The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Op-Ed: Why The Quest Needs to be Elections-Free

Rob Shryock is a former Queditor of Fall 2011.

Between the time this article is written and when it is printed there will likely have been a vote on the proposal to allow members of the Quest Board to appoint their own successors, rather than have them be elected. The fact that this proposal will likely be voted down is an extreme disservice to the community, especially given that the proposal would still have to be ratified by the student body in order to make the change.  Elections have crippled The Quest for nearly sixty years, saddling Reed with a paper that is run by the popular rather than the competent. It has made the paper unaccountable to students, restricted students’ access to information, and inhibited students’ abilities to publicly express themselves. At its best, The Quest has been mediocre; at its worst, it has been shamefully bad, especially for a liberal arts school of our caliber.

During my time at The Quest, I began to realize how much of the negative community attitude towards The Quest was based on the paper’s lack of continuity. Each Quest Board has to reinvent the wheel, slowly learning over time how to run a paper. This means that the paper doesn’t really achieve peak quality until halfway through the semester – at which point the quality almost immediately drops due to students becoming busier with their academics. This lack of continuity drives down the quality of The Quest, and it is the inherent problem with an elected newspaper. Institutional memory, experience, and talent are the lifeblood of a newspaper, but elections are nothing more than a popularity contest.

I am not saying is that elections in general are a poor system – what I am saying is that elections are fundamentally antithetical to how a newspaper should run. A newspaper should be able to print the truth, regardless of how popular the truth is. Elections prevent The Quest from serving its purpose, both by making the newspaper subservient to the tides of political opinion and by dramatically decreasing its quality.

How does our proposal solve these problems? By allowing greater self-governance for The Quest. By allowing The Quest to choose its own editors based on their talents and experience working on The Quest, not based on who is popular. We’ve heard many worries that allowing The Quest to pick its successors would lead to them just picking their friends. This is a concern we’ve taken many steps to address, like as asking Honor Council to observe the selection process as a check on possible nepotism.  But it’s inarguably the case that, under the current system, a writer who shows up to every Quest meeting, works hard and writes well has almost no chance of being elected unless they are “popular” or enter the election with a popular friend. Under this new system, that writer would almost certainly be able to be part of the editorial board after a semester or two of working with The Quest. The possibility for advancement, in turn, will drive writers to work harder for The Quest. This new system would  provides students more access to The Quest, not less. It means that any student willing to do the work can be a Quest Editor, not just those students who can win an election.

This system would also allow for true continuity. With at least half of the board staying on after every semester, each new board would have experience to fall back on, instead of having to start from scratch. Additionally, if the new appointees to the board write for The Quest before they become editors – which, according to the new system, they would – they will already have a good sense of what goes on at The Quest.

Lastly, what our system offers is accountability – true accountability. This may seem counter-intuitive. Isn’t an elections system, if nothing else, more accountable than an appointed system? Perhaps in theory – but in practice, Quest Boards are very aware of their temporary nature and thus often make little effort to be thorough in their discussion of serious issues. The boards’ responses to criticism often tend to be things like, “The Quest is hard work!” or  “You can’t please everyone!” Quest Boards tend to be generally unwilling to have an open dialogue with the community about how they are run. Past Quest Boards have printed libel unapologetically, showed a lack of knowledge of basic journalistic conventions and ethical guidelines, gone entire semesters without printing any insightful journalism, and even been sued at the college’s expense.  The idea that democracy creates accountability contradicts the reality of The Quest.

What our system offers as an alternative is a sense of pride and responsibility in The Quest and to the Reed community. If Quest Editors are serving on the board for a year, and if serving is indeed a privilege won by hard work and talent rather than by election, Quest Editors are more likely to take The Quest seriously and make a better Quest. What I’m suggesting is that quality is a better driver of accountability than democracy – if The Quest is better, then editors will strive to meet that high standard, not the “doesn’t suck quite as much” standard of today.

These are but a few reasons why this system needs to change. We, the creators of this proposal, olde Quest editors and new, believe our proposal is the best way to change The Quest, but we are very open to suggestions on how to improve it. We want to make Reed better, and for this to happen we need a large portion of the student body on board. So please, gives us your comments and critiques, and let’s make this school a better place together.

Comments
8 Responses to “Op-Ed: Why The Quest Needs to be Elections-Free”
  1. Greg Byshenk, '89 says:

    I suspect the concern is not purely nepotism, but also of excessive continuity. In my time, there were board candidates that ran specifically for the purpose of changing the outlook or editorial stance of the existing Quest editors. The proposal, at least as here described, would make such a change in direction difficult, if not impossible, as the only route to becoming an editor would be to endorse the existing editorial direction. With a fully self-perpetuating editorial board, is there any way that the community could change the outlook of the Quest, should they be dissatisfied?

    As an alternative, if the desire is for appointed Quest editors, why not let the appointment be by the Senate, with the advice of the existing editorial board? This would allow for continuity in general, while still allowing the community a degree of oversight, via their representatives.

  2. At The Quest’s inception in 1913, editors were appointed by the student council. This was quickly found to be a flawed system and both internal appointments and elections were tried until elections were settled on in 40′s. Senate appointing Quest editors would be a huge problem for the political objectivity of The Quest, and Senate does not want to be involved in that capacity.

    And, contrary to your first point: the transition from the fall’s Quest board to this spring’s Quest board was effectively under an internal appointments process. (Two editors stayed on and helped form the new board, and the new board had no competition in the election.) The direction of the board did change noticeably—when Queditors choose their coworkers, they don’t choose people who agree with them entirely. The direction of the Quest under an internal appointments system would evolve and shift, but not so radically that The Quest suddenly falls back into the abyss where it has spent most of its time for the past century.

  3. Greg Byshenk, '89 says:

    Kieran’s response suggests to me another alternative, should the Senate not wish to be involved: a continuance of the process that took place this year. That is, should the Quest editors wish to function in this way, they can simply run for election each semester as a combination of continuing and new editors. The advantage of such a system is that, again, it allows for community input should be the community be dissatisfied.

  4. Rob Shryock says:

    Greg, here are some replies.

    >With a fully self-perpetuating editorial board, is there any way that the community could change the outlook of the Quest, should they be dissatisfied?

    The current proposal has the possibility for a recall election, but I don’t think people should be able to change their school newspaper’s leadership just because they are “dissatisfied.” (And they probably shouldn’t – any newspaper that does its job is going to piss people off once in a while. Hopefully, they’ll piss people off because they reported something accurately that people wanted to hear – not because they are of consistently low quality/ill-informed/only print ill-informed opinion articles.) To deserve to be kicked out, a Quest board would have to do some real serious shit, like printing libel (again, something that’s been done before.

    >As an alternative, if the desire is for appointed Quest editors, why not let the appointment be by the Senate, with the advice of the existing editorial board?

    I think senate appointing the Quest wouldn’t work, mainly because senate has a vested interest in appointing a Quest Board that won’t critique them. The possibility of a conflict of interest is too great. And senate doesn’t want to do it – for the reasons I just listed.

    Thanks for your comment!

  5. Rob Shryock says:

    Greg –

    >That is, should the Quest editors wish to function in this way, they can simply run for election each semester as a combination of continuing and new editors. The advantage of such a system is that, again, it allows for community input should be the community be dissatisfied.

    I disagree. There’s no real way to enforce this (the re-running of the olde Quest Board) and it doesn’t solve long-standing problems or create a better infrastructure for The Quest. Old Quest Boards have run again with new editors added on before. It doesn’t necessarily create a better Quest – though it certainly can – the fundamental problems lie with elections themselves, which prevent individuals from taking part in a board.

    As an alum was telling me the other day, they would have tried to become a Queditor if they could join as an individual rather than having to latch onto a group. That problem is just one of the many that our proposal solves – and that any system involving elections doesn’t.

    -Rob

  6. Greg Byshenk, '89 says:

    Rob, I think that there indeed should be a way to change the editors, if the student body as a whole is dissatisfied. Of course, the Quest may occasionally make certain people unhappy when it is doing what it should be doing, but if a majority of the student body is dissatisfied with the performance or direction of the Quest, then there needs to be a way to enable that; the Quest cannot operate solely in its own interest while being supported by the student body, which is effectively the publisher of the Quest.

    I find the “no way to enforce” argument a strange one. After all, there is no way to enforce that the existing editors name competent successors or stay on as experienced members of an editorial board. On the other hand, if current editors wish to work in a particular way, with “rotating” editorial boards, then that desire seems sufficient to achieve a continuing editorial board under an electoral system — so long as the student body is satisfied with the quality of the board(s).

  7. Rob Shryock says:

    Greg,

    >if a majority of the student body is dissatisfied with the performance or direction of the Quest, then there needs to be a way to enable that

    I agree, in principle. But lets face the facts. The majority of the student body is always dissatisfied with the Quest. An opinion poll in the fall put our approval rating (Conquest 1.0) at around 25% – and we’d avoided major controversies. People are always dissatisfied with the direction of The Quest, regardless of what’s going on there. This has what’s created the system that got us in this mess – this idea that the student body, as a whole, should have the right to choose the direction of a newspaper. In reality, they vote based on who they know, not the direction they want.

    Again, I think what this “extreme dissatisfaction” situation would actually entail is one of two things. 1. A very shitty Quest. 2. A Quest that printed something unforgivable. In the case of #1, it would be hard for The Quest to get any worse – well, unless you dial back to the 90s. But its unlikely that better training is going to lead to a worse Quest. In the case of #2, there is a recall process – and I assume in this case there would be pressure to editors to resign their posts as well.

    >I find the “no way to enforce” argument a strange one. After all, there is no way to enforce that the existing editors name competent successors or stay on as experienced members of an editorial board. On the other hand, if current editors wish to work in a particular way, with “rotating” editorial boards, then that desire seems sufficient to achieve a continuing editorial board under an electoral system — so long as the student body is satisfied with the quality of the board(s).

    Again, the problem is that 25% positive rating led to an uncontested reelection of The Quest. That’s not a community that was satisfied with it’s paper – it’s an ambivalent community. This also is a very temporary solution – it’s a way to ensure better boards in the present, but if elections continue it will doubtlessly be forgotten before too long. And even if this does seem to work in the long term, you have to look at the fact that the paper under Conquest 1.0 and 2.0 was far from great. It has definitely been better, but it still has had huge problems with disorganization, a lack of insightful reporting, and extremely high turnover. We don’t have to settle for slightly better.

    -Rob

    • but it still has had huge problems with disorganization, a lack of insightful reporting, and extremely high turnover.

      Disorganization? Definitely. High turnover? Yes.

      Lack of insightful reporting? Well, speaking as one of this semester’s editors, we have had some, though not enough, rather good investigative reporting done. Take Alex Walker’s series of student body wage articles in which he surveyed some student body positions and published his own data before Student Body Wage Review board issued a report. Alex Krafcik’s article on Student Patrol Officers and AOD violations was also the first the student body had heard about the proposal to have SPOs report AODs. But, you’re right, Rob, there are too many Quests that lack insightful reporting, too many that don’t do Reed’s student body justice. Given that each issue of The Quest costs the student body hundreds of dollars, an issue without good investigative reporting is little more than an expensive CSO blotter.

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