Two new stories

Unless you’re really interested in what’s going on at Columbia, you probably won’t find either of the two stories I wrote for the Chronicle this week very interesting. The first deals with a new cancer research lab that National Science Foundation money is paying for. The second is about the hiring of a new security director. Interestingly, in the cancer research lab story, I included some salary information about Science Institute head Zafra Lerman, who is the fourth highest-paid administrator at the college.

I figured that it never hurts to include information about how much administators are making when you have it. And I thought the information was useful to readers, since they might conclude that the woman was earning her pay by landing a $100,000 government grant. But our faculty adviser said it was irrelevant to the story and, anyway, there was no point in getting Lerman upset. Great news judgment.

For the security director story, I wanted to include some information about past Chronicle coverage of security issues during the departing director’s tenure and perhaps get some crime statistics at Columbia the last few years, but I just didn’t have the time to pull it together. I’m not sorry about it, though, as it may have been deemed irrelevant and impolite, making my efforts fruitless.

This all comes on the heels of the spiking of a story I wrote about a failed journalism department search for a new chair. The leading candidate, Cole Campbell, was turned down during a meeting of the department search committee and college administrators. This was surprising since only a couple of days before, the chair of the search committe spoke glowingly to me about Campbell’s chances.

I had been assigned to cover a speech Campbell made to the Journalism Department but chose instead to report that the presumably leading candidate was no longer in the running. I talked to people in the Journalism Department and in the School of Media Arts (to with the department belongs), but they wouldn’t comment other than to say that “the search is ongoing.”

I found out some information about Campbell’s rocky tenure during his time at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and included that in the story. So why was it spiked? Journalism Department folks made calls to the Chronicle, saying that since the Chronicle had not covered other failed or canceled searches in other departments, it was unfair to report this one. They suggested that a larger story about Columbia’s problems recruiting top administrators should be done instead. That’s a legitimate story to write, but just because the Chronicle hadn’t reported previous failed searches didn’t make the new story unfair.

It’s likely that no one on any of the other search committees was foolish enough to go on the record about the candidate’s chances, as did the woman in this case, who effusively praised Campbell and said he was “heads above” the rest of the field. So, the Chronicle’s journalistic judgment is compromised on a seemingly regular basis by its concern for maintaining good relations and the desire not to interrupt the flow of ad dollars. I suppose this shouldn’t come as a surprise, considering that it is not an independent newspaper, but rather is funded partly by the journalism department and uses a college class as the core of its writing staff each semester.

I do find it pretty amazing that the journalism department, of all places, would twist arms to make sure that a story that would reflect badly on them didn’t run. It just goes to show that, in the end, we all want journalists be tough on the other guy but go easy on us.