February 17, 2011

A Dazed Section

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Perceptive readers have probably noticed that the Daze section no longer appears weekly in the pages of The Sun. The plot of its demise is not particularly straightforward, and I think it’s important for me to examine how The Sun handled the situation. Red Letter Daze was in its eighteenth year as a weekly Sun section. Outgoing editor in chief Keenan Weatherford  said the section had been struggling with a long-term identity crisis; different content from year to year made it rather volatile, which became reflected in its overall quality. To address this, The Sun’s board of directors convened in early November. The board has six student members, all Sun editors, and six non-student members, faculty and locals. The board has authority over many major decisions involving the paper, including the fate of Daze. Ultimately, Weatherford said, the entire board decided to leave Daze’s future in the hands of The Sun’s top editors. Weatherford did not make any decision right away, he said. Meanwhile, sign-ups for Sun elections neared. Weatherford compiled a list of positions that Sun staffers could run for and e-mailed it to the staff on Nov. 16. He left “Daze Editor” off the list, because he did not want anyone signing up for the position only to learn that it might not exist. When the message went to the staff, Weatherford was still undecided about the future of Daze.When Allie Miller ’11 saw the election signup list, she assumed there was a mistake. Miller was the outgoing editor of the Daze section and had been actively seeking a replacement even before Weatherford’s e-mail. She went down to The Sun’s office, where a signup sheet had been posted, and she saw that Daze editor was missing from there, too. Miller wrote the position on the sheet with a marker, she said.Soon after, Miller and Weatherford met. Miller laid it on the line. According to Weatherford, Miller presented a compelling case for the section to carry on. She also mentioned having recruited Ali Hamed ’14, one of the section’s writers, as a possible replacement. Ultimately, though, The Sun’s top editors cut the section. The final decision came at the end of last semester, Weatherford said. He e-mailed most of the section editors (and candidates for those positions) on Jan. 13, explaining that the paper would “indefinitely suspend publication” of Daze. The note cited the disjointed nature of the section over the past few years, but was diplomatic in tone — namely, that no individual was culpable for the decision. I certainly understand the rationale behind the decision. Rather than find a niche for the mercurial section, Weatherford and other top editors decided to blow it up. Maybe it will come back, maybe not. This is the kind of decisions that high-ranking editors must make all the time, at any newspaper. The problem, however, is this: If the decision makers appreciated the work Miller did, as Weatherford said, why did they not give her notice? She was first aware of the possibility of Daze ending when she saw the e-mailed list that omitted the position from the election chart. At best, this was a careless oversight, and at worst, an unprofessional betrayal of the work Miller had done for the section, including her recruitment of Hamed as her potential successor.In my opinion, the truth is closer to the former: I do not believe any of Weatherford’s actions were done with malice. However, I understand how the oversight in communication engendered a sense of resentment within Miller. She thought the decision belittled the work she had done with the section in the time she led it. Several others spoke of a gulf between Daze staffers and The Sun’s leadership after the decision. They basically framed it as an “us versus them” situation. While there appears to be more than a little acrimony here, I think the people involved have more in common than they might otherwise let on. For example, Miller told me, “I wish there had been more communication.”Congruently, Weatherford said, “It could have been handled more smoothly.” He also acknowledged that he and the other leading editors could have “taken a more hands-on approach” to proactively guide the section and avert its demise. He was clear that he assigned no blame to Miller. Miller, though, was understandably distraught when she related to me what had happened. Her expectations for the section’s future had been dashed, even though she had planned otherwise. Cutting Daze, however, cannot totally undo everything Miller has put into it. No matter what happens in the future, she can — and should — look back on her work with pride and fulfillment. She ran the section for a semester and did some fine work.This episode is a stark reminder of how timely communication can go a long way, even when done informally. A few words spoken to Miller here and there would have alleviated some of the rotten feelings that developed. And it was totally unreasonable of her to first find out from the election e-mail.Looking ahead, I think Hamed has the right attitude. When I spoke to him, he acknowledged his disappointment at being unable to run for Daze. But he said he was still planning on working for The Sun. Hamed told me he wanted to build his foundational skills and get a better sense of good news-writing principles. He even left open the possibility of reviving an online-only version of Daze. His willingness to seek out alternatives in unfavorable circumstances is admirable.

Rob Tricchinelli is a third-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at [email protected]. The public editor column typically appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli