The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Quest, Senate Debate Quest Reform

Current and former Quest editors brought forth a proposal for Quest reform to last Thursday’s Senate meeting.

The proposal, brought forward by Senator Shabab Mirza, would replace the system of electing editors in place since 1921 with one in which outgoing editors will appoint their replacements. The Quest Board argues that elections are an arbitrary way to select newspaper editors and that the system will create institutional memory that will improve the overall quality of the paper and its consistency from semester to semester. The opponents of the proposal argue that it could engender nepotism and cronyism with the administration, and result in a newspaper that fails to cater to the needs of the Student Body. Discussion over the proposal was passionate and contentious, and involved members of Senate, a number of Quest writers and editors past and present, and members of the Reed Community. The proposal was endorsed and advocated by ConQuest, the editorial board responsible for this and last semesters’ Quests.

Editor Alex Walker, in a prepared speech, noted that America’s Bill of Rights provides not for a press that meets the desires of the majority, but for one whose freedom cannot be abridged by Congress. Said Walker, “the press should not simply reflect the biases and whims of the majority- instead, it should strive to find and publish the truth, even when that truth makes the majority uncomfortable.” Walker pointed out that newspaper editors are “not elected practically anywhere else, including other college campuses,” and with good reason. According to Walker, the public will rarely be informed enough of the inner workings of a paper to select the best editors, and thus will often elect people who are unprepared or incompetent. One need only look through a few years of The Quest to see the truth of this statement; said Walker, “The Quest has historically…been understaffed and unprofessional.” He noted that some might argue that Reedies prefer a “half-baked tabloid with flamewars and gossip” to serious journalism, but expressed his doubts to the truth of the idea, and noted that regardless, “the lack of a campus media source engaging in serious journalism is a major detriment to the community.”

Kieran Hanrahan, a fellow Queditor, pointed to The Quest’s coverage of the Student Patrol Officer controversy (The Quest was the first group to bring attention to the fact that, under the initial plan for SPOs, they would report AODs) as an example of the value of real investigative journalism in The Quest, while noting that the current board has tried to strike a balance between what Iselin called being “the New York Times, Jr.” and less serious features like the Sexual Intellectual and the Lutz Report.

Chris Lydgate ’90, a former Quest editor and current Editor of Reed Magazine, noted that “The Quest, over the past 30 years, has stunk,” describing a constant cycle of Quest Boards starting in a state of “extravagant decrepitude,” improving, but then being replaced by a more “popular” board when they finally master their trade. Under the original system from 1921, there was one elected editor and one elected assistant editor. The head editor would mentor the assistant, who would take over the following semester. Unfortunately, this system soon broke down, as students would often elect whomever they wanted, rather than electing the assistant editor to become editor, making the assistant editor position rather meaningless. Due to decreased interest in the assistant editor position, being editor became so time-consuming that students began to form editorial boards. Things continued this way for the next sixty years or so, interrupted by several periods during which The Quest was overseen by a professor or ceased to exist. Sometime during the eighties the system was changed to the election of an entire editorial board rather than a single editor, a system that has continued to the present day. During this entire period, one thing has been consistent. As Lydgate put it: “Most semesters, The Quest can barely compete with student papers at colleges with much lower academic standards.”

After The Quest’s argument had been made, discussion began in earnest. Senator Dana Loutey, while agreeing with the ideas in the proposal, made the argument that if The Quest wanted to be an organization independent of the Student Body, it should be financially independent as well (The Quest is currently funded as a line item by the Student Body). This suggestion was met with support by the proponents of the proposal. Senator Marie Perez questioned the causal link between internal appointments and the success of the current Quest Board, and asked how this system would prevent the possibilities of nepotism or simply acting as a mouthpiece for the administration. Senator Torra Spillane further expressed the fear that, without any form of competition, The Quest could completely fail to represent the Student Body, a concern that was met with assent by many in Senate.

Former editor Katelyn Best responded by pointing out that the current Quest Board was nurtured by the previous one, and, while unable to dismiss fears of nepotism or cronyism, noted that a system of rewarding talent was preferable to the current “popularity contest.” Queditor Alex Blum responded by noting that the proposal allows for a recall election, and recounted conversations he’d had with college newspapers across the country while working on the proposal: according to Blum, none have any concerns about nepotism, and they always manage to “keep in mind that they are serving the Student Body.”

Vice President Aidan Sigman, unsatisfied by Blum’s response, suggested a system wherein half the Quest Board would be elected every semester.  David Azrael, who had apparently just been walking through, spoke up, stating that, as a student, he wanted to have input on The Quest through elections, saying “I don’t want to be like Swarthmore” (a battle cry that was picked up by other opponents of the proposal). He also noted that, while recall elections are an option, “we [Reed] don’t really do them.” Azrael’s comments caused impassioned argument on both sides throughout the building.

After the audience calmed down, Iselin spoke, saying that “to say we wish not to be like Swarthmore is not giving Swarthmore enough credit.” Iselin noted that the Student Body having control of a newspaper is not necessarily desirable, and that the majority, under this system, would still have its say through Senate. Said Iselin, “it’s worth two years to give it a shot.” Walker and Mirza both concluded by reiterating that diversity of opinion is not the primary goal of journalism. Said Mirza, while noting that democracy is necessary in politics, in journalism “you’re not choosing someone to represent you.”

The meeting did not result in a vote, as the proposal’s supporters did not expect Senate to approve. However, the Queditors expressed optimism afterwards for the proposal’s future: said Alex Blum, “I feel that we made a very strong case that the current personnel system causes more detriment than benefit. I think Senate was on balance more favorable to our proposal at the end of the debate than they were at the beginning, so in that respect we achieved our goals.” He ended by reiterating the importance of the proposal: “Hopefully this process will pave the way to the Reed community getting the journalism it deserves.”

A Summary of Proposed Changes

  • Editors will be appointed rather than elected.
  • The Board will consist of eight members, each who serve 2 semesters. Half the board will be appointed in the fall semester, half in the spring.
  • Queditors will maintain a handbook to be passed down to future editorial boards
  • Queditors will be paid monthly.
  • Queditors will have weekly meetings open to the Student Body.
  • Queditors will host at least one open house per semester.
6 Responses to “Quest, Senate Debate Quest Reform”
  1. Chris Lydgate says:

    Thanks for this excellent report on the Senate debate. Just to clarify, I told Senate that the Quest has *mostly* stunk over the past 30 years. There have been flashes of brilliance when the Quest has delivered great journalism, and Quests of the last 3 years have shown dramatic improvement over the historical norm. Overall, however, that norm has been pretty wretched. This makes no sense, given the intellectual capabilities of Reed students. I am convinced that the lack of continuity is a big factor, because it means each semester’s board has to reinvent the wheel, and the paper never builds a stable pool of talent. One more note: the proposal also calls for editors to be appointed based on experience and demonstrated commitment to the Quest’s journalistic mission (or something– I don’t have the exact language), thus providing incentive for underclasslings to work on the Quest in order to later ascend to the exalted rank of Editor.

  2. Ian McCullough says:

    I would suggest a middle ground of making Quest board terms a year in length instead of a semester to enhance institutional memory while preserving the democratic process. This is preferable to the proposal, “trust us, we’re experts”. You could even sweeten the deal by paying some staff to learn the ropes over the summer.

    I was on Senate and a writer for a Quest board and agree with Chris that reinventing the wheel took a brutal toll on the Quest. However, in going to other colleges, I would say “mostly stunk” could readily describe the other college newspapers I’ve seen. I work at Vanderbilt University, and would put forth The Vanderbilt Hustler as an anodyne turd, which is nevertheless well produced and professional (barring, perhaps, its cringeworthy name). It is financially sound but banal. In many ways, the Quest has never been “as good” as The Hustler and certainly the Quest could not “compete” with it, but I doubt many students at Reed would want The Hustler.

    Democracy is tough. Reed students (at least while I was involved with student politics) rarely showed up to election forums in significant numbers or asked good questions of candidates. Students tended to vote based on personality and friendship. Editorial boards were regularly wrung out by the end of the semester, ready to flee the responsibility of a weekly paper. In this sense, some structure and institutional memory would help tremendously, especially for the nuts and bolts aspects (advertising, layout, and budget for example). So extend the Board term.

    What I would encourage students to consider, carefully, is whether giving up on democracy is the right way to address the problem. Bear in mind that if you give up this right, it will not come back. If this change is implemented and you don’t like the Quest, what will you (or future students) do? I didn’t see any mechanism for accountability in the suggested process. Weekly meetings and an open house are great, but indirect accountability is not the same as direct democratic elections. Alex Blum said, “I think Senate was on balance more favorable to our proposal at the end of the debate than they were at the beginning,” A political body responding favorably to receiving power, how shocking. Senator Ian of 1990 is in total agreement.

    Let’s get to the heart of the matter – I fear what the Quest will become without accountability to the student body. I’m going to quote Chris Lydgate in his younger days, because he’s a better writer than me and captures my fears on the issue so well (from the 1994 Student Handbook): “Most college papers bore me to tears. Their pages reek of caution and self-importance. This is partly because the people who work on college papers usually want careers in journalism and want to do a ‘professional’ job. And unfortunately ‘professional’ often means ‘safe.’” There it is Reed of today, do you play it safe or do you maintain this quixotic practice that brought you…well, the Board that suggests you are incapable of choosing for yourselves?

    • You could even sweeten the deal by paying some staff to learn the ropes over the summer.

      Sadly, Student Body funds aren’t enough to make this a reality, but, please, tell Senate. We’d love to raise editor wages and pay writers. Doing so may have as much or more effect than reforming the board selection process, but still we’d rely on the largely disinterested student body to pick the “best” board.

      Editorial boards were regularly wrung out by the end of the semester, ready to flee the responsibility of a weekly paper. In this sense, some structure and institutional memory would help tremendously, especially for the nuts and bolts aspects (advertising, layout, and budget for example). So extend the Board term.

      All I see in this argument is chaining incoming editors to a job they don’t yet know to sometimes be hell. Without a significant pay raise, this is unfair. Also, advertising and budget matters are currently assigned to the Ad and Business managers, who are appointed apart from the editorial board.

      the Board that suggests you are incapable of choosing for yourselves?

      The Student Body doesn’t work one on one with the incoming Quest board. We’re not suggesting student incompetence–that would be the strawman one would construct in an offense against us–just that the outgoing Editors are more familiar with the incoming board than the fraction of the student body that votes in elections, the smaller fraction that reads candidate blurbs in the Quest elections issue (there will be no elections issue this year due a current lack of candidates for senate), and the even smaller fraction that comes to the elections assembly and then stays for the Quest board’s speech at the end. If the entire student body started to seriously concern itself with the selection of the Quest board each semester, surely we could trust them to make a good decision. Unfortunately, this is not a reality.

  3. Kayleigh Stevenson '10 says:

    This whole thing about the “popular” kids is getting on my nerves. I know we all still like to think of ourselves as the underdogs here but let’s get real. There is no continuity in quest boards not because a board that knows what they’re doing gets replaced by a popular one—in my experience, it was because the previous boards got sick of pulling all-nighters to work on the quest and didn’t run again. In the four years I was at Reed, I voted in every election and I can think of maybe two elections where there was more than one group running for quest. Does the student body, in those cases, often elect the dumb assholes with the funny pitch? Yeah, possibly. But the fact remains that the quest has trouble building up a dedicated staff. This policy doesn’t appear to me like it will change that. Yeah, there’s this vague promise that if you work hard you’ll be in charge one day—great, that means you get the privilege of working your ass off and consequently being hated by half the student body until a scandal distracts them. Whoop dee doo.

    Hey, here’s an idea: how about you pay the writers instead of the queditors. You’d encourage good reporting and the queditors job would be that much easier.

    Really I see this whole appointing your successor thing as counter-productive. Isn’t that how the Paradox works, guys? And we all know how that turns out.

  4. Ian McCullough says:

    Thanks for the response Kieran.

    Substantive points apparently uncontested:
    1) This is an anti-democratic, authoritarian change in process.
    2) The student body will not get this direct power back.
    3) There are no mechanisms for direct accountability to the Student Body.
    4) The model of student newspaper professionalism at other colleges which Reed is “competing with” leads to poor newspapers that “reek of caution and self-importance.”
    5) Democracy is hard.

    But the most important thing to bear in mind:
    There is no way to guarantee that competence or professionalism will select future Quest Boards as there are not measurable standards for selection suggested.

    If someone transferred from another college or came straight out of high school with outstanding journalistic credentials, I doubt an outgoing Quest Board would select them as incoming editor because they don’t know them. How is the selection process made? Open clip submission? Submit your résumé? No, it sounds like a gift handed from editor to editor – which is not necessarily based on competence. The problem is real, Quest is hard work, but this solution is poor.

    • 1) It is antidemocratic. I prefer to think of it as meritocratic, but you could just as easily paint it as authoritarian; it’s a matter of perspective.
      2) They could change it, either by reamending the SB constitution or, more easily, changing or suspending the bylaws. In order for these changes to be made in the first place, the SB constitution would have to be amended by the student body, so it’s not as if we’re sneaking this change in under the radar. If they oppose it, we’ll know come referendum time.
      3) We’ve included a recall mechanism for editorial boards. I’d like to make the board more accountable, still. This is a work in progress.
      4) Not always. I don’t think that you can make that generalization, not without data.
      5) Yes.

      “No, it sounds like a gift handed from editor to editor – which is not necessarily based on competence. The problem is real, Quest is hard work, but this solution is poor.”
      Well, this is certainly not how we see it, and I hope that future editors wouldn’t see it this way, but I can see that they might. We’re working to prevent this.

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