The cyclical nature of campus media

    On a snowy afternoon during my freshman year, trapped in a cinder-block dorm room, crouched at a wooden desk, reflexively reloading campus media sites, I happened to see that the editors of NU Intel – the rambunctious new player on the Northwestern media scene – were having a live chat with readers. I remember sending in a question: Why did the site seem all dishy features and hipster party photos?

    The editors replied, well, this was kind of the point.

    When NU Intel ceases publishing at the end of the quarter, it will mark the most significant shuttering of a general campus publication in at least a decade. More than a few boutique magazines and websites pop up every year, but the foundation of a general interest publication: This is rare. NU Intel was the last to be founded here at NU; before that was the site you’re reading now.

    And NU Intel has always been distinctive from NBN. Its founders aspired to establish a rebellious voice on campus, and the posts of their first year were sordid, gossip mongering, originally reported and twinged with existential dread. Many of them had written for this site, and when they wrote in their inaugural post that they were "unsatisified" and that they "won't be boring," The Daily and NBN were the only boring options with which they could possibly have been assesed their satisfaction. It was an East Coast sensibility, similar in tone to New York Magazine (or the Gawker alum-established Awl, founded a few months earlier). NYMag even lent it a name: The magazine's news blog used to be called Daily Intel. And in its first year, NU Intel delivered: party photos, student profiles and the occasional chatty, well-reported, risque feature. At the end of their first year, they ran more than 4,000 words on the dire financial situation of The Daily.

    In their second year, they were more hit and miss. They redesigned their homepage to better accommodate bloggy updates and frenetic reloading. Its staff helped give campus a sense of time with extensive Mid-Year Assessments. A party I went to even showed up in its series of famed reports. But as some of the original founders had graduated out, the site sometimes struggled to find the right tone. Some features focused more on the writer's psyche and less on the subject. In the past two years, they haven't been as active in the campus landscape, sometimes relaunching sections, always threatening relevance. Getting the author of @nrthwstrngrl to contribute weekly updates was brilliant and exactly in line with the site's mission.

    So when it closes next week, we can mourn a publication that brought a skeptical sensibility to our campus media climate. NU Intel isn't the first web-only publication to die here at Northwestern – nor was it Northwestern's first major, web-only general interest publication.

    NU Comment predated blogs. It eschewed regular updates for occasional blow 'em out issues, which it published three to four of per year. It began as early as 1999 and it ran to 2008. And like NU Intel, the huge feature was its currency. (In its issue-based model, in fact, it resembles 0sil8, an early project of proto-blogger Jason Kottke's.) NU Comment is the last student publication to cease publishing before NU Intel.

    But before that? As best as I've determined in my research, you have to go back 20 years to find a general campus publication shuttering. It was a humor magazine, Rubber Teeth, published from 1979 to 1993 (which, for reference, means its entire 14-year lifespan is only twice NBN’s current age).

    But NU Intel has one more predecessor, barely mentioned on campus today: Rumor Royalty, the gossip blog of the Greek elite during the first decade of this century. Written by a semi-anonymous blogger, it brought tidings of pre-games and hook-ups to reload-happy (and recently Facebook'd) Northwestern hellenics. If NU Intel borrowed its voice and hedonism from NY Mag, it took its subject matter from Rumor Royalty. All three of those publications lived. Students 18 to 22 years old, crouched in Fisk or Norris, put hours of work into them. And none of them exist.

    That's okay. When students found publications, they’re rarely trying to fix some prior magazine or website's flaws; the history of student publications at Northwestern isn’t some grand dialectic. Rather, the founding of student publications corresponds with the media world at large. A New Yorker-esque humor magazine thrived here until, after World War II, a bland but ad-rich, campus-focused LIFE imitator supplanted it. Undergrads see what’s rising and falling in the frothy sea of professional news, what pre-professional experience they want that they can’t now have, what problems campus has that a regularly-published pile of content might fix – and then they christen the new effort accordingly.

    Four years ago, when NU Intel was founded, blogs seemed triumphant. Find someone else’s work, write a link, drop in a block quote, and jot a few sentences of reflection. Maybe allude to the Northern Star in your private philosophy or – this being 2009 – a self-aware quote from Glee. It was fun, conversational and, as a reader, it gave you a constellation of homes on the web. During my first two years here, as soon as I shlumped myself in front of my laptop, my fingers opened tabs in Chrome that I had not fully decided I wanted to go to yet. Tech blog, media blog, music site.

    Now? Now I – and, judging from laptop screens in Norbucks, Unicorn, Peet’s, Coffee Lab, the library, Brothers K and the three or four regular Starbuckses, everyone else – open Twitter or Tumblr, scan headlines, dump a reading list into Chrome tabs and siphon from those for the rest of the day. And blogs have, accordingly, gotten a little more articulated. To quote Zach Seward, senior editor of the business news website Quartz, "Every URL lives on its own. It just does," and the consequence of that is that articles have to live and die by themselves, floating free on the web’s streams. Twitter has lessened the power of any one blogger (strictly defined) to write an ongoing narrative of a subject – or a school’s – travails.

    On June 10, 2010, NU Intel published "Why the Daily Northwestern needs a bail out." One student pub digging in on another, reminding students that their media are as ephemeral as anything else.

    When that day comes, when The Daily finally folds, it won't be a disaster. Today, the mechanisms of media at Northwestern aren’t as conducive to a blog as they were in 2009; one day, they won’t support a newspaper. Contribute to a publication – especially a student publication – and, you know, no matter how august or stable it now appears, it's a temporary thing. One day, either administrators or undergrads won’t care about you, the university will break apart and your work will go away. Closing doesn’t mean failing. NU Intel brought us a voice and a sensibility, lip and reporting and a love for the day-to-day, night-to-night college experience. As it shutters, we can look ahead: to the freshmen typing in their cinder block dorms, the sophomores crowded around a laptop in Norbucks, the harried juniors emailing edits between class. They’ll be just like us: excited, a little annoyed, asking questions, telling stories.


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