By Benjamin Pontz, Editor-in-Chief
The world has a strange way of humbling people. Last May, I took over as editor-in-chief of The Gettysburgian brimming with confidence and excitement about what the future would hold. I had inherited leadership of a newspaper whose organizational structure and capacity I had helped build, but whose focus and temperament I knew needed to be refined.
One year later, it has become clear that, as much progress as we have made to improve the breadth, depth, and timeliness of our coverage of campus, we still have a great deal of work to do in building public trust in our organization.
At the heart of any successful news publication is a community that relies upon it to be informed and to be challenged about what is happening in the world around them. At times, I think we achieve that ideal. Our breaking news coverage of the situation with Bob Garthwait, our ongoing coverage of student and faculty government, and our intermittent coverage of issues within the Greek community have each drawn considerable commendation from a variety of campus constituencies.
We have, however, fallen short in covering certain instances of student activism and of systemic injustice affecting both students and staff members on campus.
A few times over the past year, I have somewhat lazily and thoughtlessly referred to The Gettysburgian in conversation as “my newspaper.” To some extent, I think there is a perception on campus that The Gettysburgian belongs to its editors, and, certainly, rogue comments like the aforementioned do nothing to dispel that notion.
What I truly believe, though, and what is at the core of our organization’s mission is the idea that The Gettysburgian is your newspaper. It belongs to the campus community, and its editors and contributors are merely the guardians and servants of a 120+ year tradition of informing, entertaining, challenging, and inspiring the students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends of Gettysburg College.
With that in mind, I want to share a few steps that we have taken and that I pledge to take in the coming year to ensure that this promise is more than a rhetorical flourish and is, in fact, a foundational principle to how our organization operates.
1) Any member of the campus community is welcome to contribute to any section of the paper at any time. For good reason, a regular staff of interested students tends to cover news, features, sports, and the arts, but that is not to say that those staffs are not always looking to expand.
Our opinions section, in particular, is intended to be a platform where all members of the campus community feel welcome to share their ideas and perspectives on whatever is important to them. We envision a robust and informed debate of issues that affect our campus, our community, and our world.
At various times over the past several years, I acknowledge that our opinions section has tended towards myopia, which, to some extent, is merely a product of who has stepped forward to write. While, in many cases, we have made efforts to invite submissions from certain groups or individuals, these overtures have not always been fruitful. It is crucial to the success of the organization that all have access to the platform and audience that our campus newspaper provides.
“It is crucial to the success of our organization that all have access to the platform and audience that our campus newspaper provides.”
To that end, I am pleased to announce that Anna Cincotta ’21 will be joining us as Opinions Editor beginning in the fall semester. She is an excellent writer who has previously written for Surge and has participated in a variety of campus activities including the Painted Turtle Farm, El Centro, social justice dialogue groups through the Center for Public Service, and multiple vocal ensembles. In other words, Anna walks in different circles than many of our current editors. I am confident that she will help us tap into social networks whose ideas we have not yet aired to bring new voices to the opinions section while also helping to frame constructive and challenging conversations that include ongoing contributions from many of our current excellent writers.
2) It is a central priority of our organization to tell stories in a way that is fair to all concerned. To achieve that goal, it is crucial for us to build cultural competency on our staff. This year, each of our editors completed the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), one of the central initiatives of the Office of Diversity & Inclusion. In the coming academic year, it is my goal to make that opportunity available to all members of our staff and also to provide staff development opportunities to work towards this goal.
3) Several times during the past several months, folks have asked me about editorial decisions The Gettysburgian has made. Sometimes, it has had a critical bent, while, in other instances, it has merely been out of curiosity. I have endeavored to answer those questions individually, but, as an organization committed to transparency and the public trust, I think that more openness is needed.
To that end, I plan to begin a new recurring column that I am tentatively calling “What Were We Thinking?” in which our editors will explain editorial decisions, coverage choices, photo placement, or anything else about which folks ask. Any honest question will receive an honest answer.
As the principal custodian of our campus newspaper, it is crucial to me that transparency and honesty lie at the heart of what we do, and this column will provide a recurring venue to help achieve that goal.
Complementary to this endeavor, I intend to create a variety of submission mechanisms, including some that will be anonymous, for members of the campus community to provide feedback, suggest stories that we are missing, or call out issues when you see them.
“I thought about writing here that I cannot promise we will not make mistakes; in fact, I can promise that we will make mistakes.”
I cannot overstate how much I appreciate it when someone shares with me their perception of how we handled something and it completely differs from what we intended or how we perceived it. I had one of these conversations just last month with a faculty member who shared a concern with the tone and angle of a piece we had published. I cannot speak for how they left the dialogue, but I walked away with a new sensitivity that I intend to apply to similar issues in the future.
I thought about writing here that I cannot promise we will not make mistakes; in fact, I can promise that we will make mistakes. Fundamentally, a campus newspaper is an educational endeavor for all involved. My commitment, though, is to listen when concerns are raised, to address mistakes in as public a setting as that in which they were made, and to move forward with heightened attention towards not repeating them in the future.
With all of this said, I do fear that some might conclude our organization is in crisis. I believe that is far from the case. This academic year, we published more than 550 articles that reached well over 175,000 readers. (By way of context, the previous 12-month period had 435 articles that reached 116,000 readers, marking increases of more than 25 percent and 50 percent respectively over totals that were themselves records for the online era.) We welcomed dozens of new writers to the staff including a strong cadre of first-years, several of whom are stepping into editorial positions this fall. Our work received three statewide awards from the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association and was used in coverage by national media organizations including the Associated Press and the Washington Post.
“The Gettysburgian is a consummate team effort, and I cannot say enough great things about the team that worked to produce it this year.”
I am incredibly thankful for the team of editors, writers, and photographers I feel privileged to lead. Their work illuminates areas of campus I did not even know existed, and their passion and commitment brings me energy to support their efforts in my role as editor-in-chief. The Gettysburgian is a consummate team effort, and I cannot say enough great things about the team that worked to produce it this year.
Yet, I believe that organizational excellence requires constant innovation and improvement, and this column stands as my public commitment to focus attention on several areas in which I believe we have, at times, fallen short.
I believe this organization has done a lot of great work.
I want us to do better.
And, to do that, I need your help.