April 18, 2006

Chicago Weekly: Ethical journalism needed

The next time you pick up the Chicago Weekly (CW), do me a favor. Grab the first two sheets, and let go of the rest. You will have, in your hand, all of the content for that week’s issue. At your feet will be a copy of New City, a free citywide publication that better resembles a collection of ads. New City bought the Weekly some years ago when it became financially insolvent.

The partnership has worked out for both publications. CW can keep printing, and New City can deliver its publication under the guise of a student publication. But the benefits of that relationship end there.

A publication that relies on another publication for its printing and distribution cannot be considered independent. A paper’s independence is predicated on its financial independence—and being owned by another publication does not cut it. How then can the Weekly call itself “the independent voice of the University of Chicago?”

I might be able to put away that standard of journalism if the Weekly’s staff removed that phrase from the front page and put out a lot of quality content every issue. But they don’t. Typically, the Weekly has four articles, an arts review, and a listing of cultural events. Fewer than four pages of content does not make a newspaper.

But to return to my insistence on integrity: There’s something to be said for ethics when you’re printing a paper. A paper should not quote, nor should it publish pictures of, any member of the editorial staff, for fear that the paper will become, and be perceived by its audience to be a vehicle of the personal interests of that staff. All papers have to be vigilant to practice that kind of ethical journalism. The Weekly decided that their Editor in Chief would be the cover girl for their latest issue. This is not to say that there is something wrong with the Editor personally, but it is to say that this is one example of poor journalism.

Do most people really care about ethical journalism? Probably not. Should the Weekly care about its own ethics? Most definitely.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on the Weekly. When they call themselves an “independent voice” perhaps they mean to say that they are financially independent from the University. But I think being a subsidiary of a commercial publication is not much better, especially when the controlling publication hires, I repeat, hires, the Weekly’s Editor in Chief.

Perhaps CW does not need to offer comprehensive coverage for campus, but rather, it should serve a niche group. If that’s true, I have been unable to find the niche.

Perhaps the Weekly is understaffed or was running close to deadline and hence needed to use its Editor in Chief to pose for the cover photo. But, given the willingness of students to pose for Vita, I’m sure CW could have found someone willing to take the Editor’s place.

Still, maybe I’m being too harsh. After all, most people believe that the more publications the better, and especially so for a college campus. I’m inclined to agree with them. But I do not agree that the principle of plurality means that all papers should be immune to criticism.

Indeed, I think the Midway Review, Gordian Knot, and Diskord are all promising publications and should be read. I await the return of the Criterion. But unlike the publications above, the Weekly seems to be little more than packaging for a commercial publication.

It must seem strange that this article is appearing in another student publication, but where else can one criticize a publication but in another publication? My criticism of CW should not be extrapolated as an endorsement of the Maroon. Indeed, the University and the Maroon would probably benefit from a rivalry with a regular, genuinely campus-based paper.

In short, I don’t want the Weekly to disappear. I want it to improve. The Weekly should find a way to sever its ties with New City, improve, and expand its content. If it is to be worth the read, the Weekly must be financially independent and offer more than a handful of articles a week. The Weekly owes at least that to itself and to the campus community.