even as journalists are hunted, killed with impunity and imprisoned around the world. As student journalists, the most common challenge we face is patronization and doubt. So long as we’re operating within a narrow field — reporting on events, profiling new professors, covering sports — we have the support of the college. The second we begin investigating on our own accord, the gloves come off: our reporters are accused of harassment, we lose the benefit of the doubt and sources’ first instincts are to go above our heads to the administration.

Although we’re privileged to avoid death threats and layoffs, we also face challenges that career journalists never encounter. To do this job right means constantly having a foot in two worlds: the professional and personal. Throughout their reporting, our journalists live among the sources they cover. When we reported on Occidental’s veteran housing project on Toland Way; demands that Chief Diversity Officer Rhonda Brown step down; and Occidental Sexual Assault Coalition’s (OSAC) reemergence, among so many other critical articles, we only had one chance to get the story right.  I first reported on the Title IX complaint filed anonymously on behalf of the football team last semester. I know what it’s like to have my work called into question, to walk onto campus wondering who will confront me.  

We don’t have the luxury of leaving our work behind us at the end of the day. We have to compartmentalize our personal and professional lives. We turn a student down for a job and sit in class with them the next day. We’re forced to fire a staff member and hear personal attacks for the rest of the semester. We write an article about an administrator and then walk through their front door the next day. If we put one thumb out of line on social media, our objectivity is questioned for months. Simmering distrust in the media, compounded by our small, fragmented campus, means student journalists are at best tolerated and at worst despised. For the student body, the administration and the community around us, it doesn’t matter that we’re a student newspaper. Trust, developed with such patience and dedication, is lost in an instant.

Student newsrooms now employ more reporters than their professional counterparts. According to Pew Research Center, which pulled data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of reporters and editors in the newspaper industry, last measured in 2015, shrank 4 percent since 2014 and 37 percent since 2004.

We’ve seen this reality played out in our community. Nine print newspapers used to serve our corner of North East Los Angeles. Today, most of them exist only in microfilm in Occidental library’s special collections. Often, The Occidental serves as one of the only records of neighborhood news. As I’ve heard many times, we are not the Los Angeles Times. We could take ourselves less seriously, let our standards slip and lapse into unprofessionalism. Instead, I believe we have to rise to the occasion. We have the ability and responsibility to fill this void in professional journalism.

We have a tradition of student leadership at The Occidental. We live with our mistakes. We talk ad nauseum about following the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, and we put it into practice. This is not our attempt to be corporate. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to write light, fun articles, but we have standards. We can’t hold anyone in power accountable if we’re not accountable to ourselves.

This is my first letter from the editor as well as my last. My priority was our reporting, not my opinions. My project for this semester was to develop our investigative journalism and professionalize our newsroom. This is a project that began with Flora Adamian, last semester’s editor-in-chief, and one that I know will continue under next next semester’s editor-in-chief, Chris Peel.

Since we first started working together on the news team last fall, Chris has been more than a coworker — he’s been my partner and friend. When I’m too harsh in my edits or standards, I depend on Chris to play “good cop” to my “bad cop.” He has shown his honesty, principles and work ethic during every one of our 2 a.m. Monday nights. Throughout the most difficult semester of my life, Chris has been a rock of support. I know The Occidental will be in the best of hands with him next year.

I’m also proud of our class of first years and sophomores. This new generation of student reporters has entered the field in the worst time for journalists. Entering a profession where reporters are laid off every week and threats to journalists fill the headlines, they have embraced this job with energy that I have never seen at the paper. One day, they will take on this responsibility, step up to lead the paper and take what they have learned here beyond Occidental College. If our professional student newsroom has any future, it lies with them.

Gabriel Dunatov (senior) is the editor-in-chief of The Occidental. He can be reached at dunatov@oxy.edu.