Columbia Daily Spectator Editor Talks Changing Media Landscape


It’s 3:30 a.m., and Stephen Heyman, the editor-in-chief of The Justice, the independent student newspaper of Brandeis University, is helping me design a spread. He insists on putting on replay “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” by the Smiths.

All I want to do is collapse, but “sleep is for the weak,” Heyman says. I love serving as news editor, but as Heyman works his magic between quick cigarette breaks and coffee refills, it’s plain that his passion resides on a whole different level. He’s going nonstop, helping writers finesse copy and layout designers up their game. In between, he edits proofs with a red pen. He’s the Michael Phelps of the newsroom.

Heyman now works for The New York Times, writing and editing a blog. He made the big leagues, and I can’t say that I’m surprised. I learned a lot in the classroom, but the most enduring lessons—how to think and write critically, what questions to ask, when to be skeptical, how to motivate, how to find a story—all really derived from Heyman and my fellow editors in the 2005 Justice newsroom.

Since then, journalism has changed dramatically, with a much heavier emphasis on digital content, in addition to more engaging stories. When I worked for The Justice, a weekly publication, those changes were only just beginning. Today, I can’t imagine being an editor at a student daily, with all the stress that comes along with trying to stay “cutting-edge” in a constantly changing—and some say dying—field.

To get some perspective, I reach out to Sammy Roth, editor-in-chief of the Columbia Daily Spectator. Roth majors in sustainable development with a minor in American Studies. But when he’s not in the classroom, he’s almost assuredly in the newsroom.

Production usually wraps-up each morning at 4:00 a.m., but it can go on for another hour or two.

“The hours are the most challenging parts, and when the hours happen is the most challenging part of just having that much work,” Roth says. “There’s no getting around it—it knocks me out. It knocks other editors out. We’re all a little crazy to be wanting to do it, and we wouldn’t if we didn’t get so much out of it, and enjoy it so much.”

As far as college papers go, the Columbia Daily Spectator is arguably the best in country, with quality video and multimedia coverage. Under Roth’s leadership, his newsroom is leading the way with skills that tomorrow’s journalists must master.

“We absolutely embrace new forms of media, especially over the last two years,” Roth says. “I would like to say especially this year, we’ve had a much better video presence than we’ve had in the past. But I think what we’ve been able to do—what I hope we’ve been able to do—is keep it grounded and centered around the written word and the articles that are being written.”

I enjoy watching the Spectator’s video segments, which reaffirm my emphasis on teaching high school journalism students digital editing skills.

Last year, I was especially proud of Preston Michelson ’13, editor of The Falconer, the student news site of Palmer Trinity School, who interviewed Martin Luther King III.

Roth knows better than most about what’s needed to succeed in journalism today.

“You need to have all of these skills that journalists didn’t used to have,” he says. “They want you to do video, podcasts, and know how to run a website and code. If I really decide that I’m going to go into journalism, I think that for me the next big step would be learning something about how coding works, because I’m clueless in that regard.”

I ask Roth if he thinks it still makes sense to run a print edition.

“We have a print edition right now, and we have no plans to get rid of the print edition. It’s something that we take a lot of pride in,” Roth says. “We have a great design team, and the print edition is still driving advertising revenue.”

But at a certain point, Roth says that advertising revenue will be too low to sustain a printed product. Still, his staff is trying its hardest to keep the paper alive in print form for as long as possible.

Considering his passion for journalism, I ask Roth if he plans to pursue a career in the field. Two summers ago, he landed a coveted internship at the Los Angeles Daily News, the city’s second‑highest‑circulated paper. This summer, though, he decided to venture into a different direction, working for the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C.

“I think that if there was’nt so much uncertainty surrounding it, I would be more personally certain about journalism as a career path,” Roth says. “There aren’t very many paid jobs. I guess I would say that the thing I’m not worried about is journalism as an industry, which tends to see a lot of focus. For all of the scare pieces that are written, for all the pessimism that you hear from veteran journalists, I have no doubt that the business model will work itself out.”

I ask Roth what he thinks the three most important skills are for high school journalism students to develop:

  1. Be able to report quickly and accurately, and meet deadlines.
  2. Understand how to use social media to push content and find stories.
  3. Become proficient in video and multimedia production.

I couldn’t agree more, but things sure have changed since my days at The Justice.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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