May 5, 2010

Takin’ It to the Web

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Blogs are everywhere at Cornell. Student bloggers opine (and report?) on everything from hot new Hollywood releases to healthcare reform. During my time at the Sun, I’ve seen dozens of blogs come and go. WVBR’s got them. Slope Media has them. But beyond these larger media outlets, there are a number of Cornell students running news blogs. Some are affiliated with traditional publications whose print additions are handicapped by infrequent circulation; others are run by a single, entrepreneurial individual who is passionate about campus affairs.

This assortment includes alumni blogs, salacious gossip blogs and national blogs turning an occasional eye to East Hill. But what we’re here to talk about today are the news blogs at Cornell, where students sound off on issues near and dear to them.

My goal was to find out about the students behind these blogs, and why when they put down the Sun one morning, or turned off the radio or set aside the latest issue of Kitsch, they decided to build a website and take matters into their own hands.

Elie Bilmes ’10 runs Stuck in the Fast Lane, which began largely as a hockey blog. He also writes a hockey column for the Sun with Mitch Alva ’10, and regularly attends editorial board meetings for the paper. His posts are impressively frequent and range from one-liners to thousand-word critiques. With hockey season long gone, the focus has shifted to campus issues, notably largely negative posts on the Greek system and a look back on his Cornell experience.

Bilmes saw a lack of student blogging on the internet. He acknowledges the Cornell-endorsed Life on the Hill blogs but sees his take on the University as more candid. His posts are sometimes critical of the Sun. “But I toned down my criticism of the Sun after I joined,” he acknowledged, grinning.

While Bilmes’ criticisms are pointed, his blog doesn’t indulge in gossip. While everyone I spoke with acknowledged sites like IvyGate and CollegeACB, they see their work as being much more akin to a Sun column or WVBR’s campus coverage. The key difference is timing.

Dennis Shiraev ’12 and Oliver Renick ’12 run the Cornell Insider, a blog related to the Cornell Review. “Around December 2008 I got together with Oliver,” Shiraev said. “[The Review] needed an online presence. In January we started doing it on a regular basis.” The blog started with basically the same ratio of national-to-campus coverage as the Review itself. “The blog has been an evolving project,” Shiraev said. “Oliver and I never got together in the beginning to establish a clear goal or style.”

The pair is well balanced, as conservatives go. Shiraev is of a Libertarian bent, with a reverence for the free market and a self-described agnostic take on global warming. He is not religious. (Although I stumblef upon a post Shiraev wrote labeled “Gay Marriage vs. Democracy.”) If you placed his stats on an index card, Renick might look like a stereotype of conservatism: He is a devout Christian, feels sympathetic for Glenn Beck and calls for a more honest dialogue on global warming. But, as we spoke in the window of Stella’s one Saturday morning, it was a polite-mannered, thoughtful academic, cupping a coffee mug in his hands and staring thoughtfully out the window that I met. His daily reads include Drudge Report and RealClearPolitics, but names that came up in conversation included Charles Krauthammer and Doystoevsky.

The Insider’s novelty is its focus on Cornell news, rather than national politics. While these guys are certainly not the only folks blogging about Cornell, they do it with their conservative principles in mind — opposition to Resolution 44 (concerning discrimination in student groups) and a disdain for the Willard Straight takeover are both good examples of this. But the analysis is not inherently limited to political issues.

“People don’t want to read what I have to say about healthcare,” Renick explained. “The focus has to be on our analysis of events on campus.” In fact, the Review as a whole has shifted the focus from national politics to campus issues. A recent issue featured an article on Reimagining Cornell as the top story. The blog is a chance for Review writers (many of them) to update news stories as events occur, sometimes with original photography and even the occasional interview. Nonetheless, national politics represents a sizeable chunk of their archives. The Insider also spends many a post ragging on, supplementing or otherwise heckling the “Cornell Daily Stun” as Renick terms it.

Jared Feldman ’11 and Andrew Brokman ’11 are the pair of juniors in The School of Industrial and Labor Relations who run OneCornell, one of the largest blogs by number of students involved. You may remember Brokman from the controversial Resolution 44 debate, which raged on as he was simultaneously running for S.A. President. Feldman is an incoming U.A. representative and Brokman is currently on the S.A. The pair began OneCornell to fill a perceived gap in coverage of S.A. affairs by the traditional media outlets on campus. OneCornell pushes new media, providing sustained video coverage — generally acknowledged as the site’s strength.

“During S.A. meetings, there’s about one percent of interesting business,” Brokman explained. “We’d capture that and put it up on the web.”

From there, the site quickly expanded into a collection of di­verse posters from many different circles on campus. One­Cornell’s primary purpose is to centralize and showcase these different perspectives around a common electronic soap box. I say soap box since, from our conversation, it seemed the pair liked to talk in a sort of tag-teaming stump speech manner. For example, when I mentioned the folks over at the Cornell Insider, Feldman began noting, “Republicans have always turned to talk radio, and it seems like an extension of that. They have strong opinions and with the ease of modern communications, they can express themselves.”

“It’s the dissenting voice that would turn to the internet and blogging,” Brokman chimed in.

Like all the bloggers I talked to, these guys weren’t hostile to the Sun, nor did they dwell on claims of biased coverage. “The Sun can only do so much,” said Brokman. He spoke of the blog’s intent to expand with a lot more coverage of Greek life. The media duo is currently toying with an idea to create a weekly Greek newspaper. The idea of a new publication on campus made me salivate, and we spent some time brainstorming names.

Ithacating in Cornell Heights is a sumptuous journey through Cornell history and architecture. The site represents everything a bad blog is not. Bad blogs leech content from the so-called real news sites and steal photos. Bad blogs serve to inflate the importance of their writers. But conversely, the student who writes Ithacating, a senior in CALS with a love of Cornell history and architecture, prefers to remain anonymous. While he often links from other sites, his signature posts feature in-depth research. A typical post will involve hours in the library, researching a building that once stood on the Arts Quad or a planned West Campus that never came into fruition. He cites his sources. In MLA format.

“Cornell history has always sort of been a thing for me. It was something I was very interested in dabbling in,” the author explained. He began Ithacating while spending a summer in Ithaca doing research and working.

Ithacating occasionally will dabble in contemporary Cornell matters, such as construction projects, Sun and Ithaca Journal coverage and Greek matters. But the editorializing is minimal. “I really try to be non-partisan,” he explained. “I’m not big on being a lightning rod of controversy.”

The intensive posts come in spurts, when Ithacating’s author isn’t battling too many prelims. One month featured a building-by-building tour of the Arts Quad and other historic parts of the campus. He is not a fan of many modern campus foibles, particularly Bradfield Hall, the (almost) windowless monolith in which he works.

Photography drives many posts. He has covered many Greek houses around campus, giving their storied histories of occupants and mishaps.

What I found most fascinating about this community of bloggers was its diverse collection of backgrounds. Shiraev, from the Insider, is a math/econ double major and the son of two Georgetown professors who are both Russian immigrants. He credits his background for many of his conservative views. His partner, Renick, is a conservative Christian from Virginia. Meanwhile, over at OneCornell, Feldman and Brokman are both junior transfers in ILR from downstate (New York and Westchester, respectively). They met at Binghamton freshman year, and have been actively involved in University politics and Greek life since they arrived at Cornell. The author of Ithacating studies meteorology in CALS, and hails from north of Syracuse. Bilmes describes himself as a hockey super fan, whose love of the team began years before he arrived at Cornell. He hails from Connecticut and studies government.

But, in other ways, the group is incredibly homogenous. Everyone I talked to shares an intense love for Cornell, its history, its politics, its publications and how it is covered and perceived beyond East Hill. They read each other’s work, cross-link entries, debate each other and collaborate. They read the Sun and listen to WVBR. They read MetaEzra, an alumni blog by Matthew Nagowski ’05 and Andy Guess ’05, which covers campus news from “far beyond Cayuga’s Waters.” And, oddly enough, most share a common hatred of Slope Media, which I could describe (with a dangerous level of editorializing) as a far more massive endeavor with much less actual reporting to show for itself. They also never returned my e-mail.

“I hate them — no offense to Slope Media,” said Bilmes. “Complete waste of time.”

“I do not take Slope Media seriously,” said the author of Ithacating.

“Slope Media has the multimedia and everything,” said Feldman. “But their reporting …”

In a week, these blogs all receive roughly the same number of hits, assuming they gave me accurate numbers. The figures were curiously similar to those of any given Sun columnist. While, collectively speaking, this dwarfs the Daily Sun’s web presence; on an individual level it seems these commentators are reaching the same online audience as, say, someone like me. Like the Sun and other campus publications, readership spiked during coverage of the gorge suicides and the fences, which each blog handled with discreet commentary and, often, photos of the fences and flowers.

Blogging at Cornell is here to stay, and sites grow and shrink as students come and go. Last year, the authors of Kitsch blogs would have been first on my list of people to contact, but now that hilarity has largely subsided. Bilmes and the author of Ithacating are both graduating, whereas it seemed clear the folks at the Insider and OneCornell are full of ambition. Maybe you, dear reader, might feel inspired to join their ranks.  RLD

Original Author: Munier Salem